I judged him the moment I saw him. Sitting there in the dust, probably no older than me, and wearing a clean robe and turban, begging. I had seen many beggars; in Bangladesh there are few other options for widows, orphans and the disabled. But the man sitting outside the coffee shop was none of those things; he was young and strong and clean and could have worked any job.
I decided the reason he begged outside Barista was because he couldn’t fool the Bengali; they’d take one look at him and know that he had no reason to beg. Western eyes are not usually so discerning, so he sat where he knew he could encounter them.
In fact, the only non-westerners in Barista were the servers. Barista was very popular with westerners in Dhaka because it was an island of familiar west in the hurricane of Dhaka’s chaos. We said we went there for the fast internet connection and to get work done. In reality, we went there to be western for one hour a week.
I went there with deeper motivations. I went to get away; away from the dust and the traffic and the clamor of merchants on every street corner. But mostly, I went there to get away from the necessities of my life in Bangladesh; the humiliating necessity of walking behind my male coworkers, the necessity of wearing the kurta, the necessity of averting my gaze from any man who wanted to look at me as though I was his birthright.
I hadn’t asked to come to Bangladesh. I had been assigned by my mission organization to a seven-week training project in Dhaka. To be fair, those seven weeks in Dhaka were probably the most formative of my life – more formative than my fourteen months of training, my year spent in Taiwan or my time in university. I was privileged to work with the Bengali Christians. They did more than challenge my faith: they redefined the very meaning of faith for me. Bengali Christians have no interest in stuffy, bookish definitions or technical debates which have sometimes fractured western churches. They understand the very pulse of the Gospel and they concern themselves with the living of it. I also developed a deep respect for the significance of the family in Bengali culture, something sadly lacking in my own.
In Bangladesh, every aspect of life is done together, from the mundane to the significant. They recognize that nothing can happen in a vacuum. In short, I have met some of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the honor knowing in Bangladesh.
But Dhaka wore on everyone; it wore on me, it wore on my coworkers and, most of all, it wore on the Bengali who lived there. I was often asked by long-term missionaries if I planned to stay. My answer was always simple and quick: ‘Nope.’
Presently, the man begging outside began to pray loudly. I sipped coffee and watched as thirty or forty people passed by without even glancing at him. But after a while, someone did drop a few taka in front of him. I was irritated.
I watched for another twenty minutes as people continued to give him alms. Even a few police officers, who were known for kicking beggars off street corners, stopped to donate to ‘the pious pretend-beggar,’ as I had decided to call him.
My irritation grew. There were so many beggars in Dhaka who were in actual need. I had seen at least a dozen women who had been burned with acid. I had seen men with twisted torsos and crippled arms who would never work again. I had also heard stories of desperate parents in slums burning out the eyes of their children, crushing small hands and cutting off toes to turn around and sell the maimed child to a beggar-pimp to sustain the rest of the family. I had been told that this was done out of a type of love – parents trying to guarantee a life for a child whom they cannot afford to feed. These beggars were usually the most successful and they were bought at a steep price; the more shocking and visible the disability, the wider the profit margin.
When I passed beggars on the street I would try to catch their eyes, to show them that I knew they were human, but most begged with their eyes closed, the humiliation too great. Those who kept their eyes open were either young children, blind or refused to look any higher than my sandals.
“He’s a praying beggar,” I muttered.
“What?” Karl asked, startled out of his trance-like study face.
“The guy begging outside, he’s perfectly healthy,” I explained, “but people are giving him money because he prays.”
Karl twisted to glance out the window. “Yeah, he looks pretty clean too,” he shrugged. “Somebody takes care of him.”
The beggars of Dhaka had captured a special piece of my heart because I felt that I could empathize with them in some way. Though I have never experienced hunger or poverty in my privileged American life, I did know real fear and the frustration of having little control over my own existence while in Dhaka. The beggars faced extreme stigma, they were often mistreated while the police turned a blind eye, and they had very little choice in their lives.
I resented my own loss of freedom in Bangladesh and the nearly-tangible stigma associated with my gender and white ethnicity. I was not allowed to go anywhere alone in Bangladesh; I was told it wasn’t safe. If I went to the market or the print shop with Karl, we were observed with extreme intrigue as everyone discussed ‘that western couple.’ It was another story when I went anywhere with both Karl and Ryan. The eyes around us narrowed out of fascination and into spine-y judgment. I didn’t need to understand Bangla to know that all the whispers were about ‘that immoral woman.’ I found the judgment so suffocating that I had resorted to buying a ring my second week in Dhaka, with the hope that the illusion I was married might dissuade a few of the eyes. It did not.
That was why I found the ‘religious imposter’ so offensive. Using religion to divert charity away from the suffering was intolerable to me.
I decided I’d had enough and reminded Karl of our afternoon plans. We packed up laptops and threw away half-full coffee cups and stepped out of the air conditioned haven and onto the road. The constant flurry of dust and exhaust greeted us and I decided to observe the praying beggar one last time.
Instead, I see the horrible truth my perch on a recliner in a western café obscured from my view: two child-sized legs coiled up beside him, broken cleanly at the hip at the age of four.
He stopped praying. Only one thought tumbled through my head: “Was it love or greed that raised the father’s hand, crushed the child’s bones and took away all his son’s choices?”
He is the only beggar who’s ever held my gaze. I did not look away. He had green eyes.