Going by Richard Schechner’s eight types of overlapping performance practices, ranging from every day social life actions to play acting in engineered situations, the act of begging not only involves all the semantic associations of Schechner’s typology but goes beyond by incorporating those provocative corporeal acts that are used to elicit favours and sympathy from others.

The act of begging in an underdeveloped country like Pakistan, where widespread corruption and lack of welfare infrastructure has produced a host of dependable social classes, is not only hard to define but also infused with a sense of misdirected obligations that people force themselves into. Cashing on people’s superstitious and religious beliefs beggars know how to worm their way into the minds and hearts of people. No matter how confident and independent minded people portray themselves in the professional world, it is difficult for them to show resilience against misgivings tactfully used by the parasitic groups of society. Since its inception, the country has never been able to boast of producing a socially responsible psyche mainly due to political instability carrying with it the burden of religious conflicts and its resultant confusions.

A plethora of research done in the media and academic circles looks into the different ways begging as a social evil has affected and consequently changed the lives of people in the socio-economic context of Pakistan. Famously labelled as an organized business, beggary works under certain prescribed social codes. However, this ubiquitous and mushrooming phenomenon that appears to be embedded in the sociological aspects of society, can also be viewed and interrogated from the lens of performance studies. Effective narration, impersonation, transvestic fetishism, psychological insinuation, crafty costuming, well-conceived stints and gimmicks all contribute in what characterize the often disturbing but interesting face of begging in Pakistan.

Found in different exciting forms, the performative acts of beggars are mainly displayed in the metropolitan cities of Pakistan. These beggars are mobile actors on the road (like street actors) and their acts of begging become sporadic, strategic and localized enactments through which a great deal about social and religio-cultural realities of Pakistan can be understood. Whether they are regular traffic light occupants, mobile schemers moving from one terminal to another, street wise slitherers, mafia supported drugged and impaired con artists, there are categories of imperative behaviours these performers ought to show off or put up a display of in order to attract attention and extract money out of people’s pockets.

The begging tradition has moved from liminal to a liminoid status (borrowing from Victor Turner’s terminology) as it is a copy or invention in the modern world of what used to have perhaps mystic dimensions in the past. No more taciturn mendicants or silent supplicants but a host of clever and manipulative contrivers is what we have to deal with in today’s world. A few decades ago, the problem of beggary was confined only to those who were crippled or handicapped or unable to work due to advanced age or health problems. Now beggary has attained the status of a regular profession much like professional acting involving all age groups irrespective of economic standing and physical strength.

Initiated into the profession, these beggars show every sign of proper training into the tricks of the trade by skilfully entertaining and tapping on people’s finer sensibilities. They are so experienced that they know exactly where to hit you, psychologically and emotionally. You would have to have nerves of steel to refuse to listen to or help them. It is sometimes hard to determine whether a well-dressed man introducing himself in English with tears in his eyes outside a mosque or a well-bred girl in jeans apparently selling newspapers, or a destitute mother holding a limp baby with blood dripping from his/her head are genuine cases in need of financial help or another performative innovation to approach the wary public.

The way the institution of begging has acquired performative dimensions in Pakistan is remarkable but disturbing at the same time. Whether beggary as an institutional ersatz describes or explains the loopholes or deficiencies in the economic structure of the country or helps shape and construct a special class is hard to judge. Beyond all socio-economic epistemic understanding lies those sensitive religio-cultural conflicts whose supernal existence is muted to evade the real issues.