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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book Review: Beggars are also human

by Charles Sarvan

Poor in paradise. Yke Berkouwer’s,

‘Anusha: a homeless life in Sri Lanka’.

Vishva Lekha Publishers, Colombo, 2005.

Sri Lanka is advertised as "the paradise isle" but what makes an impact on anyone with a social conscience arriving in Colombo is the prevalence of poverty: those on an inadequate wage, the unemployed, and the ubiquitous presence of hinganno (beggars). The same applies to some countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Unfortunately, there is no poverty (dearth) of poverty, despite the slogan "There’s enough for everyone". Perhaps, almost a quarter of the population of Sri Lanka lives below the poverty-line. Leading Sri-Lankan writer, Carl Muller, cited (personal email, 2 December 2008) the reckoning as close to 40%, with the number of beggars in Colombo estimated at about 50,000. (He cautioned these were statistics given by the opposition in parliament.) Berkouwer writes that some of the beggars are barely able to drag themselves to two or three cars before the traffic-light changes from red to green (p. 5). Those who can’t move at all are set down by the traffic-light, and they sit there, all day long. There are women with infants or little children, either their own or hired for the day. One woman, when she reaches a car, pulls out the cotton wool "to show advanced cancer of the ear". Some have been so dulled by their life that even a generous gift doesn’t produce reaction. Rain makes begging very difficult: no begging, no money; no money, no food; no food, hunger. The author worked in a Colombo hospital from 2002 to 2005, during which time he befriended a hingannek (a beggar), the eponymous Anusha, and her family, gaining some insight into the life of the hinganno. The result (translated from the original Dutch) is a self-effacing, almost self-deprecating, work with Berkouwer suggesting he helped to gain sociological insight. He makes little of his generosity with the thought of his tennis-club bill, not to mention the much higher bill of a friend at the golf-club. Circumspect, the author confines himself to Anusha: he does not generalize nor claim wider conclusions.

We categorise, assume we know; react and behave accordingly - be it to the label "African", "Muslim", "Tamil" or "beggar". Once the group is classified, the assumption is that we know the essence about all the individuals who belong to that group: "There is nothing more to learn […] They are hinganno" (p. 12). But hinganno, being also human, have problems and worries, concerns and wishes, love and passion. Anusha emerges from anonymous beggar to mother "with an extensive and fascinating family life, a husband and an ex-lover" (p. 77).

The hinganno lie, habitually, sometimes needlessly, and are unembarrassed when detected: mere day-to-day existence being precarious, they must dispense with the niceties of ethics. Gemunu Rathnayake, despite his Sinhalese name, is said to be Tamil. Had he then taken the name as a survival-strategy? Much remains unclear to author – and to us. Meek and avoiding confrontation with society and state, the beggars are also (understandably) prone to sudden and quite disproportionate fury, their anger and violence being vented, usually, on those of their class and station, fellow victims.

Anusha’s father was also a beggar. Class-levels tend to perpetuate themselves: Born poor, remain poor. Anusha, born 1973, spent the first 32 years of her life begging on the streets, and sleeping on the pavement. She has six children (at the start, she’d said two; later, four), fathered by husband and lover. Her husband, Gemunu, being in prison, it was better to take a lover, Rajendran, than be pestered by other men for sex. (Despite a conflict that has cost thousands of lives and wreaked horrendous physical and mental damage, Anusha herself displays no ethnic consciousness. Rajendran is Tamil.) Several of her teeth and molars are missing. Never having been seen by a dentist, "they must have just rotted" away. Without money for aspirin, they must live with an almost continuous headache (p. 21). Two of her sons broke their arms. They were badly set and, as a result, are "misshapen". Anusha is a caring mother and does her best for the children, keeping them as clean as she can, worrying about their future. It is difficult for a beggar to secure employment and, having found work, to keep it. The author finds Anusha a job but she’s late for work. How can someone oversleep on the first day of the first job she ever got in her life? (p. 95). She went to bed late at night, exhausted; didn’t have an alarm-clock, and misjudged the time. It wasn’t irresponsibility, as prejudice would have it.

