The Outstretched Hand
5 December 1984
‘Foreigners get flustered, they rarely give’
The heat of the day was still too strong for there to be much trade - the hot wind raising puffballs of dust and snatching at the litter around the temple steps.
More devotees would come in the cool of the evening. And they would have to run the gauntlet of beggars who sat two-by-two on the steps with palms outstretched or tinkling their tin cups.
Muthu drew peevishly on his bidi. The smoke drifting around his face, past his blind eye and then being whirled away by the wind.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked him. ‘Can’t you get a job?’
‘This is my job.’ The bidi glowed again. ‘It’s a profession. I used to be a plumber, but then I caught this arthritis. It’s difficult to work with water now.’
Arthritis? I looked at his feet as they shifted in the dirt. Toes were missing. I looked at his hands. There was only the stump of an index finger nursing that bidi. And what about his blind eye? Muthu was a leprosy victim. My Indian friends had said they objected to giving money to such people - they should go to a special colony, they argued. Shouldn’t you be in a colony, I asked? You don’t have to sit on these steps all day being roasted by the sun.
‘Who wants to live in one of those places?’ he snapped. ‘They’re out in the middle of nowhere and you live like a prisoner. No, I’d rather be mixing with people, seeing the action on the streets. And on a good day you can make 25 rupees*. Who would want to live in such a colony? Would you?’
He gathered his dirty saffron cloth around him and shifted on his buttocks. He was speaking in Malayalam and to me the babble of his voice seemed to rise and fall in sympathy with the waves of heat. His son, he said, was a rickshaw driver. And his wife lived with his daughter who was a typist. But he never saw them now. They had had a row and he would never go back.
I asked if this was where he always came.
‘No, but it’s one of my favourite spots. I might spend a couple of days or a couple of weeks at the same place. It’s best in front of the churches, mosques and temples. People feel pious then and you can make a steady income. If things get tough you can always knock on a Brahmin’s door: they will give you a good feed.’
A middle-class family passed quickly up the steps and through the temple door. Everyone had been too bored, too distracted or sleepy to take advantage of them. They had left their sandals in the car so there was not even a tip for the temple gate-keeper who looked after the shoes. Muthu grunted with annoyance at their receding backs. But he was soon in full flow again.
‘Of course, what the public looks for most in beggars is an affliction. You make far more money if you’re old or crippled, preferably both. So I score well there. I suppose they think that if you’re young and healthy you should be doing something else.’
‘It’s different with the foreigners. Mostly they look through you, pretend not to see. But they get flustered - and, though they rarely give, when they do it can be big. Indians give coins, not more than a rupee. Foreigners give notes.
There were now a few people washing themselves in the stagnant green water of the temple tank. This water cleanses the devout both physically and spiritually and the occasional high-caste Brahmin performs his ablutions there. But generally it is a free bath for Trivandrum’s poor.
‘It’s my Karma,’ said Muthu, ‘that’s why I’m here. And that’s why people give to me. In the next life or in one of our past existences our roles could have been reversed. If they refuse me charity now they might find themselves sitting in my place and being refused the next time round.’
He paused for a while. And there was silence, apart from the cawing of the crows.
‘Last month I tried my luck in Quilon.’
That’s a long way off - at least a hundred miles. How did he manage to travel around?
‘By train. It’s a good service and we are treated like VIPs. When you appear dirty and poor the ticket collector just looks the other way. No-one asks for cash - mind you, it’s usually Third Class.
‘But I had to leave Quilon. Well, I was warned to get out. There was some man, who looked a bit like me they said, and who was catching boys. I imagine he was going to blind them, or break their legs and then set them begging for him. The police started asking me questions so I thought it best to get out. Pity, it’s a nice town.
He looked in his pocket to see how much money he had collected so far. It seemed quite a bit, I thought, even if it was all in small change.
‘The trouble is the shops and the stalls won’t take all these coins - the 10 and 20 paise ones. It’s two or three rupees for a meal but they won’t wait for us to count it all out. Mind you they’re not too happy about us collecting around their shops either - they say it puts off the other customers. Sometimes they won’t even take a dirty one-rupee note.
‘So we have to go to the money changers and they charge 30 paise for every rupee 5 worth of coins we collect.’
Couldn’t he get his money changed in a bank?
‘Can you see me going into a bank? In any case they won’t do it on the spot. It takes a couple of weeks and then they would have to write and tell you when the fresh notes had come in. Where would they write to me? On these steps?’
How clean was the five-rupee note that I had scrunched up in my hand, I wondered? Perspiration had turned it to damp blotting paper - but I gave it to him anyway.
He cocked his head to one side to look at the note with his good eye. Then the money disappeared quickly into his pocket. But a dozen pairs of eyes had seen it and knew that old Muthu had been in luck with this foreigner.
