No subcontinental scene is complete without its complement of beggars and alms-seekers. While society considers beggars to be a scourge that spawns many ills including trafficking and crime, millions of people are inclined to encourage the practice by paying them. While I have always restrained myself from the practice, I have come to the conclusion that a vast majority of men, women and children that infest our roads and commercial areas are con artists with an amazing understanding of human psychology.
Take, for example, the ‘shivering’ routine. Motorists stopping at a traffic light on Jinnah Avenue are apt to see a tall emaciated individual who sells newspapers. He attracts immediate attention and pity by vigorous shivering, as if the freezing Islamabad weather is about to do him in. My daughter has on one occasion given him a brand new sweater she bought for her brother, only to discover that the individual had switched traffic lights and was ‘shivering’ away at his new spot minus the woolies.
Another intersection on Jinnah Avenue is home to a young man with ‘half an arm’. The expression on his face is so pathetic that it incites an immediate urge to help him. I almost fell for his act, had not my driver, who appears to be quite knowledgeable with reference to roadside phenomenon, stopped me. What happened next was like a slapstick comedy – my man grabbed the beggars open shirt front and pulled it down over his shoulder, to reveal the remaining part of the arm, folded back and secured under the shirt sleeve. Needless to say that I saw the aggravated young man at other intersections after this incident, but he always took off when he recognised my driver.
I once saw a blind man miraculously recovering his eyesight in order to recover the money that slipped from his hand, as he accepted it from the motorist in front of me. On this occasion, I doubled up with mirth on the blooper committed by someone, who appeared to be either an apprentice or newly recruited to the ‘begging’ league.
One often saw a young woman dressed fairly decently as a college student on the Kashmir Highway – Seventh Avenue Intersection traffic signal in Islamabad. This great actress walked up to cars and spun a heartrending story of how she wanted to continue her studies, but couldn’t, because her family was destitute. While I didn’t buy her tear-jerking tale, many did. If only they had driven a few weeks later on the Main Gulberg Boulevard in Lahore, they would have seen the truth – for there was the same ‘destitute student’ plying her trade on the Main Market Intersection.
My son unlike me, is a softy as regards beggars and has suffered much on this account. One of his favourite experiences involves an innocent-looking young boy, who approached his car in Rawalpindi and amidst artfully administered sobs narrated the story of how his old sick mother lay in a one room hovel without a fan. Now it being the height of summer, the kind-hearted young man told this boy to sit in the car so that a fan could be purchased for the needy mother. The young con artist managed to squirm his way out of what could have been a poor deal and secured Rs 3,000 in cash from the victim. A few days later, my flesh and blood walked up to me in a state of great agitation. It turned out that the ‘fan routine’ had been enacted again with one of my nephews, who had compared notes with his cousin only to discover that two members from the same family had been skimmed of their hard earned money.
While I normally make a nasty face and subject beggars with an even nastier stare, my late mother had evolved a technique that worked every time a character walked up to her side of the window. She would cluck over the individual like a mother hen and then would ask him or her to sit in the car, so that a domestic job could be given to her at our house. Needless to say that ten out of ten times, the person hurriedly withdrew with sometimes furtive and sometimes angry looks.
The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.