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The other city

Most of us have closed our eyes to what lies beyond our pale. Some of us have the gall to complain of harassment by beggars, fumes C.K. MEENA

IT'S CALLED a "street retreat". In the West, some rich people pay to become beggars. It's all very spiritual, very Zen. The organisers of this riches-to-rags exercise charge you for the singular opportunity of living on the streets for three to five days, during which you sustain yourself purely on the crumbs of charity, thus "bearing witness to the joy and pain of the universe". Ho hum.

Temporary renunciation can be dressed up to resemble extreme empathy, but it could well mask a guilt trip, a perverted adventure, or even a cure for acute boredom. Anyway, that's one American fad we won't be aping in a hurry. Just imagine Narayana Murthy growing a beard and squatting with a begging bowl at Subhashnagar bus stand. In a spirit of idle curiosity one might ask, how do rich Americans manage to blend in with the poor? You can't reflect distress merely by wearing old clothes and an unwashed look. Not in this land, at least, where nobody goes unnoticed. If you were to indulge in poverty in Bangalore, you'd be exposed at once, and I don't mean by your neighbour or your second cousin. You could, if you were an actor, coarsen your refined tone and gestures, but how would you conceal sleek arms and healthy skin? How would you acquire that look: the steady, impassive look of those who expect as little from tomorrow as they do from today? Rather than impersonate the homeless, we could bring them into our field of vision, for a start.

Most of us have closed our eyes to what lies beyond our pale. Some of us have the gall to complain of harassment by beggars. There are Bangaloreans who brazenly stuff their snouts in front of street children, then whine that food is being snatched from their hands, and get press publicity for it, too. Twenty-something IT employees denounce hungry 10-year-olds for infringing upon their sacred right to eat and drink while walking on M.G. Road. Excuse me while I vomit.

There is another city, here, that you cannot wish away. You come upon it when, handing a loaf of bread to a starving child through the bars of your front gate, you are besieged by a swarm of men, women, and children skittering out of a nearby construction site, all stretching their arms out to you, you, you. You come upon it when you glimpse, one night, a beat policeman prodding a huddle of sleeping bodies with his nightstick (as if the unforgiving pavement were not punishment enough). The homeless have the right to wander but not to rest. The moment they lie down they break the law: illegal occupation of public property. They have the right to take what others don't want, though. Hence the cardboard box containing your new TV ends up as part of someone's roof, and the food you throw out, part of someone's dinner. Hey, recycling is in.

Food and shelter: quite a range they come in. People's notions of them can be as different as chalk and cheese. Talking of cheese, here's an amusing little story. Back in the Nineties a pizza chain gave away pizzas to street children as a publicity stunt. The children threw away the toppings and ate just the crust. "Bread" was the only thing their tongues could recognise as food; mushroom, cheese, and capsicum were nothing more than funny-tasting stuff that got in the way.

Food and shelter: the basics can be very basic, indeed. In the other city, which also includes those who have a little more than the bare minimum, the struggle never stops. A leaky hut in a slum is the fond dream of the man whose "house" is a concoction of leftovers, and the slum dweller's vision is a one-room-kitchen with a power connection and a tap outside that is shared by only five other families instead of five hundred.

Where does struggle end and avarice begin? How much is too much? These are questions nobody else can answer but you. It's dead easy to convince yourself that you need that second car or third TV, or that seven-thousand-rupee toy (yes, it exists) for the apple of your eye. But it is not my intention to make you feel guilty, no, no. Enjoy your ice-cream in 32 exciting flavours, by all means. You only live once, it's your hard-earned money, and all the rest of it.

Guilt is pointless. Giving makes sense, though.

Appeals to our generosity emerge through new and varied avenues practically every day, so those of us who consider ourselves too sophisticated to give alms the old-fashioned way have no excuses. By the way, have you noticed how beggars at traffic lights usually get small change from the autodriver and not the passenger? The less you have, the more willing you are to share. And vice versa.

Here's another story — oh I'm full of amusing little stories today. A housewife had a live-in servant who took leave to go home and overstayed a bit. She fired her. Then she took back the old clothes she had donated. ("My daughter's dresses from Dubai, they look almost new.")

If your milk of human kindness has turned sour, you might seek happiness by running to a guru, or getting a tummy and butt tuck, or going to a mall that boasts 300 brands and five floors of shopping. Or you could give your tithe. Share your time if not your money. Feed someone. Teach someone. Remember the other city.

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