Charity is part of life here. The the caste system has been outlawed, its legacy remains. Sweepers are shunned by the majority, as if they remained untouchable. Nobody seems perturbed at the bodies sprawled on benches or by the roadside, even in the heart of the city.
We spend a morning at a sports day for one of the elite senior schools where we are treated like royalty, led along a red carpet to a splendid pavilion, where we are showered with gifts and bouquets, and constantly plied with food and drink (this is a recurring feature of Indian hospitality....not the country for a crash diet!)
Our 'minder' for the morning is a senior teacher, and we are made very conscious of the strict hierarchy at work...at the bottom of the heap the maintenance staff in their uniform saris. They are, she assures us, fortunate to work here, where they are given a good uniform, including a sari for special occasions...and the same bonus as the teachers at Christmas...Then she betrays herself
'Truly, if you saw them going home in their saris you would think they were somebody. They dress too well."
Knowing who fits where in the system still matters....LCM's profession has caused huge confusion..is he a labourer? if so, how can he have married a pastor?? You can hear the incredulity in our hosts' voices....
There is, though, no embarassment, no discomfort at the disparity in facilities between children at the school and those at a hostel for the destitute in the same compound. The hostel Warden says
"The school provides shoes for every boy here. Are we not fortunate?"
There is not a trace of irony in his voice.
And everywhere we go there are the beggars. We have been told, firmly and repeatedly, not to give directly, no matter how desperate their plight appears.
So we avert our gaze and shake our heads. Sometimes a child runs beside me, liquid brown eyes beseeching me "Amma, amma..."
What will happen to him?
Only a handful are rescued. What if nobody responds, ever? No Welfare State to scoop him up and save him. He is no more than 6. Will he even reach double figures?
Oh to make a difference, but all I could do in a lifetime would change so very little, the tiniest drop in the vast ocean of human need.
Better after all to channel my help.
Already I've seen splendid projects, schemes that really can change lives.
But still, there are the beggars....