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The Pot-Bellied Beggar

The Pot-Bellied Beggar

December 21, 2011

This man's desperation is of the kind you can avoid without remorse.

The beggar waits for me at the rickshaw stand outside Varkala railway station. I haven't seen him before, nor he I, which puts us in an unusual situation: I know that he is not normally a beggar, but he still expects that this foreign tourist will give him money.

I know he is not a beggar because his clothes are too clean, and because of the ample bulge that strains at the fabric around his stomach.

On the other hand, he sees a white face, which is enough to justify his expectation without any further accounting.

In a tourist town like Varkala, begging can be quite a business if you are willing to put in the hard years of staking a claim. It involves avoiding treading on the wrong toes and stepping firmly on the right ones. He who works alone will surely fail alone, hounded by larger operations until he realises that the intimidation is not worth the paltry takings. He who cultivates a support network, though, trickle-up economy and all, is far more likely to survive.

There's a hierarchy to begging
, after all – and if you're in it, as in any corporate ladder, it pays to know your place. There aren't many beggars in Varkala, and their faces are easy to remember. They also know their art – particularly the steely-eyed man just around the corner from the police station. You don't get a spot like that without being very good at getting things out of people, and certainly not without understanding who does and does not have power over you.

Again, I've never seen this beggar before in years of living in Varkala. He's probably an outsider hoping to do some quick business and then get out of town before anyone calls the police. Spending such precious time on me, a guy on his way home at the end of a long day at work, will unfortunately be wasted.

He makes his move as I come closer. First tactic is to take my hand and grip it; second is to try and crack my mental load capacity by weighing me down with information. His name, his wife's name, his son's name, his daughter's name, his lack of money, his pathetic dwellings, his father's beatings, his mother's scoldings, his god's grace. It all flows out with increasing intensity and a raised, attention-seeking voice.

I am impressed with his articulacy and the health of his vocal cords, but not so impressed with the forced desperation in his eyes. They bug out a little as he holds his eyelids back against their sockets, fixing my own eyes in an attempt to intimidate. When he finishes his spiel and asks for money, he furrows his eyebrows a little to look more angry, as though I should feel disgusted at myself for even considering withholding my indubitable riches.

When I attempt to find out where he's from, he becomes very angry. His round face starts huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf and roars, “You give money!”

When I fail to reach for my pocket and try to extract my hand from his grasp, he switches moods and begins fake-crying, loudly. He falls at my feet, holding my ankles and wailing without tears.

I think back to a minute prior, when I was walking along a pedestrian bridge over the railway tracks. There, as ever, a frail old man had sat chewing his gums and looking up at passers-by. Flies were gathered around the dirty rag that covered his lower parts. I had given him a couple of rupees, not knowing where they would end up but neither concerned at any example I might be setting.

That old beggar, even his destitution, retained some dignity by not forcing himself on others. At the rickshaw stand, this beggar with healthy paunch and clean clothes browbeats and cavorts as his means to an end, like a three-year-old relies on the tantrum to get him a lollipop. His attempts to forcibly dredge the rupees from my pocket stand in stark contrast to the old man's silent plea. Perhaps the old man was just a good actor, while the man before me – crying and shrieking in an unconvincing spectacle – is not. Either way, the rupees that had gone to the older man will not follow here.

When the tantrum still does not succeed, he stands again – quickly, nimbly – and tries the staring/huffing/puffing routine again, cursing me in Malayalam. I smile and shake my head as I get into the rickshaw of a friend, who is laughing.

The beggar flops to the floor once more and wails still further. I ask my friend if he knows the beggar, and he says no, this man not Varkala man. Let's go, I say.

As we lurch off and sputter noisily down the road, I look back; the beggar is on his feet again, calmly dusting off his clothes and looking around for another foreigner. Perhaps he'll be more lucky next time. I hope for his sake that he doesn't hang around too long.

Photo credit:


  • amy deora
    amy deora
    11.01.13 01:13 PM
    This post is a very good one....and has some reality....
  • amy deora
    amy deora
    11.01.13 01:05 PM
    you know why i hate my own country is because of this. I can't see people begging on streets of india while other people enjoying their luxury lives. the superstitions, the rules of india are irritating.
    when I wan't something and my parents dont give it to me...whether it's a packet of chips or new dress I think about the poor people whom I see near my eyes but cannot help....and then keep quiet,thinkng that god has given me enough to live but not the ones who are begging....atleast to fill their stomach and we?
    fuh! I wish any of the political leaders of india would think about eradicating beggary in india by giving the beggars food, home and work just like they've eradicated polio....i'll wait and see and if not by the political leaders, then I myself will take a step towards it......
  • vaibhavGhevde
    28.12.11 10:14 PM
    Nice!! I like the part where you give money to that frail looking man but not this Pot-Bellied guy.
  • Sampada
    22.12.11 04:28 PM
    Ah! Beggars and Foreigners!!! I am yet to see a foreigner who was not followed, or harassed by beggars in India. In my city, one should just have a walk around McDonald's or Subway. There are these young mothers with one child on the hips, another holding out hands and running after the foreigners... I really wonder what those tourists end up thinking about India.
  • Rajpriya
    22.12.11 03:26 PM

    “Shouldnt there be enough safety nets available in society that enables all to enjoy living in society instead of just throwing money at people in a most impersonal way?”

    Oh! Ya, there are enough safety nets available in society but you know what? Unfortunately, there are equal amount of rats biting through those nets making large holes and quite large section of our society plunge into poverty through those holes.

    First you may have to poison all those rats until one fine day when the last one is dead then your dream of all enjoying life should be possible.

