The Karma Bank

by Gabriella Sonabend

Today has been jam packed and exhausting and I have run out of energy for writing. However, before I fall asleep I need to talk about the Karma Bank.

Perhaps I have mentioned the legless beggar at Assi Ghat. Each day I visit the ghat, I see him. He sits in a wooden hand-driven cart beside the water pump opposite the Harmony book shop where I compulsively buy books. He has long black hair, which always seems perfectly groomed, he has hazel eyes, which sparkle and a perfect warm smile. He does not beg for money, he simply sits. Terry and I have often walked past him remarking how lovely he seems, and how we would be happy to give him money as he does not ask but merely sits legless and smiling.

The other day, while on a second trip to Sarnath, I spotted him sitting outside one of the main temples on the ground, still smiling a beautiful smile but this time without his wooden cart. I was somewhat shocked and wondered how on earth he had made his way to Sarnath. Tonight I learned a little of his story.

Last year someone from the residency was sitting in a cafe in Assi watching a bus fill up on the street below, it was gathering the guests of the wedding and just as it was about to leave a smiling man came running up to the bus to leap on at the last moment. He was instantly spotted as the legless beggar from Assi equipped with beautiful new prosthetic legs and sparkling white trainers. He hopped on the bus effortlessly and the next day he was seen back in Assi legless, upon his cart.

To those who live in Assi and watch the daily goings on, this man is no mystery. He is one of the ring leaders of a gang of beggars who circuit around Varanasi and Sarnath each taking turns in different areas so that the tourists each only see them once. It is only those who stay, (like me), who begin to unravel the mystery which the locals know so well. With his charming smile and the effective tactic of placing himself outside a row of hostels and tourist cafes where he sits calmly and never asks for money, this particular gang member has managed to buy prosthetic legs and has subsequently resold them, as being legless proved far more lucrative. I learn that some of these master beggars, (this man in particular), can be given more than 500 rupees an hour, making a daily wage close to that of a waitress in London. They are of course playing the market.

I laugh as I hear this. It does not make me feel animosity towards this entrepreneurial spirit; it is part of a much larger, stranger machine. I am, of course, concerned that this smiling legless man may be damaging and manipulating others for the profit of his trade, (I do not doubt this is possible), but with these thoughts aside I begin to understand his place and the place of beggars in Varanasi.

Beggars exist so that tourists, (both Indians and foreigners), can deposit a healthy sum into their karma banks. Tourists visiting places like Varanasi need to see poverty and extreme suffering in order to feel like their experience of this foreign place has been authentic. They need to experience ‘the other’ in order to then discover ‘hidden’ beauties, (joy can’t exist without pain), and in some way they need to feel that they have contributed towards ending the plight of those that they witness. Thus beggars jump in to fill this niche in the market. They offer themselves as a symbol of plight and suffering to the needy outsider who seeks desperately someone to pity in order to be charitable and feel that they have in some way bettered the world, which they have entered, and which they are scarcely able to understand.

I have of course been one of these ignorant people; I have been taken in despite my knowledge of this system. And what does this make me? This makes me complicit in this system, which exploits pain to fill an economic niche. The begging industry is like any other capitalist industry; it is guided by the invisible hand. In other words it works on a supply and demand basis. If there are no people present to demand the sight of suffering, would suffering still exist in these places? If people did not respond to a mutilated face with a crumpled note or a handful of coins would gang leaders continue to mutilated woman and children to exploit them for money? We are not saving these people. We are just as bad as the Victorians who conquered India and reveled in freak shows. We are paying to see this suffering, (we are simply in denial). In a peculiar way our charitable donations are a token of our appreciation, (that these people can continue to live, that suffering prevails), and they serve only to perpetuate this industry, which supplies the drama of suffering to those who need to fill up their karma bank. For those who need to deny the suffering of the people in their own countries, their families, their friends and their neighbours – it is easy to return home and claim that at least we do not have the problems of India!

We use these people as vivid projections and somehow we need them. This is a horrible and uncomfortable thought; it seems to contradict natural feelings of empathy and love. It distorts truly honest emotions and paints them with something sordid; something we would prefer not to admit.

We are left feeling guilty, helpless and emotionally vulnerable; we dig into our pocket for coins, give quickly and turn away. It is easier not to over-think, easier still not to think at all.