12 October 2011

You and I are the beggars being bludgeoned, didn’t you know?

There are jokes and there are jokes.  Some are witty, informative and thought provoking. Some are tasteless and derogatory. Some are witty and tasteless.  I remember two from probably the decades ago, both of the car-sticker type.  The first was ‘Preserve wildlife, pickle a squirrel’.  The second was as bad, ‘Eradicate poverty, shoot a beggar’. 
A couple of days ago, when I wrote about the shoot-out in Mulleriyawa (‘Local Government Election and an unscripted post-mortem,’ Daily News, October 10, 2011), a friend of mine made a sobering observation: ‘There is certainly a lack of sympathy, which augurs ill for the state of mind in the country, as a whole. I think the 'education' must start at the lowest levels; behaviour patterns have to be re-taught, in schools and in homes. In 30 years our people have lost the natural courtesy which we always had. I like to think that the villages have been relatively untouched.’  I asked her if she had heard about beggar-bludgeoning. Her reply was short: ‘Yes, I rest my case.’ 
Beggar-bludgeoning is the word on the street. It is the act on the street as well.  Not too long ago there was a spate of beggar-killings in Colombo, especially on the pavements between Kollupitiya and Mt. Lavinia.  Around 20 such murders have been reported from the first quarter of 2010.   The perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice.  After the initial set of killings, there appears to have been a lull.  It’s started again.
Seven killings have been reported from Kelaniya and surrounding areas. The modus operandi has been brutal and brutally simple: a large stone dropped on the victim’s head.  Among the dead has been a resident of Galgamuwa, who had apparently had to stay overnight and didn’t have anywhere to go.  That’s not unnatural.  There are many who travel from faraway to attend to something urgent. They don’t have relations or the money to check into a hotel.  They use bus halts, train stations and also pavements purely because they don’t have any other choice.
In the absence of leads and arrests, speculation has a field day.  There are theories about drug addicts robbing these people of their day’s takings.  There is talk of an insidious and surreptitiously implemented policy of ridding the city of mendicants as part of the overall beautification plan. 
Now I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that lays the blame for all societal ills on the system.  The system does create poverty, I agree.  Misery, however, is part self-birthed and I am not talking here of the karmic endowments one brings along.  I am not talking of the sociological reasons for violence here.  Cogent arguments can be made about the reasons for the proliferation of guns and other weapons as well as the rise in criminal behavior.  There is a lot that is wrong about this society.  The ills can be traced to systemic flaw and even cultural tendencies that make institutional arrangement obsolete.  Here, however, I am thinking of human beings who, for whatever reason, happen to be homeless.  I believe that the moral worth of a society can be measured in many ways but never more emphatically as in the way it treats the less fortunate and most importantly how it reacts to violence.
There is a lot to be horrified about but perhaps the most horrifying is the apathy regarding the horrible.  ‘Not my problem’ is an easy out.  Until things travel far and wide and deep and settles in an unsettling place called ‘My Problem’.   It’s not only about beggars and beggar-bludgeoning of course, but there is something barbaric about the business and the look-askance of the response.  The police need to get their act together but that’s not enough.  One can think ‘I will never end up on a pavement’ and that might even be a reasonable prediction.  Still!
My friend, perhaps as an after-thought subsequent to resting her case, emailed me a story: ‘When I was quite young-about 12, I think- my two uncles were my father's partners in his law firm, in Kandy. The elder was my mother's second brother. He had a framed picture on the wall of his home, which I have always remembered. It was a small photocopy of a water-colour painting by a local artist, simply framed and pastel shades. Two village women in cloth and jacket, baskets on their heads, walking down a path. A beggar seated under a tree. One woman had her hand outstretched, dropping a coin into his plate. The caption, in small italics, was “only the poor give the poor”.’
I’ve heard that beggars are uniting.  They have taken to sleeping together, in clusters, to stop would-be murderers.  I’ve heard that there are protests in all major cities of the United States of America, the agitators claiming that they make the 99% who have no say in how the economy is run.  They are not beggars, true, but they are still impoverished in many ways.  They don’t own their lives, their presents or their futures. 
Perhaps Marx got it wrong.  Perhaps it is the beggars of the world who should unite (for) they have nothing to lose but their lives.  Perhaps there’s something to learn from a line penned in a barrio in South America: ‘Welcome, middle class’.  Perhaps we are living a monumental lie.  There’s no ‘perhaps’ however in the fact that we are silent witnesses to a monumental crime and that our silence amounts to approval and encouragement. 
No one will help us.  We are our solution and solution-provider, us beggars, disguised as the middle-class and self-hoodwinking shamelessly.  Perhaps this is why, at this moment, I really don’t know what to do.  Except saying ‘THIS IS WRONG’.