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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Speaking of beggars

IF THERE IS such a thing as a bumper sale on acquiring meritorious karma, it is on the 15th day of the fourth Saka month of the Tibetan lunar calendar - marked as the day of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and parinirvana. Tibetans believe that any meritorious deed performed on this sacred day yields far greater results than those on any ordinary day. It is equivalent to buying one, getting many thousands free. Because of this multiplying effect, even those who are usually lackadaisical in exerting themselves for meritorious karma are tempted to make a stab at chanting mantras, circumambulating temples, or simply doling out alms to beggars.

As was usual every year, when I went for linkhor on this auspicious day - which this year fell on 31 May - a long sprawl of beggars dotted the entire length of the ring of the path girding the hill of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's residence and the Tsuglakhang. The army of beggars reminded me of a model paragraph that I had mugged up at school. It went something like: There are two kinds of beggar: voluntary beggars, and those who are victims of misfortune. Its punch line was that we should keep the first type at an arm's length, while being sympathetic to the latter.

As I started doling out one rupee coin to a select few of the hapless lot, including the children and the lepers, the moral of that paragraph never bothered me - not even when one of the "voluntary beggars" asked me, "Babu, do you want change...for 50, 100...?" He might have raised the stakes to 500, had I kept listening to him!

I went on, but my pockets dried up even before I had gone half-way. For the rest of my linkhor, whenever someone raised their bowl towards me, their expectant looks made me feel ill at ease, but did not bother me much. Years of experience, I guessed, had made them professionals in the business of begging, for they knew whom to nag and whom to ignore.

As I proceeded a little further, I noted that the beggars were tribes or clans from certain impoverished areas of the neighboring states. None of them were Tibetan - not even the few junkies that we occasionally bumped into at McLeod Gunj had marked their presence there. But strange as it may sound, I felt no pride in that thought.

My reason takes me to a noted writer-columnist—Kushwant Singh. Once when he appeared as guest on the TV show "Movers & Shakers" (the Indian version of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"), Mr Singh was asked why most of his jokes are about his Sikh community. He responded by saying that only those who have full faith, confidence and pride in their people are capable of making fun of themselves. As a concrete proof of the Sikh community's self-pride, he then said, "Have you ever seen a [turbaned] Punjabi begging on the road?"

Mr Kushwant Singh, I really envy you on that, for I cannot say the same for my people. Beggars today are a common sight in all over Tibet. The images of Lhasa on this 15th day of Saka month showed its streets choked with thousands of Tibetan beggars. The capital city of the Land of Snows, a land that has never in its entire history known something remotely as a famine, has been reduced to dire poverty in just about half a century of Chinese occupation.

Even as China continues to dazzle the world with its economic boom, Tibet appears to have been shut out of it - if the growing number of Tibetan beggars is any indication. A report published in 1998 quoted a beggar saying that there were more than 3,000 beggars in Lhasa. The figure now is 8,000, according to media reports. This figure also includes an increasing number of Chinese beggars. Since the Gormo-Lhasa railway hit the tracks - which was supposed to enable Tibetan beggars to beg in rich Chinese cities - it has instead opened a floodgate of Chinese migrant workers, prostitutes and beggars into Tibet.

The new influx of Chinese beggars means the daily ordeal of Tibetan beggars has gotten a lot worse. A veteran Indian journalist, Vijay Kranti, following a visit to Tibet, once noted that the domination of Chinese people is visible even in the case of beggars. "When you visited the Lhasa Jokhang temple, the best sites for begging were always allotted to the Chinese beggars, while the Tibetan beggars were driven to the periphery."

The Tibetan people's ability to be self-reliant is articulated in many of our common adages: A Tibetan who has even a nail-sized piece of land will never die of starvation. However, given the years of Chinese colonial economic policies, coupled with the great influx of Chinese migrants, an overwhelming number of Tibetans in all walks of life have been edged out to extreme penury. For them, begging is not an option, but a necessity of the last resort.

Dhondup Gyalpo

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