*1$ = 15 rupees
ENGLAND’s summer of 1984 matched any that I have enjoyed in the Caribbean. Brilliant sunshine and bold blue skies prompted a colourful influx of tourists onto London’s streets. Crispy cotton was paraded in vivid colours, yellows, pinks, magentas and oranges: an explosive kaleidoscope. Punks posed self-consciously for foreign cameras, turning this way and that so that their stiff, colourful mohawk ridges could be viewed from the best angles. It was easy to enjoy the sunshine, the colours, the food that flowed everywhere.
But soon I grew aware too of the darker colours of London’s less celebrated minority: depressed dirty browns, patched black and faded blue. Lonely, deranged people shuffled softly around the edges of the summer. They stepped around the crowds, heads lowered into grimy collars, careful to avoid too much attention.
Theirs was an underworld which pushed them out on the city’s streets in the morning and folded them back into its darkness at night. They chose park benches in the shadow, away from the sunlight, away from the tanned limbs of the younger and happier.
Down-and-outs exist in every country. What makes them stand out in a Western city like London is that provision is made for the homeless, the needy and the old. Yet there is an endless daily parade of unkempt, unwashed men and women haunting the streets. Many wear long overcoats even in the middle of the summer. A majority of the women carry old carrier bags loaded with all their possessions - the ‘bag ladies’. They spend their days in favourite haunts: park benches and sidewalks, never staying too long in any one place. Theirs is the restless need to keep on the move.
Just a few weeks after my arrival I was approached by a bag lady. She came and sat next to me, on a public bench near a bus-stop. She had been walking for some time and was exhausted. I was struck by her furtive expression: darting brown eyes almost hidden in a face creased and lined with age. Her teeth were crooked and stained brown. She wore her hair carelessly pushed under an old knitted brown hat which allowed some stray tendrils to stray freely around her ears and temples.
She assured me that she liked coloured folk, they were alright by her. Of course she knew lots of people who didn’t, who thought themselves better off, who gave themselves airs and graces but she never stood for this sort of thing. After all we must have been put here for some purpose and the sooner we could learn to get along together, the better. She did not believe in calling coloured folks by those terrible names what you hear some people calling them by. It was no wonder then that the coloureds didn’t like the whites. You couldn’t blame them, could you? After all it was the whites who started it first, wasn’t it? It was so good to be able to talk to people like myself, though. I understood. I didn’t take offence. She could see that I was different, just as she was different. The world would be a much better place if more people could sit and talk like we were doing …
She continued in this vein. I began to pay less and less attention to the actual words as they droned on and on. I was caught more by her appearance; the dirt under the jagged fingernails, the thick, torn, flesh-coloured stockings, worn brown plimsolls and blotched hands which nervously clutched at each other as she spoke.
Who was this woman? Her ceaseless chatter afforded me little space to question her. She wanted to hear her own voice. I was a mere sounding board.
Her three carrier bags were bursting at the seams with old clothing, shoes, a mug, bits and pieces of wrapped newspaper and string. Yes, she would have a hard time finding someone to talk to. Just as suddenly as she had arrived she left, still talking as she walked down the street.
She had talked until the unease bad been settled in her mind and then she walked away without a goodbye or backward glance. She was the writer and actress of a one-woman play.
Questioning other unfortunates about their lives produced no such flow of information, attitudes or opinions. The down-and-outs I came across were confined to a world made tinier by their own fears and suspicions. They feel free to approach outsiders to ask for cigarettes or beg for money to buy a cup of tea - neither of these things take them out of their world. They are not so easily persuaded to enter into conversation with a stranger.
One day I grabbed a bag-lunch from a wayside cafe and set off for the sunshine in Embankment Gardens. One woman stood out because she kept circling a particular area over and over again. She was tall and well-built with straggly shoulder-length brown hair and she focussed on the ground as she walked as if searching for something which she had lost, pausing occasionally to examine some find. She moved like a beaver, long overcoat trailing, quietly, noiselessly.
She made her way over to a set of garbage cans and began digging through them. As she rummaged through she held up some things closer for inspection then continued endlessly digging and examining.
I walked to the cans to dispose of the remains of my lunch. I took my time getting rid of the bits of food, the wrappers and the bag so as to catch her attention but she carried on digging with the same steady rhythm. Her head seemed in danger of disappearing into the garbage can. I spoke gently to her trying to nudge a reply, spark off conversation. She did not respond. I persisted. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me: a vulnerable defiance tinged with fear. I continued talking to her. She just looked at me, her eyes etched with the discoloration of poor-health and neglect. I could see the same kind of mental confusion in them that I had seen in the gaze of my bus-stop friend.
Many more meetings of this kind followed in parks, churchyards, in the benched areas hugging city sidewalks. They repeated the cycle of silence, incoherence, fear and withdrawal. The incoherent gabble, where it occurred, was much more frightening than the preserved silence. These women had travelled far beyond my world into a space and time of their own. They could offer no admission into their private hells.