Poverty in Paharganj

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The poverty in Delhi is thick, is heavy—like the dust in the air, like the oppressive heat. It is manifested in bare feet, in unwashed clothing, in wrinkled and dirty faces.

It’s not just the beggars. Indeed, for the level of poverty, there are only a few beggars along the street. Most people work for their miniscule income, and they work hard. The street is full of men carrying bricks on their heads, building furniture by hand, driving bicycle rickshaws.

The manager of the Grand Sindhi Restaurant, who came to Delhi after his home in Bihar was destroyed by the tsunami, works for eighteen hours a day and makes 2000 rupees (about $50) in a good month. The shoeshining boy spends most of the money he makes from his work renting his shoeshining box, and has almost nothing left over to send home to send his sister to school.

The exchange rate is approximately forty rupees to the dollar. With that in mind, paying a couple of hundred rupees for a meal is fairly cheap for an American. But the average person on the street expects to make in rupees what we in America make in dollars. They live off of one rupee chapattis made on the street corners, and little containers of dal that they eat while walking.

In the week that we’ve been on Main Bazaar, we’ve come to notice about five or six regular beggars who prowl the area. There is the old man with no shirt and a big white beard who looks like a holy man, the old woman with the exaggerated hunch, the one legged man who smiles broadly whenever a coin clinks in his cup, the two children with drums and painted faces, and the adolescent with filthy clothing and a staggering limp.

“You have to be a professional actor to be a beggar here,” our friend Sashi observed. He’s really quite right. Most of the locals don’t have anything to give. Most of the tourists have to be shocked to be bothered.

Sashi’s relationship with the beggars is utterly fascinating. He likes to sit outside, right along the road, so he and his party are often accosted by wheel of hands open for change and buckets calling for a strangers’ coin.

He is at once familiar with the beggars, very generous toward them, and extremely flippant when they approach. “Eat, eat, eat,” he told the old man, as he approached, “All day you want eat. Go over there, that cart, and eat something. Give them my name I will pay later.” The man stared at us, and Sashi spouted off some Hindi at him. “Jao jao,” Sashi concluded, “and now you leave us alone for twenty, thirty minutes.”

“One time I was in Thailand with my second wife,” he told us. “We wanted to do something nice, and so we took a girl from the street, cleaned her up, bought her a nice dress. When we came outside, there were forty beggar children there, waiting for us. We had to fight our way through! Then a few days later, we see the same girl again, but now she is dirty, and the dress is gone. ‘What happened?’ we asked her. It turns out people don’t give you money if you are clean and well dressed.”

He told us another fascinating parable, “Some two, three years back, there was a beggar that died on the streets. No one knew him, no friends, no family. So no one did anything. Two, three days later, the shopkeepers complain about the smell, and the police come to take the body. Under the blanket they find seventy thousand rupees. They beg because they are poor. And then they beg because they are afraid of poverty.”

Of the money that has left our pockets in our time on Main Bazaar, about half of it we have given away. We give a little to the beggars, but mostly it goes to people we meet and get to know and discover that twenty or thirty dollars can really turn their life around. Twenty or thirty dollars could buy us a meal in the US, procure a suitcase full of little Indian souvenirs, or tack an extra day onto our adventure. But it is so much more rich and rewarding to see a smile on the face of a new friend.

Knowing when to give means we have to practice deep listening to the Holy Spirit. Giving well is a blessing to the person who receives, and an equal or even greater blessing to us as givers. Giving poorly often means getting mobbed by more beggars who suddenly feel that they have a right to our charity.

God’s economy is a giving economy. First and foremost, we give ourselves. We give ourselves to God, and then to one another. Sometimes, this process of giving involves an exchange of money. But the gift of self, the gift of presence is absolutely the most important thing. This is what the Bible talks about as “storing up treasure in heaven.”

This is something that I have always believed deep down, but I have not been able to practice in America. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it is simply the shock of being in a new situation that allows me to live out of what I most deeply believe, rather than long established patterns of behavior received from my culture and habits of experience.

But also in America we clearly have a different relationship with money, with time, with each other, with ourselves. Our American habits have garnished an incredible amount of worldly wealth, but they have also made us more guarded, and I think, as a result, more lonely.

As divested as we are, Sarah and I still have a backpack full of stuff that we would be devastated to lose. It doesn’t have much in it: the computer, the camera, our cash and cards. But we don’t feel safe leaving it in the room. So whenever we go out, it comes with us.

Our friend Nicky, a shoeshining boy, laughs at us because of it.

“Why you bring that bag everywhere?” he asked. We were on our way to watch a movie together—obviously I wouldn’t need anything. “You should be free. Like me.”

My bag has become to me a symbol of our baggage as Americans. Our things limit us. Would it really be so horrible to lose everything? It would be inconvenient, yes, and quite uncomfortable. But it would be a long way from the end of the world.

Because I am so invested in not losing those things, a part of my intention and my energy is always present in securing them. I have to be aware of where they are, who is nearby, what might happen. It keeps me from engaging fully with the present moment.

I can only pray that God will give me the wisdom and spiritual maturity to free me from such baggage.

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