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No Touch………..

August 7, 2009

One of the hardest things about being back in Delhi is the poverty. The dirt ain’t so great – but the poverty. Seriously, there is no way to describe it – you have to see it for yourself. And you don’t really see it, you feel it. It is like the dirty air on your skin – smothering – it falls on your heart and constricts it. It hurts to see it and you cannot brush it off. I cannot even imagine what it does to a person to live it.

People (many, many people) here are truly starving – not just for food, but it would seem they must be starving for some sort of self worth. Starving for some way to care for themselves and their families. They cannot all be resigned to this – they cannot all believe that there is no higher purpose for their lives. There must be some spark inside of them that has not died out yet. Some survival instinct that is ready and waiting and literally begging to kick in.

Many people have said that human life isn’t that valuable in India – I had to admit it – but I think it might be true. At least, very poor human life. Otherwise, how could this continue?

In India, there is begging pretty much everywhere you go. It’s hard to accept as simply ” just the way it is” when you didn’t grow up with it constantly in your face. It’s hard to turn your head and close your wallet when you see it. Very hard to believe that a quick fix of a little money really does not make it better – but just perpetuates it.

The problem quickly becomes that if you share with one person – you better be ready to share with many. This is a horrible analogy – but it is like roaches – if you see one, you can be sure that there are many more watching, waiting for the crumbs to drop. There is also the reality that a great deal of the begging is really equivalent to organized crime. The beggars do not to keep the money.

Most beggars are not aggressive. Anyone begging is not allowed to physically touch anyone they are begging from. My understanding is that it is actually illegal for beggars to touch while begging. Most of them follow this rule – no touch – I think naturally, they just don’t touch people they do not know. But like everything in India, there are levels and some beggars push the limits. They will touch you and follow you. It can become quite uncomfortable and sometimes even a little scary. I have given myself permission to say “no touch!” firmly. But you do not walk away untouched whether they physically reach out for you or not.

It is hard to instantly become unsympathetic to those in need – even if it is a situation of neediness they choose. It is impossible to come to grips with the idea that they truly see this as their best option. That this is the best, most economical use of their time. The best way to feed their children and themselves.

It is hard to understand that giving a little money or a lot of food is not helpful. It is nightmarish to see children maimed and living in filth and selling ridiculous trinkets while standing in between cars on a busy street full of unsympathetic drivers. It is hard to keep the window of my air conditioned car closed.

In some respects America is not that different, there are poor people everywhere. Sure, America has people dripping with diamonds while others are simply dripping. It is not all even Steven. But in America, there is more of a real chance to rise out of a situation, if you are willing to work hard for it.

This is not to say that there are not a number of people fighting the good fight in India. There are. I have written about two women in previous posts. One is Karin Bedi and the other is Anou with Project Why. Can Support is another great organization – I will be joining their fight next week and working on the Walk for Life. There are quite a few wonderful people working hard to make life better. But clearly more are needed.

The problem is so vast that it must be hard to know where to begin.

That was true for me. I was overwhelmed by how to be helpful. So, frankly, I did not do much. A little here and there – but is was like a dropping a lit match in a volcano. Yeah, any impact was surely very quickly melted away. This time I hope to do better. You can scold me if I don’t.

I hope to leave India very much touched…….

21 Comments leave one →
  1. L. Mukunthan permalink
    April 17, 2010 8:03 am

    Hey, I’m becoming a fan of yours with all your blogs. And sure, this one confirms me being your fan.
    In a part, I feel so grateful to you for all your efforts in this cause.
    In another, a bit guilty, for, being a native of India, still haven’t done even a millionth fraction of your efforts.
    In another, sympathise with you, when you say, “Very hard to believe that a quick fix of a little money really does not make it better – but just perpetuates it”, or when, “The problem is so vast that it must be hard to know where to begin”.
    Still, I salute your efforts.

    L. Mukunthan

    • April 17, 2010 10:35 pm

      Thanks again – I really have not done much and I am embarrassed to say I certainly have not done enough – I am working on another post on the poverty in India. Of course, there is poverty everywhere and people are suffering everywhere. It is just impossible to turn away and pretend like it is not happening here. And then you just feel overwhelmed by how to make a difference.

