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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Amputations and Asymmetry

Date: 06/29/2011

I noticed the streams of sweat run down his bare neck and chest as I was squashed between my brother and sister-in-law in the back of a small air-conditioned Hyundai. It was an oddly humid night in New Delhi and he was only wearing a loin cloth. He was younger than me and, for a second, I found myself envying his toned chest and abdominal muscles. But my envy was short-lived because I suddenly realized the most striking thing about this handsome lad: he was missing his left arm and leg.

Asymmetry is one of the first things we’re taught to note as medical students. Perhaps that’s why I was captivated by him when I saw him hobble up to the car next to mine at a red light. I anticipated that he’d come to us next and started scrambling for my wallet and couldn’t find any reasonable change-- the smallest denomination I had was a 500 rupee note (~30 USD PPP). I frantically urged my mother, brother, and father to give him something smaller, but the light turned green and we had to drive off just as he got to our car. His eyes met mine for an instant. I wanted to tell him to wait. I wanted to tell the traffic light to wait. I wanted to tell my father, who was driving, to wait. My voice failed me in my desperation, the car moved on and he was gone. I slumped back in my seat and felt ill.

I’ve seen beggars all my life. I’ve seen mothers with desperate looks in their eyes and emaciated babies cradled in their arms braving the heat and the horrific fumes of vehicles at red lights. I’ve had mud-smeared children, with bellies distended because of protein-energy malnutrition, approach me with their pleas for alms. I’ve been threatened with curses and promised divine blessings by beggars of several different faiths. I’ve seen hundreds of mangled bodies-- amputated limbs, distorted trunks, legs bowed by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, blind eyes, and undernourished bodies that just barely look human, clinging to a wisp of life with progressive tremulousness. Why then did I feel ill? I should have been inured to these sights by now. Was it guilt due to my relative prosperity? Was it my long sojourn in the west? Was it the incongruity of the coexistence of his muscular physique and his chopped-off limbs?

I don’t know.

As I slumped silently in the back of the car, my stomach churning at the lachrymosity of the situation, my thoughts drifted from the asymmetry in the lad’s amputated body to the asymmetry in the landscape of Indian society. New Delhi is filled with posh malls, BMWs, palatial bungalows, luxurious hotels, and world class hospitals. It’s also home to emaciated children, amputated beggars, and poverty that is capable of exhausting the world’s supply of tears. I understand how it is easier to ignore the agony of people who live away from you and whose suffering doesn’t immediately affect you. However, I cannot fathom how the lawmakers of India, who inhabit Delhi, reconcile themselves to the simultaneous existence of BMWs and beggars in the city and the dichotomy of malls and mutilations. I beseech them to do something.

This slum, under a bridge in New Delhi, is only a few kilometres of the government of India (pictured below). Note the infant in its mother's arms.

When I got home, I looked at the Rs. 500 note in my wallet. I hadn’t been able to give it to the anonymous amputee. Any middle class person would have justified my inability: “It’s too much”. In a practical sense, they’re right. You’d have to be very very rich to be able to give Rs. 500 to every beggar you meet in India. However, I feel Rs. 500 is simply not enough! Even Rs. 5000 is decidedly not a long term solution that’ll free them of the poverty trap. Instead of only giving money once in a while to a beggar whose sorrow moves us, it is important for us to agitate, to educate, to advocate, to vote, and to ultimately bring about significant changes.

Perhaps giving alms to beggars is something we do mostly to salve our consciences, to atone for the asymmetry.

P.S: In the upper-middle class Indian society I inhabit, encounters with amputated beggars are usually followed by discussions of horrific gangs that abduct and amputate children to force them into mendicancy. This practice was also depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, where a homeless child who was a decent singer was taught a religious song, blinded in his sleep, and forced into beggary. These discussions frequently (not always) conclude that we should not give money to the mutilated mendicants on the streets. The logic: by not giving alms we express a refusal to be emotionally manipulated that will make this heinous practice unprofitable and force the gangs to find other wicked ways of making money. I follow the logic, but-- at the end of the day-- it doesn’t help me ignore the individual pain of crippled beggars. What if he isn’t the pawn of a diabolical gang? What if he really has been disabled by some tragic accident and can’t find work? And even if he is the victim of a gang that is using him to tug at my heart strings, can’t I at least spare him a beating from his boss today by making sure he doesn’t go back empty handed?

1 comment:

  1. This was an amazing post. It brings forth the scene we witnessed in such graphic detail.

    Your post also forces us to look inwards and give deep, sincere, thought towards the malaise of begging (and the associated racket of amputations, etc.) that is so rampant in our country.