There was a time when begging was not a matter of choice. The elderly had to sacrifice their self-respect to seek alms in the city streets after being abandoned by their children. It has now lost legitimacy as children are forced to seek alms with clearly defined daily targets. The city has simply become a haven for those who want to make quick money.
Take Fatima, who arrived in the city on Friday last with two little girls- Mumtaz (8) and Sabra (10)- from Vaniyambadi. Both are her daughters, she claims. She intends to live on the pavement along Chennai Corporation Link Road for the next two days and beg in front of the mosque at Periamet before returning home with her collection for Ramzan.
“I work as a domestic help and earn about Rs 500 a month. About 10 years ago, I got a tip from a neighbour, who said I could make a lot more money if I parked myself in Chennai during Ramzan time. I tried it out with great success. I manage to get between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 as alms in Chennai,” she says with a smirk.
What about her family? “My Husband worked in a dargah in Vaniyambadi, but died over 10 years ago due to ill health. My youngest daughter is 8 and I am over 50.” Daughter is just 8 but the hubby died over 10 years ago? Doesn’t quite add up, does it?
“I have four children but I make Mumtaz and Sabra study in school there. They are my own children,” she says as she clutches on to Mumtaz, fearing she (Fatima) could be taken to a government rehab home and tries to shoo this reporter away. “Last time, a woman like you came to talk to me and within minutes a van came and took me to a government home. Of course, I escaped after paying Rs 1,000 as a bribe, but I was left empty-handed,” she remarks and walks away with the girls.
Murali (32), who has been sitting in front of a church at Santhome almost for a week, does not want to return home in Andhra Pradesh unless he recovers from his leg injury. Till then, he has decided to seek alms to eke out a living. If his version is to be believed, Murali came to Chennai along with his newly married wife while his parents lived in Bangalore. He worked in a construction site here before he fell down from the second floor of the site and fractured his left leg. Though his contractors spent Rs 2,000 and treated him, his healing hasn’t been complete. “I can’t do anything now. I need help to recover,” Murali says. He gets about Rs100 to Rs 200 a day as alms.
All of 12 years, Mahalakshmi could perhaps be under the control of those who have made begging a business. She says she would be beaten up if she does not take enough money home. Found wandering near T Nagar, Mahalakshmi says, “my parents abandoned me when I was born and I was brought by my ‘uncle’. He beats me if I don’t take enough money home everyday. So I try to roam around busy areas and beg,” she says, but refuses to divulge any further information about herself or the ‘uncle’.
Panchali (70) did not want to be a burden for her children or stay in a government home. She just wanted to stay in the portico of Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Temple at Triplicane - where she had been for the past 10 years - for the rest of her life. She recalls vividly how she used to sell vegetables along with her husband Krishnaswamy some 30 years ago and made hundreds of rupees a day with which they raised seven children. “My husband died 10 years ago and three of my children also expired. My youngest daughter does ask me to stay with her but I don’t want to be a burden on anyone,” she wonders. Panchali manages to get barely one meal. Why doesn’t she stay at a government home? “I am not interested as I may not be allowed to visit my children. At present, I see them once in two months,” she reasons.
However, there are those like differently-abled Abdul Khader (70), who desperately seeks help. A refugee from Burma nee Myanmar, Abdul settled in Mayiladuthurai in the 1960s. He is currently in Chennai along with his wife Fatima Beevi, also differently-abled, to make a little more money and get back before Ramzan. But things got worse here when he slipped in a public toilet and suffered injuries.
“I did some odd jobs before. Now I cannot do any work. Usually I get Rs 10 or 50 a day as alms in my hometown. Here I make about Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000. Will the government do anything for me?,” the wheelchair-bound man sitting at Chennai Central Railway Station wonders.