Before we moved to India, I had decided that I would not give money to people that asked me for it face to face, but would instead make a regular donation to a charity. This is easier said than done (although we do now make a regular donation to Operation Shanti).

Firstly, as expats, we are wealthy.  It’s a crass thing to say, but it’s the truth. We’re nowhere near as rich as the crorepati, or even the members of the ‘bulge bracket’ (thank you, Times of India) that live in south Mumbai, but we are relatively much wealthier here than we were in Sydney.  (This is partly to do with the fact that our accommodation is paid for, as renting in Mumbai is easily on a par with Sydney.)  As much as there is enormous wealth in Mumbai, there’s also pervasive, grinding poverty.  It’s disturbing how quickly you can start to naturalise this poverty, through sheer repeated exposure.

Living in Powai, in the suburbs, means that I don’t see many beggars in my day to day life.  If I’m with C, beggars tend to approach me first before asking C – a rare instance in India of women taking precedence over men.  When we arrived back in Mumbai in November from a trip to the US and Canada, Sagar picked us up at the airport. I had slept badly on the flight, and after days spent with family and close friends in the comfort of the familiar – food, customs, not standing out on the street – felt at best ambivalent about coming back to India. On the way back from the airport, we were stopped at traffic lights for a long time. The intersection was near a flyover, and a family group of a few adults and several children were living in a small area near one of the pylons and under the shelter of the flyover. A recent change in the law has meant that we had to remove the tinting from our car’s windows, making it easier to see but also to be seen. So, when I pointed out to C that they had fashioned a swinging cradle from what looked like a large plastic basket and some bamboo, this attracted the attention of one of the women in the group and she sent a little boy over to beg. He must have been about three or four, and tapped on my window, gesturing that he needed something to eat. I turned away, and he kept tapping.  And tapping. Sagar rolled down his own window and gave the boy a small rupee note. This says all sorts of good things about Sagar, but at the time completely deflated me as I thought ‘I simply don’t know how to do this country right’.

On Sunday, we went into Colaba (in south Mumbai) to have lunch and to go to the National Gallery of Modern Art (in Kala Ghoda). On the way back, we were stopped at another long traffic light when a boy standing by the side of the road caught sight of us in the car, and crossed a couple of lanes to come up to the window. He made the same gesture, indicating that he needed something to eat. I gave him Rs 100 (about $2 Australian). He nimbly took it and walked away without a word. After a few minutes, Sagar told me ‘He does not keep the money. It goes to someone else.’  Apparently these professional beggars average Rs 100 a day total. For context, a kilo of the atta (wholewheat flour) used to make chapatis costs about Rs 40.


  1. Can we say that living in India, or for that matter any other country that is not directly culturally related to our own, presents challenges about even the minutest details? I remember being astounded/baffled/perplexed by things when I was o/s that I could never have anticipated due to sheer lack of cultural knowledge.

    It’s like a maze without a map really 🙂

    Keep on trying xx

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