  2. December 1, 2009 1:36 pm

    Hi! I just wanted to thank you. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to volunteer in India for a few weeks (I’m in the States) … specifically doing computer training. I was reading your blog & found the link to Project Why. I just sent them an email to find out about traveling to Delhi to help. I don’t know yet if it’s the right fit for me – but I am thrilled to have found a “lead” for a super organization like Project Why. So… THANK YOU!!!

    • December 1, 2009 9:54 pm

      Anou is amazing and I think you will really like her. Another wonderful group is CanSupport – they help patients dealing with cancer who are left unattended by their families. Mother Teresa’s helps infants with Aids. Weaving Behind Bars is a women’s program at Tihar Jail that helps prisoners learn how to weave so they have a skill when they are released. is a great place to find a listing of charitable organizations. And when you come to Delhi, be sure to join the AWA – American Womens Assoc. – we have an outreach group that works with many NGOs (non-government organizations). Save the Children is another one worth checking out. Please let me know if you need any help while you are here.

  3. Laura Horvath permalink
    August 9, 2009 4:25 pm

    The first time I left Sierra Leone, we had to bribe our way onto the plane. Our names were mysteriously “missing” from the manifest, but magically appeared once some American cash crossed the desk. It’s frustrating because you want to do the right thing, but the corruption is so deep and so widespread. It ended up costing $35 for 7 of us to get on the plane. And that probably fed the man’s family for a month. It’s really hard to be so surrounded by so much poverty, and in some ways even harder to return home. I think it’s so critically important that we do this, though. I want my children to understand that their community is so much bigger than their cul-de-sac, and that we have obligations to our brothers and sisters around the globe. It’s too easy to live our lives and forget how blessed we are. One of the college kids on my trip back to Sierra Leone last month said to me, “it’s just an accident of birth separating me from them,” and I said to her “yep. You just got it.” That’s all it is. An accident of birth. There but for the grace of God go us all.

  4. August 9, 2009 9:13 am

    I don’t know if I could take it. It would be very hard to leave the house and not get depressed. Giving to the organizations does, however, sound like the way to help.

  5. poupee97 permalink
    August 9, 2009 6:07 am

    Just to let you know, plenty of us locals, who grow up with begging in our face, are still confused and a bit guilty about the begging thing. Here’s a thought from one of us (not me).

    One of the things I tried a long, long time ago, was to give beggars food, and sometimes clothes. The tiny kids were happy with scraps of food (at least it went directly into their stomachs), but adults scorned both food and clothes; so you know that they’re not really begging to fill their bellies, they’re begging to give their bosses hard cash. It’s a sad thought.

  6. Sharmishtha permalink
    August 8, 2009 9:16 pm

    And yet, despite the despair, things are changing. Outlook magazine covered this very quiet revolution in a special issue a couple of years ago. I especially liked the case of the poor farmer’s daughter mentioned in the article who is now a District Magistrate and said that everytime a farmer comes to her with problems, she sees her own father standing there. As someone who was born and raised in India (before leaving in the 1990s), there is no question that things have changed, mostly for the better (opportunities, social mobility, standard of living, general sense of confidence), but sometimes for the worse (traffic, pollution, terrorist attacks, etc.)

  7. deewane permalink
    August 8, 2009 1:34 am

    Hola! Love the new template. I don’t think you can get used to the suffering ever, and may be that’s a good thing?!? That’s what drives so many people to want to do something about it (and everyone i.e. Indians, Americans, Marcians! It all comes down to being human and humane right? As I was taught in school “Vasudev Kutumbkam”- the whole world is a family (lovely isn’t it?). And the Indian branch of the family tree is getting there or will do, certainly it’ll take some time given the size and resources available (and may be also the age? It is afterall, still relatively new).

  8. August 7, 2009 11:34 pm

    Ke: I’m no expert, but I think it’s a cultural thing here. They focus on religious differences instead of economic levels. They are pressured to stay within certain boundaries. For example, a leatherworker’s son should never strive to be a doctor.

