The following is something I wrote in December, last year:
The occupational hazards of begging for a living are many, one would imagine; but none could be more depressing than the humiliation that comes with it, gift-wrapped in pity. Every two-rupee coin tossed into your cupped palms is an acknowledgement of how the world has failed you, over the years; a testament to how you are but a burden to the very air you breathe – loved by none; neglected by all – a waste of oxygen.
But maybe that’s not how a real beggar would feel, at all. How would we know? How could you or I possibly know what it is like to sacrifice one’s pride, just to get by? With our daily internet flame-wars and our weekly trips to the mall, we cannot even begin to imagine what having to beg must feel like. Or if it really warrants any kind of emotional response to begin with. Or if it simply destroys your desire to be happy and doom you to eternal indifference. That was the impression Anton* left on me, last Sunday, when I went in search for him and his ilk in Nugegoda, a busy city centre bustling with activity and commercialised decay.
“Who gives a damn?” he demands, coldly, his face free of expression, as I stand there, respectably flabbergasted.
Anton is the quintessential beggar. He is homeless, old, has no one to call his own, and cannot even hope to fend for himself. He is also suffering from some form of tuberculosis.
“They give money only to the disabled folk,” he mutters, to a ghost two feet to my left that apparently only he can see.
I ask him why they do that, carefully voicing my disgust at this blatant discrimination.
“Who knows? They think we can look after ourselves; that we can find another way to earn a living,” he says, still not looking at me.
Anton is sitting inside the fence of an old, unused building at the Nugegoda junction, looking at the people and traffic passing by. Just outside the fence, sitting on the pavement, is his friend and fellow beggar Siril*, who is somewhat more accommodating and, dare I say, a little cheerful.
I turn my attention to Siril and go “what’s up?” He begins his story.
Siril is originally from Matara. He is 70, but doesn’t look a day younger than 80. He has two kids who have made a career out of fishing; and – no surprise here – he is no longer in touch with either of them. Siril doesn’t have tuberculosis, but he’s got two very cool looking tattoos on both of his forearms; and unfortunately for him, in traditional Lankan-Victorian culture, this translates to Hooligan. But like Anton, Siril doesn’t care.
“I left Matara many years ago, and I haven’t looked back since,” he says, with a hint of pride, while Anton continues to be fascinated by the ghost next to me.
I ask Siril what he does with the money he makes, imagining he must be saving it for later use.
“Oh, I smoke with that money,” he says, casually.
I look at him, in silence, letting this sink in. A few seconds later, I find my voice again.
“Do you, now? How many cigarettes a day?”
“At least four. I can’t help it. I need my cigarettes.”
Fair enough, I suppose. The man has a grand total of two teeth in his mouth; so, beetle-chewing is out of the question.
Anton coughs what I assume to be his disapproval, and gets back to his story about how the passers-by ignore him and Siril and most of the other beggars in the area.
“What do they know? Just because they have the means to make a living, how could they expect the same from people like me?”
It is at this point that Anton takes his shirt off and shows me his rib cage.
And what a rib cage it is. I can literally count them to the last bone.
And then, just like that, he gets up and walks away, muttering to himself.
I don’t know what to say; so, I look at Siril. He’s looking bored.
I awkwardly mumble something about how awful it is of society to treat them like that, and feeling this inexplicable guilt, I pull out my wallet and give a 100 rupee note to Siril, asking him to share it with his friend. He pockets it with a grin.
I curse myself for not having two separate 50-rupee notes on me.
And then I leave the place, hoping to catch the 7pm screening of Tintin at Liberty and call my friends on my expensive smartphone to let them know I’m coming.
It’s a sick world we live in.
And I’m quite indifferent to it.