The other day, my brother was reading aloud a joke on the Internet . It went:
"Three beggars were begging in New York City. The first one wrote 'beg' on his broken steel cup and he received ten bucks after one day. The second one wrote 'beg.com' on his cup and after one day he received hundreds of thousand dollars. Someone even wanted to take him to NASDAQ. The third one wrote 'e-beg' on his cup. Both IBM and H-P sent vice-presidents to talk to him about a strategic alliance and offered him free professional consulting!
Begging as a business? It is not a joke, but serious business, in Bombay. It is one of the most well networked, controlled and professionally managed businesses in the metropolis – so much so that it would beat Bombay’s famed 'dabbawalas' in organisation and efficiency.
The big difference is that the dabbawalas run a legitimate service and begging is controlled by the underworld. Had it not been so, it would have been the subject of academic research into the manner in which religion, guilt and laziness are exploited to create a thriving enterprise.
The usual police-underworld nexus protects the business and acts like a safety net. But it is ingenuity, effort and understanding of human psychology that keeps it growing.
Temples, mosques and churches are focal points for the begging mafia – after all, people feeling especially pious after their visit to a house of God are easy pickings for their army of beggars.
Every Tuesday, the famous Siddhi Vinayak temple at Prabhadevi in Bombay, has winding queues of devotees seeking a glimpse of the Ganesh idol; there are also several scores of beggars waiting to catch them as they emerge from their ‘darshan’.
The beggars are invariably tragically maimed, diseased, old and often cannot even walk. They are brought to the temple before daybreak in a truck on Tuesday and then transported away at night after a gruelling day of seeking alms.
Come Wednesday and it is time for the Church at Mahim, Fridays are allotted to several popular mosques. According to the knowledgeable, every day of the week has its congregation points at places of worship.
Shani temples or Shiva temples on Saturday, Hanuman temples on Monday, Datta mandirs on Thursday – the travel arrangements work with precision.
One does not know what the service conditions are, but they are probably very exploitative. For those trapped in it, it is probably as exploitative as prostitution and petty robbery. But the business also works because begging, indeed, fetches more money than manual labour.
The industry employs a large number of children. Adults with money are especially vulnerable to the practiced woebegone faces of little children. But it is the inventiveness and imagination that is remarkable.
Several years ago I encountered this cute seven-year-old with soulful eyes in the local train. "Didi, didi, begging is a bad thing isn’t it? I don’t want to beg, I want to earn a living by selling knick-knacks on the train, but I don’t have the money for the deposit," he said in the best Hindi film fashion.
He told me it was Rs 10 he wanted for the deposit to be given to the dealer. The story was clearly fake and very clever. Not for him, the 50 paise or Re one coins – he had been trained to play for bigger stakes. I grilled him about the business, asked him where the dealer was (Grant Road station, he told me) and even threatened to accompany him to the dealer to pay the money.
He nodded vigorously and agreed. But I didn’t do it. I simply had no time to get off the train and verify the story. I parted with the ten bucks exactly as the kid knew I would.
I later learnt that he worked different trains and different timings with the same story. I did a rough calculation and figured out that he would earn at the least Rs 5,000 a day, which was more than I earned those days with my multiple degrees.
Then there are the urchins who sell magazines at traffic signals. They are on to a new trick to boost commissions. They pick up soft targets (like me) and ask for a ride to the next big signal. They then begin to pour out a sob story about this big bad guy, who came by in a car 10 minutes ago and asked to see a glossy priced at Rs 100 and sped away without paying.
Your heart bleeds at the heartlessness of it all and the little brat hops off at the next signal richer by ten bucks or more, depending on how big a sucker you are.
It happened to me twice before I got wise, the third time, I told the little imp that I wanted to hear no 'hard luck story' – he sold me a magazine instead.
The organisation drops the hard luck act during festivals. Child beggars are then trained to smile and persuade you to share your joy.
During Holi, the festival of colours, they bound around dressed like Lord Shiva complete with a fake snake around their necks, tiger print cloth wrapped over a satin dhoti and other accessories. Their faces are painted blue and enhanced with rouge and lipstick.
During the Durga Puja, there are little girls in bright chania-cholis with colourfully painted and decorated pots who demand a dole with bright and pretty smiles.
There is another bunch of women who work the signals pretending to seek money for the funeral rites of an abandoned body. Over the years, they have become smart enough to target only those in private taxis who they clearly identify as tourists.
It never fails to work and the pickings are big. During the few minutes at a signal you often watch them pocket Rs 30 or 40. In fact, they flash their notes around as a benchmark to stop you fishing for small change.
Pickpockets are another organised segment. Not only because they are super smooth at relieving you of your wallet, but because of the service they provide after picking your pocket.
I hate to admit that I have been a target at least thrice, naturally on the local trains. Every single time, within a fortnight after I was robbed, I received an envelope with the contents of my wallet – mainly identity cards and visiting cards, once a cheque book.
Twice, the envelope had my office address neatly typed and once it was captioned 'Important documents inside'.
Some friends insist that I got my stuff back because my visiting cards said I was a journalist, which often spells police connections. But it is not really true. Scores of people have confirmed that they have similarly received their stuff minus the wallet and money.
If you wonder why do they bother to sift through the contents and mail them, here's why. It is a question of psychographic analysis. The hassle and irritation of securing duplicate identity cards or other official documents is so high, that such harassment would lead to a public outcry and pressure the police to check their activities.
People find it far easier to reconcile to the loss of money, so the business and the police nexus thrives without interference.
Those in the know say that the percentage of money paid to the mafia depends on the area of operation and nobody can join the business without paying.
Ever so often I have had colleagues offer jobs to able women and child beggars, but they are not interested. It is much more lucrative to prey on the guilt of the middle class and the rich, and work flexible hours at street signals/temples rather than seek employment. Except the monsoon, the business hardly has lean periods.
However knowledgeable you may be about the business of begging, you cannot help reaching for your purse when you see a badly maimed or really old person. It is easier to part with a few rupees than feel guilty at the state of our society which cannot take care of its old, infirm and poor citizens.
It is not enough but it is better than nothing and so the business goes on.