Their refrain is a resigned kamak ne, "it doesn’t matter". Perhaps, K. S. Palihakkara’s Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles (Stamford Lake Ltd, Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka, 2003) helps in understanding their fatalism. Sri Lankan Buddhists "practice more of Hinduism than Buddhism" (Palihakkara, p. 109). They believe in rebirth - and in the consequence in the present life of conduct in a past life (or lives). This last is exploited by the ruling classes, "for when the poor and the outcastes suffer in their poverty, sickness and squalor in their hovels" it is attributed not to the failure of government and society but blamed on "bad ‘karma’ from past births […] the downtrodden masses are made to believe that they themselves are responsible for their condition." On the other hand, they are promised a better life in their next birth, if they accept, endure and "lead an evil free life" (p. 120. See Karl Marx on the misuse of religion).

Being habituated to the sight of the hinganno, society no longer sees them. When it does, it is often with embarrassment or distaste. As Western imperialism did in the past; as with the present ethnic conflict, it is necessary to think badly of, look down upon, the "Other" (here, the hinganno) in order not to think badly of oneself. In a blame-the-victim attitude, conscience is stilled with, "they are bad people […] They are lazy, and will never work" (p. 48). A wealthy Sri Lankan explains that beggars are a natural feature of the Island, presumably like the climate: "Beggars are a part of our culture, and it will always be that way. There are enough jobs but they don’t want them" (p. 50). Some do not give alms on the ‘virtuous’ ground that it will only encourage begging. Yet others argue that because they cannot help many, they will aid none.

Bureaucracy and officialdom are dismissive, and the hinganno have no sense of rights and entitlement. Anusha takes a six-hour bus ride to collect her son’s school certificate (she herself is illiterate), and arrives after school-hours. Administration is still open but she is instructed to come during lessons-time. On the next visit, it’s claimed the school principal is absent. Rules and regulations are improvised to turn them away. One school claims that children of parents who live in rented premises cannot be admitted (p. 97). Anusha can’t take her child to the school dentist because she doesn’t wear a sari (p. 103). In order for Berkouwer to open a bank account for her, Anusha must produce her National Identity Card, but to get the latter, she needs a birth certificate: legally, Anusha does not exist (p. 36). In despair, Anusha and Raj pay for a forged birth-certificate. The clumsy counterfeit is detected, triumphantly displayed to all in the office, and the negative image of hinganno confirmed.

Confronted with dire poverty and all that goes with it, a sense of relief must be the reaction of many: "There, but for the grace of God (or the gods), go I." Secondly, the daily sight of misery is inuring. The term "callous" (an insensitive or cruel disregard for others) derives from the Latin callosus, a hardening of the skin. Such toughening can be a protective measure. Some degree of "callous", be it on our little toe or mind, is necessary for survival. Further, poverty does not attract the attention and action it needs and deserves. Suspicion, anger and hate are combustible, mobilizing, emotions – see the ethnic conflict – while sympathy for the injustice and suffering of another class are not. So it is that there is no mass patriotic passion, led by politicians and monks, to rescue the Sinhalese Buddhist poor. Ayi Kwei Armah observed that the downtrodden are not angry enough. One may add, are not angry at the real causes; not angry in effective ways.

"Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?" But there are individual Sri Lankans who quietly help in ways they can, and groups devoted to poverty alleviation. They are among those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest (Keats, The Fall of Hyperion, Canto 1). Marx wrote that the challenge is not merely to understand history but to change it. On similar lines, since kindness within an unkind system is woefully inadequate, there are political organizations in Sri Lanka dedicated to altering radically the structure and nature of society.

In contrast to the general reaction (of ignoring or having contempt) for the hinganno, Berkouwer has high admiration for their endurance and tenacity; for how they "manage to survive on almost nothing" (p. 135). The work, neither condescending nor sentimentalizing, gives a fairly close insight into the life of one hingannek and her family. It is a study, an expose and a salute, and well merits reading.

(thanks to Mr. K. G. Kulasena: artist, author and educationist)

1 Kommentare:

  1. This article is a close study into the life of a begger. Anusha's condition is really pettyful.I really appreciate the author for his kindness towards Anusha.Atleast after reading this article we can try to help people like Anusha as our authur did...to reduce beggers in the street.