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XTRA: BEGGAR BUSINESS

BEGGAR BUSINESS

  

The Bihar Beggars arrived en masse, just in time for the season. They had the Footpath Hilton pre-booked, owned the territory for a block in either direction and killed any enemy who absently stepped inside. They saw themselves as a tribe under attack, surrounded by rivals, forever aware of the thin edge of the wedge. They were immediately ferocious, escalated every slight into a banshee shriek then attacked as a pack.

The streets were soon cleared of competition; the Sausage family, Carlotta, the rent-girls – all gone. Now the Tribe of Beggars plagued the shopkeepers and restaurateurs as well, scuttling between them and their customers like rats on amphetamine. They held the streets to a kind of hostage; confrontation with one so inevitably meant confrontation with all of them that even the locals backed off.

The tribe lived in turmoil. There was nothing noble about their beggar lives; nights outside the Apollo were the scene of some of the most drunken behavior, the biggest arguments, fist fights and constant howling I’d seen in the area. The older women prowled the streets, drunk, shrieking like witches, their children lying strewn along the street. They were a seasonal phenomenon, long established in Colaba, the bursting of the Bihar Beggar Monsoon.

Within their tribal mafia they were safe. They knew each other intimately, arrived as a completely co-existent entity and answered to no-one but themselves. Within the tribe, everybody knew what the rules were. Children were shared, parented by the collective, raised to be merciless; justice was swift and brutal, enacted immediately by the outraged, witnessed by all. They had no sense of yesterday, no recollection of an hour ago, no idea of tomorrow, no thought for anything but the immediate now.

Each night the tribe retired to the Footpath Hilton, choosing to sleep shoulder to shoulder in an unbroken straight line that ran a hundred yards along the footpath directly opposite my window. Thirty-five or forty of them lined up each night, sleeping soundly on a mat right beside the busiest nightclub in Colaba. The more I watched, the more coherent their transplanted society became.

This bedlam was a business, a begging business run by violent women ruled by violent men employed as thugs for polite businessmen controlled by a perfectly sweet looking guy in a white Nehru hat.

*

Everybody you meet on the street is from Bihar – all the lowlife in India seems to come from the same village somewhere south of Patna. Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai – wherever you go, it’s the same. Chancing life as a beggar in the city was evidently better than grinding rural poverty in Bihar. Having recently been to Bihar I think they have a point.

Mumbai has long had a sizeable Bihari population concentrated around the tourist areas. The most obvious people to start with were the richest; the most obvious of the rich were the tourists; the more tourists that discovered India, the more fools there were in Colaba, the more smart Biharis swarmed in to separate those fools from their money.

They spread out into the streets; young, hungry, eager to share their dreams with a waiting world. The world looked back at them with dead eyes and a fly-swat, just waiting for them to settle long enough for a short, sharp smack.

They hovered on the outer line, just outside the Mafia blocks. You could tell their pecking order by the distance they worked from Mission Control. For this end of town, Hotel Apollo was Ground Zero. Some settled on fake charas and bullshite as their easy buck, some on their good looks, some were guides or massage men, some were hustlers along the Esplanade, some sold maps, some sold books, most sold their favors – they all did a bit of it all and if they didn’t do it, they knew someone who would. They trespassed in dangerous territory, above all, they knew not to go anywhere near Gokul. Everybody had a mobile phone and each connected to the other; setting up elaborate stings and scams, warning systems, security networks, alerts and alarms. Most lasted just a season, maybe two – then they vanished back to Bihar. By April they were gone, in October their younger brothers came back.

But the hard-core Bihari community remained, transmogrifying each season then shrinking to the stayers when the tourist season was over. Gradually some of the long-term expatriates developed a syndicate of their own.

*

Faced with the growing fact that there were now more tourists in Colaba than low-life to live off them, a man in a white Nehru hat had a brilliantly simple idea – he would import more beggars.

He made the long trip home and made his Bihar village a proposition for a new local industry – they should grow beggars and export them to Bombay.

It would be a syndicate, a co-operative scheme; six months in Mumbai, pool the proceeds, guaranteed food and lodging, a weekly stipend and the profit as a bonus once they came home.  Everybody was an earner.  As the exported were only women and small children everybody was happy with the idea. He took grandmothers, wives, young boys, daughters of any age, toddlers and babes-in-arms by the village load – leaving their husbands and eldest sons to cope with life on the farm.

‘He brings them in from Bihar, two teams each season, fifty people a team,’ Bongo said, ‘there’s another group down that end of town…’

The men were of no use to him, there was more than enough dumb testosterone in Colaba – he needed cute kids and filthy babies, women who could be pleading mothers by day and whores by night and he needed a couple of old women to keep them in order – but he definitely didn’t want their men.

These villagers were no more beggars than he was – they were actors, working for a wage. Once they left the village they belonged to The Boss till the end of the season, his property until he chose to send them back home properly fed, unscathed, armed with gifts and their promised bonus – an option he obviously decided to honor. He became known as ‘a good man’.

Bihar was in the beggar business.

Over time he built up a good reputation. Village after village joined in his public service project. After several seasons he had a tried and tested crew with skills honed over years of attendance at the seasonal Beggar-Mela of Bombay. They hit town like roadies at a rock-concert, sweeping the stadium clean of rivals, maintaining their territory with professional ferocity. Indeed, they loved their work. Conditions on the street in Mumbai were no worse than conditions in their village at home. The Beggars of Bihar grew into a phenomenon. The man in the Nehru hat was a genius.

He had discovered a way to profit from a job that a baby could perform. All it had to do was be born, be dirty and sit on the street.

*

Business men sell the air between street and sky, shop front and gutter – the invisible real estate of Colaba. They sell empty space to men who fill it. A single piece of pavement can be rented out half-a-dozen times; to the stalls erected on it, to the street-sellers clustered on the roadway just outside, to the car-parking syndicate in front of that, the taxi-drivers who pick up a fare, the drug-dealers who crouch on the front steps, the peddlers who hover with their trays of watches in the day then to the Jimmy who shelters in the doorway at night. Dealers and cruisers, Mumbai pimps and floozies all pay for their right of way if they want to stay.  Bihari beggars are no exception.

The white Nehru hat paid his Colaba dues, didn’t step on toes till he had to cut them off, politely rented the street for the season, negotiated the begging rights to the block, paid protection to the police and the council, the taxi collective, the whore’s collective, attended to the taxmen, the accountants and lawyers and kept a close and friendly relationship to his local politician.

His émigrés thrived in Mumbai – that they lived in chaos seemed not to disturb them; that they created chaos seemed not to disturb them. That their combined efforts drove tourists crazy seems not to have occurred at all.  They went out and did their duty every day without fail, reducing visitors to gibbering rage for a business – working for that absent family, somewhere in Bihar.

Best of all, they kept breeding, giving him a plentiful supply of babes-in-arms and small children, always the best money earner in his seasonal street-circus. None of them knew how to wash, so keeping the talent dirty wasn’t a problem. None of them had been to school, so keeping the talent stupid wasn’t too difficult, either.

‘Now that clever old man owns three hotels and a block of apartments,’ Bongo whispered.

*

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