    The two books mentioned, “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry and Aravind Adiga’s book “White Tiger” are both highly recommended. You can really understand just how people here think. I encourage you to read both of them to truly understand the situation. Another, rather heavy tome is Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games” which shows you the situation between the cops and gangsters and the corruption here, which is rampant and obvious.

  9. August 7, 2009 7:12 pm

    I like the new design, especially with the pen.

    Your observations about poverty in India are interesting because I’m from Africa and the poverty levels are the same if not higher. It might not be as glaring in many African countries, but that’s simply because our cities are smaller, our populations are smaller and many are stuck in the rural areas, not in cities.

    However, in all of the discussions about Indian poverty, one thing that has always astounded me about India is that it has not plunged into civil war, like many of the African countries. So, on one level, I ask myself, if the people are that poor and that desperate, why haven’t they risen up and started a revolt? something is keeping them relatively calm. What is it? I understand that even the crime rates are relatively low for a country of India’s size and poverty.

    If you lived in a Place like Nairobi today, it would probably look cleaner, the weather is better, it’s not as crowded, but there’s high crime. Very high crime; Same thing with South Africa. It looks better, but the crime rate is very high.

    So, why does the poverty in Africa drive the people towards civil war, but in India it doesn’t?

  10. August 7, 2009 4:54 pm

    I think you have the right answer – helping out an organization that you know truly does good work. Congrats on the house, and I do like the new blog design. I’ve been gone all week so I was a little surprised to see it when I got back. =)

  11. Sharmishtha permalink
    August 7, 2009 3:54 pm

    Avoid giving to the organized crime syndicate that is begging unless there are signs of obvious distress – like a child about to collapse or something. Do contribute positively – there are plenty of good foundations and organizations that are working to improve people’s lives. Some do their work with a lot of self-seeking publicity (“look how good we are”) and some do it very quietly. I don’t care which line they adopt as long as they do something. And many do take volunteers. If it is still around, I would like to make a push for an organization called Mobile Creches. They do (or did) awesome, amazing work with the children of migrant laborers – the demographic that you often see around traffic lights begging.

  12. lisa permalink
    August 7, 2009 2:50 pm

    There is a fascinating book that deals with the whole begging scenario as organized crime – It is called A Fine Balance. It was a very long but insightful read.

  13. August 7, 2009 2:23 pm

    I wish you luck in your endeavors. I pray you get great results.

  14. Christy permalink
    August 7, 2009 2:20 pm

    It is true that in many parts of the world, no matter how hard you work, it’s difficult to overcome poverty and challenges in life. The system is not built for fairness. Growing up, I remember my dad always telling me that in America, you can do and become whatever you want to be as long as you work hard. There is more chance and opportunity for the American Dream to come true. That is why United States of America is a great country.

  15. Tushar permalink
    August 7, 2009 2:18 pm

    I’m telling u really…just read ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, who won the man booker prize last year for this novel. Its a fabulous book on India’s underbelly……similar story of the divide in India. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!

  16. August 7, 2009 9:44 am

    I don’t know if I could handle that. I’d want to help everyone, but like you said, some people don’t use the help to better themselves.

    Thats a tough situation.

  17. Settlers permalink
    August 7, 2009 8:18 am

    “It’s hard to accept as simply ” just the way it is” when you didn’t grow up with it constantly in your face.” That is the big difference. People who gor in India don’t really feel the way you are. That is not to say that they are not sympathatic towards the poor.

    Everybody tries to help within their means.
    However, begging, as you also indicated in your post, is a highyl organized business and like any other business, the employees (beggers) get paid less than the employers. That is one reason why many people do not give to beggars. The money does not go to them, but their bosses.

    It really touching to see the wya you feel towards the poor in India and I wish you all the best to be able to make a difference.

  18. August 7, 2009 6:07 am

    Great post … really and truly a great one.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll hold you accountable so that you leave here touched.

    Want to come with me to do some orphanage work on a Saturday here and there??

  19. August 7, 2009 4:36 am

    I don’t think you’ll necessarily agree with my post here, but it may clarify a few things… or maybe my heart isn’t open as yours…

    — Jeanne

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