As might be expected, the quiet French charm of Pondicherry in early evening did not survive unscathed in the hot equatorial sun of the day, with its attendant surge in the daily Indian life, incongruous though it seems in these surrounding. The French quarter is still very peaceful in relative terms, but that peace is tenuous as rickshaws careen past, men spit paan juice and beggars implore.
Leaving my guest house the other morning and entering the bakery next door for a cappuccino and a croissant, I was accosted by two elderly Indian women making the standard gesture of petition - a food to mouth movement that is crystal clear in its intent.
Now the standard wisdom amoung travellers in India is to ignore the beggars with a thousand mile stare, or, for the more stubborn - usually the younger ones - one is sometimes forced to resort to such a harsh and direct NO that there is no doubt left that this tourist's heart is too black and hard to consider charity.
But both of these options leave you feeling like shit and the undoubtedly poor and hungry supplicant no better off than before.
So I choose my moments of charity depending on a criteria that I am at a loss to explain beyond the fact that I give when the spirit moves me. And I give food, not money, a policy that separates the truly poor from the professional opportunist very quickly - the latter scorning your gift and the former returning a smile of true thanks for benevolence.
You Just Can't Win
So on this day I purchased a few croissants and handed them to the ladies upon exiting the bakery - but to my surprise, the numbers had swollen since my entry, and I was left with two croissants for three women that were just going to have to share, but were visibly and vocally loathe to do so.
With my act of charity thus nullified in the resentment of its clear inadequacy, I set off down the street feeling slightly chagrined. A sentiment that was multiplied moments later by my need to return to the guest house for a forgotten item, which left me facing the same three women, all seemingly unaware that I had fed them moments before.
Where was the humble look of thanks for the goodness I had bestowed? Where was the moment of satisfied silence where I was able to bask in the purity of my motives and the reward of satisfaction and justification - justification for coming from a rich country, a comfortable home and life and a bank account to cushion the peaks and valleys of my life.
What Its All About
But its not about me. Its not about my satisfaction. Its not about me feeling good about myself and my benevolence.
It is, in the end, about these women and their hunger. These women and their poverty. These women and the fact that my croissant makes barely a rain drop of difference in the ocean of their lives.
And its not about winning or losing - because in that paradigm I am always the winner and the beggars are always the losers. And those labels are not ones that I wish to ascribe...
So I will just continue to mete out my charity how and when I see fit, as the raindrops of water I bring to this ocean of need...