I was buying some milk and curd kind of stuff from my corner shop when an old beggar lady appeared asking for something to eat. I live very near a temple, so I am familiar with the beggars in the area as they are with me, especially their children. Many of them take shelter on the sidewalk under the huge tree outside my house on Saturday and festival afternoons. The kids are bright, cheerful and bold, even demanding that I buy them specific biscuits which I mostly do. One of the little girls once even asked me to open my ‘subzi-wala’ bag so she could check for biscuits!
But I was seeing this old lady for the first time. She looked different, dressed in a relatively clean-looking saree, not the usual rags. But she was pretty old, totally toothless and quite sweet looking like a typical grandmother. Like most people, I melt at the sight of old people and little children. I told the shopkeeper to give her something to eat, gesturing to the potato bun which looked pretty fresh and big.
As he was picking it out of his glass cabinet, he started grumbling, saying in Hindi that she wouldn’t want it. “These people only want biscuits and chocolates. I leave it to you sir, but if you want to buy her biscuits, better open the packet and give it to her! Otherwise, she will go and sell it to the handcart sellers on the street!”.
I was shocked! I could only say something stupid like “Is that so?”
He began to get a bit loud and agitated. “Yes! That is how it is! People like you keep buying them biscuit and chocolate packets and they go around the corner and sell it for less! What do you think? They don’t have anything to eat? They do get a lot of food! Many people buy them idli-dosa etc.! They have no such hunger issues! See now, she will not take this potato bun!” he said, placing the bun on a newspaper piece.
The old lady was watching but I am not sure she understood Hindi. As if on cue, she pointed to the big packet of Marie biscuits lying on the counter. “Give this,” she said. I took the packet from the counter and as the shopkeeper was repeating loudly, “Open the packet before giving it to her! Open it! Open it!” I started to pull at the top to open it.
The old woman started saying something under her breath, probably abusing him and me. She just abruptly turned and walked away, still muttering. I said “Hey! At least take the biscuits…” but she didn’t look back.
The shopkeeper almost shouted angrily. “Saw sir?! I told you! She will not take the biscuit packet if you open it!”
My head was spinning. I had been buying and distributing biscuits and chocolates like crazy over the last 3 years! This is in addition to the cash I was shelling out every week! ‘Specific’ biscuits! Where their margin was higher! This was a business model I was not aware of! WTF! Was this Shark Tank or what!
Let me put this in perspective. For 25+ years in the Gulf and the US, I had thirsted for the typical temple culture of India and that included beggars and charity. Of course, we’ve been to many temples in the US and even in some Gulf countries, but it’s just not the same. Also, no beggars! Not without a ‘licensed to beg’ tag hanging around their necks anyway!
Some things came to my mind that I had ignored or misinterpreted. I have seen another old man distributing biscuits at the temple but he would take out one or two, give it to the children and give the pack to the parent. I had just taken it as his fondness for the children!
A neighbour had also warned me. “You’re a nut! Why are you giving them so much?! You open their bags, you’ll find Pepsi and Lays in there! This is all organized begging! They all belong to some kind of association!”. That is so heartless and cruel, I had thought, not believing a word!
There is also a partially blind beggar, who comes to sit and eat under the tree. He talks very loudly on his cell phone and once I saw him pull out a huge wad of notes from his pocket. I hadn’t given much thought to it.
These things have now taken on a different meaning.
The shopkeeper was still ranting. “Sir this is negatively impacting my business also! The things I sell here for 45-50 rupees, you can get the same thing for 30-35 from the handcart fellow because these people go and sell it there for 25! Then what happens to my business?! What do they lose in this?! It is not their father’s money after all!”
Gosh! There was so much pique in his voice! But that was his interest.
So this deal fulfils everyone’s interests! I am the one who remains the __________!
That about sums up what I feel right now. I need to go back to the drawing board on a few matters of the soul.