    Now when and where do we begin?
  • Anna
    22.12.11 02:18 PM
    Beggars that make a good buisness venture are common everywhere and seems to be for quite some time. The first literature example that comes to my mind would be that one case of Sherlock Holmes
    Sure there are people who seem to hard up and life and really have not any options then live on the streets. However there are also groups of people who also "work" together to get people to open their purses. Actually I think the "professional beggers" do work, its quite some effort kneeling down in cold weather for half a day and freezing yourself off or gauging what person might be inclinded to give money when listening to what story. However what makes the begging business most digustable is intentionally crippling others in order to extract a few coins from others. And I think the main question should not be weather will I end up in the gutter one day and therefore be generous with my spare change, but rather should the concept of begging still be around in the modern world. Shouldnt there be enough safety nets available in society that enables all to enjoy living in society instead of just throwing money at people in a most impersonal way?
  • rahul
    22.12.11 01:44 PM
    when i was in Johannesburg and was waiting for signal to turn green at the robot, a beggar walked to my car and asked for money, i gave him few coins but that was against his self respect as he threw open the coins on my car's glass and ran from there...

    i had quite a nasty experience with this beggar!!!

  • Rajpriya
    22.12.11 10:46 AM

    Your experience with the actor-beggar rolled into an interesting piece for reading as to the reality in India’s many other problems. But I am certain you did not write this story to shame the Indians. It’s just your experience with an Indian beggar. The common belief among beggars in India is that foreigners are easier with their money than the locals.

    It is a part of a culture prevalent in most South and South East Asian countries accentuated by many foreigners who visited India or neighboring countries before. Some are beggars by choice, some fate and yet others forced. Each one of them has, his or her own little trick of a trade to extract money out of people.

    Following is story that some one called “roadjunky” relates of his experiences with beggars in other parts of the world.


    Delete due to potential copyright infringement
  • Bronwyn
    22.12.11 09:50 AM
    "Begging can be quite a business."
    This is a great piece!

    It sounds like the real beggars and trying-to-make-a-buck-off-a-foreigner beggars are easy to tell apart in Varkala. The show that your beggar put on sounds hilarious and would have killed his game in an instant: fake crying is always a giveaway. I'm not sure if I can tell so easily in Mumbai though.

    The cleanliness of clothing and the paunch can mean that someone is better off, but I find it hard to judge who is really poor and who is really, really poor, just because I'm so far removed from it.
    The longer I live in India and deal with beggars on a daily basis, honestly, the less I can understand/generalise and assume to be able to recognize true poverty. I still struggle with what to do.

    I wrote about how I deal with beggars on my blog, at

    ...because I think it's such an individual and situational decision. The beggar situation you wrote about sounds funnier than most that I encounter, maybe I should visit Varkala!

    Another fun post! Thanks!
  • Pallavi Subramaniam
    Pallavi Subramaniam
    21.12.11 09:35 PM
    @ Barns: You hit the nail on the head with just your title to this post. As always, well written.

    @ Aman: Seriously, what are you suggesting? That beggary is good for the country?!!

    I love my country, but I am equally ashamed to see swarms of very able-looking beggars!!!

    I can tell you from first-hand experience, that I was once accosted by a young female beggar, who had a baby in her arms. I felt sorry and foolishly gave her money. The moment her 'gang' saw the 'note' that left my hand and went into hers, they swarmed around me and groped me and my handbag!!

    NOT one of them was disabled in any way!!! They were infact passing the baby from one woman/girl to another and taking turns at begging from passers-by.

    As an Indian, I am ashamed of this aspect of India. And there is nothing unpatriotic about admitting this.

    I think we need to be mature enough to understand and accept things the way they are!!
  • Ravikanth
    21.12.11 09:00 PM
    Barnaby, very well written. Recently someone told me writing is about "showing" and not telling. You nailed it.
    Aman - couple of points. Deepak said "this part about..." and not "this part of...". 'Beg' you to read closely before ranting. Also, this page is about Barnaby's experiences and not a place to showcase our idiosyncrasies. Please retain sanctity in thought and action.
  • Manish Menon
    Manish Menon
    21.12.11 06:47 PM
    Good writing...
    21.12.11 03:40 PM
    As always nicely done BARNS.

    I am happy that you can tell from real and fakes. One thing India teaches men is , how to be savvy in real world, and this lesson my friend, is priceless any where in the world.

    The best thing that you did was, never parted with your cash, because otherwise, it would have landed in the booze house.

    My best wises for christmas and happy new year, my advise don't eat too many pies.

  • Rajpriya
    21.12.11 03:39 PM

    I remember my friends said to me that there are beggars in New Zealand and they could be abusive if you don't give them money. They said some news appeared in the local news paper some time ago Can it be true?

    As I mentioned in answer to your inquiry they are now in Melbourne.

  • Aman
    21.12.11 03:07 PM
    @Deepak: WTF do you mean by "this part of India" ? This part of India, as you put it, is what gives "your" part of India a sense of superiority, of superciliousness, and of utter, blatant, apathetic ignorance. You, and "your" part of India, are a disgrace to my nation.

    Don't be too quick to judge, Mr Deepak, for you shall receive tenfold of what you give.

    What The NRI brings to the fore is the complexity and magnitude of the issue of beggary. As long as our mindsets remain as yours, Mr Deepak, there shall be no steps to even a semblance of equality, and that's even more lamentable.
  • Deepak
    21.12.11 11:26 AM
    well written ! i hate this part about India very much, whenever you see my holly wood film scenes depiction of India, they will show a beggar begging in traffic signal, i really hate that part A LOT. but that it reality... Rich getting Richer and Poor Getting poorer..
    I hope my country will get clean in future ~
    I hope you won't mistake whole Indians for few such people !
  • Santosh
    21.12.11 07:24 AM
    Nice writing, and I love the descriptions...

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