Pulling up at the traffic signal anywhere in a big city scares me. I become uncomfortable when the traffic light turns red. Not because it impedes the smooth flow of traffic or unnecessarily delays you from getting to the intended destination in time. The reason for reluctance to pull up, despite the legal necessity to do so, is the beggars who swarm in from different directions, reach the car window, knock at the window-glass with knuckles or pores of fingers, utter invocations, couched in religious idiom and ask for money. Interestingly, they ask, not expostulate, betraying an air of entitlement. In order to avoid them, I invariably inch forward, thereby indicating my discomfort.
For the last few years, eunuchs have also joined the ranks of those begging at traffic crossings. Some of them are maimed or deformed and demonstrate their deformity to invoke empathy among the passersby. At the Lahore-Sheikhupura road, numerous toll plazas have been erected. At a safe distance from the toll collectors’ window, sits a woman with a child, supplicating motorists for monetary help. Resident of the area reveal that every morning a van comes and drops the woman and the child at that spot. It comes again to deliver food to them in the afternoon.
It must be quite a lucrative business. The striking aspect is the organisation, well-coordinated network of beggars. They demarcate their respective areas which no intruder may ‘trespass’. Thus they operate like mafia. Who controls it, runs it and benefits from it, is shrouded in mystery.
Despite the best efforts, I could not find any credible research work on beggars in Pakistani cities like Lahore. Therefore much of this column will be woven around personal observation based on everyday experience.
One of my colleagues, an accomplished scholar and socially alert and aware, once reflected on the wide range of tasks that beggars perform, from espionage to drug trafficking. They abduct small children and after rendering them physically incapacitated, put them to begging. Similarly, peddling and trafficking of human organs is conducted through them.
Was it a social bane as it has turned out to be? The question was bound to crop up, since two historians were engaged in conversation on an issue that had contemporary manifestation. But it had to have a past. Thus, pulling out a reference from recorded history was inevitable. First the differentiation between the ‘beggar’ and the ‘mendicant’ was to be underscored. Both had their respective existence since the dawn of civilization. Both categories had a social connotation but with a slight difference. The ‘beggar’ begs professionally whereas mendicant begs to domesticate his egoistic self, purely for spiritual reasons. ‘Beggar’ generally assumes that profession (if at all it is a profession in the technical sense of the word) because of the class difference prevalent in the society. In other words, beggars have always been the product of socio-economic disparity. Their number has multiplied in recent years as we can witness around us.
Mendicants have become a rare species these days. The reason for their virtual extinction is the waning importance of shrines that they were associated with. Before the onset of modern era, the saint and shrine had a central significance in the society of South Asia (if we bring in spatial specificity here for clarity). A fair number of mendicants were socially deprived and deserted whom the shrine used to own up. A sizable number of them were Sufis of extraordinary standing and begging was a part of spiritual training. In Herman Hesse’s renowned book, Siddhartha, the main protagonist Gautama begs and feeds himself with a few morsels, enough to satisfy a bird. In non-Muslim societies during the medieval ages, the monks lived off begging but at times they used to accept offerings too. Similarly in Qurratul Ain Hyder’s magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya’s main character Gautum Neelumbar, at the early stage, was a mendicant.
Reverting to the connection between mendicants and the shrine, one finds an interesting debate. One section of the Sufis was of the view that, instead of adopting any profession to earn livelihood, Sufis ought to beg and eat. They must not be involved in any economic (material) activity, which might have vitiating effect on their spiritual bearing. They were enjoined to steer clear of economic cycle, where the profit and loss was worked out in material terms. In Ali Usman Hajveri’s Kashaful Mehjoob, begging is accorded a status that God is most pleased about. It affords an opportunity to the ‘giver’ of charity to do ‘good’.
The other group argued otherwise. It emphasised on Sufis to adopt a certain profession so that they were not dependent on any one. Or they would be forced to do the bidding of the one, feeding the Sufi. That debate could not be resolved one way or the other. Thus, both practices and points of view continued to circulate among Sufis. It was only with the onset of modernity that mendicants started thinning out and eventually the whole tradition got faded away.
Now mendicants have become a saga of the past; only beggars exist to market their incapacities. Like everything else, begging has also been commercialised. The State turns a blind eye to the mushroom growth of beggars which is not only a social nuisance but a traffic hazard. Worryingly small kids are begging and they will grow up as a baggage for this country. It is far easier for young beggar boy to turn to crime. Some serious deliberation is needed on the issue.