The outstretched hand of the poor asking for money. It’s not a sight I haven’t come across before. Those wide eyes say more than the currency they ask for.
A study reported last year noted that children, as young as 7 years old, make their earnings on the street only to get a total of 20-30 taka per day – not even enough to buy a packet of crisps in UK – with “…almost all of their income…usually spent for food with little or no savings”.
Today we went out to visit various places in Sylhet and it was the first time I had seen such rampant poverty. We saw several beggars pushing themselves along the dusty roads on carts of battered wood with limbs missing, disfigured features and they begged, pleaded as I walked past for money. They sat motionless as if they were just occupying space, waiting for release from this cycle of pain. It was hard to ignore even then. The place we were visiting was a mosque, and women were not allowed to enter and some of us were refused entry and so, I decided I didn’t want to enter either. As we walked around the square outside, people immediately began to flock around us. It was as if something was happening and in a matter of a few seconds, a crowd of people had emerged and began to stare very openly and follow us as we walked around. I felt extremely uncomfortable, especially as people were talking to me thinking I understood Bengali.
At one point, we stopped to look at a good luck shrine that contained a golden fish that was said to bring you good luck and wishes. As I stepped inside, I found myself worrying if my shoes would be there when I got back, which is interesting in of itself. I had a good look around and soaked in the views and saw a golden orange fish floating around in some darky murky waters. Once I was done, I went outside (shoes still there of course) and waited for the rest of my group to finish. As I stood a few metres away, a few small children wearing very raggy clothes, smears of mud covering their faces slightly and on their feet, took the opportunity. They had been following me in particular for a while and I had been ignoring them as I have learned to do. What good can come from me giving them money? I don’t want to create dependency, I told myself. But it was hard to look them in their eyes as they squealed and frowned asking for something, hands stretched out towards me.
Seeing that I had not moved from my spot or walked away, I was bombarded. People began to flock around me. One after another, voice after voice and hand after hand reached out to me and begged. I felt uncomfortable. I felt ashamed. I felt pity. These were other human beings I was looking at. And right in their eyes, I looked, as I said no over and over. It felt like a thousand hands were stretched out, clambering over each other, shouting to be heard asking for some small material portion of my inherent privilege.
Eventually, a local volunteer noticed the situation I had got myself into. From the old and weak, to the disabled and the young, all manners of poor people were fighting for my attention. She heckled them away and kindly said something in Bengali. I wasn’t sure what, but I was thankful I could breathe again.
I walked away and the kids continued to follow me, right as our minibus hurtled us away. Hands pressed against our tinted windows. They knew we were watching.
What unsettles me the most is this – how can this be so normal? It’s not like I have discovered a big secret. Part of me is glad I felt uncomfortable and felt sad. Because it told me that I was still connected, still human. I don’t ever want to get used to ignoring these people. It is so hard to ignore another human being, and continue to walk away as if they don’t even exist. It shakes me deeper than I dare look.
I have seen how other people walk on and disregard these members of society like it is nothing and I wonder, what is the price?
There are some things, that I am just not willing to give away.