While driving to work, I stopped at the red light on Jinnah Avenue watching a pair of beggars moving from vehicle to vehicle towards my direction. One of them appeared to have an amputated arm, while the other was using a single crutch to hobble along. As they drew closer, I was reminded of a Chinese social media video that went viral some time ago showing two young women, who placed a harmless pet snake in a blind beggars bowl only to see him getting up and running for his life. I too was during my teenage years, involved in such activity with a ‘blind’ individual, who used to sit at the entrance to Regal Cinema, somewhere in the late 1950s. Instead of a pet snake, we used a marriage cracker and watched in amusement as the man, quickly grasped the cracker and threw it towards the wall of a school across the road. Since all this happened at a busy intersection, a crowd saw the whole episode and gathered around the hapless fraud, who still had the presence of mind to gather up his mat, bowl and stick and walk away in an excellent display of ‘blind man’s bluff’. Not to be outdone, we followed him some distance up the Temple Road, to be rewarded by the sight of the man tucking everything into a ‘potli’ and rapidly walking towards Safanwala Chowk, with two ‘seeing eyes’.
My driver, who by all counts is a canny young man, once told me that alm seekers with apparent amputations had with practice, developed the ability to fold their arms and legs, which when tied into place completed the illusion that parts of the limb below the elbow and knee were missing. Armed with the information, I have on many occasions challenged beggars to remove their shirts and had the satisfaction of seeing them hurriedly escaping from the scene.
My friends and relatives often criticize me on being harsh with beggars. I cannot help, but do so because of what I witnessed at a handicraft shop in Liberty Market Lahore, where I had gone to buy a wedding gift. Looking through the items on display, I saw three bedraggled and dirty looking women enter the shop and walk confidently up to the counter. The body language of the person sitting on the till indicated that these new arrivals were known to him. Three fairly large sized bags were produced from under their dresses and their contents deposited on the counter to reveal hundreds of coins bearing different denominations, which were quickly exchanged wads of five hundred rupee notes. The trio walked out as if they owned the place, not even bothered that the entire activity had been watched by other customers. Queries directed at the cashier, revealed that this was happening all over the city and the men and women we saw in various stages of poverty and disability were in fact earning as much on a daily basis as any blue collar worker.
The incident prompted me to speak to a random specimen, who is often seen in our office car park seeking money to feed his family. I offered him a job right there and then. First I got blank looks followed by a crafty grin. Then the man turned and walked away with the words, “Ja apna kam kar. Sanoo kamai karan de”. I went back to my office, more angry than amazed. The incident prompted me to do a bit of research, the findings of which were conclusive in establishing that begging was an addictive activity, since it meant easy money and for some, a window of opportunity for purloining an item or two, when the owner wasn’t looking. A long forgotten memory helped me to arrive at this conclusion.
Islamuddin came to my great grandfather’s house hold as a young boy. He grew up amongst the family and migrated to Pakistan in 1947 as an old man. We took him in, took care of all his needs, in spite of which he for some reason developed the habit of sitting on Lawrence Road outside St. Anthony’s school and begging. No amount of advice from my parents and even my grandmother nor threats of police, had any effect on an individual, who had comfortable lodgings, the same food that we ate and medical care as and when required.
A new twist to begging is the fact that the activity has now evolved into an industry run by cartels. It is up to concerned authorities to eradicate it at its roots now or suffer its social consequences.
The writer is a historian.