I’m a sucker for adorable beggar children on the streets of Mumbai. It’s impossible to look away, not reach for a coin. Now that I understand that so many poor farmers from faraway villages flock to the big city in desperation after their crops fail, that they can’t find work, have families to feed and debts to pay, my heart breaks for adult beggars, too.
But begging is also an industry; one that can sometimes net a better living than many honest jobs—hard labor earning barely enough money for food. A Mumbai local explained that these professional beggars know exactly where to hang out for the biggest return. While the locals may offer a rupee, tourists will easily hand over a 100 rupee note. Though only worth about two U.S. dollars, it’s a windfall to the panhandler. This sort of begging is so lucrative, my friend told me, that it for some it is a career. He described seeing beggars don shabby costumes, muss their hair, and dirty their faces before going to work.
And there are begging scams, too, like the mothers-with-babies (rented) who beg for milk powder, lead you to a nearby shop where you buy milk at an inflated price, and when you leave she returns the milk to the shop and splits the money with the shopkeeper.
Makes a person skeptical, even suspicious. And confused, because Mumbai has severe poverty, destitution, despair, and wretchedness. Heartstrings tugged, or legs pulled?
Beggars can be compelling. I fell for this family, a mother and her three boys, at Mumbai’s Dadar train station, in a chaotic crossroads like a Third World Times Square, an area far from any tourist zone.
The woman made a continuous loud honking noise by rubbing a stick on one side of a drum she carried hanging from her neck, and beating it on the other side. Meanwhile, her gorgeous painted boys turned their enormous eyes up to me. The boys had rope whips slung on their shoulders, wore bright skirts and anklets of bells. I was transfixed; couldn’t be bothered with a camera—I fumbled for coins. Bob, as always, had a video running.
Why the whips? Why the awful racket scraped on the drum? What’s on the woman’s head?
These are the Potraj people, seldom seen nowadays and said to be fast-vanishing. They are nomads who represent the goddess Kadak Lakshmi, or Mariai. When the Potraj are heard in the neighborhood, superstitious and religious women, of which there are many, run out and give alms. What is frightening about the ritual performed by the Potraj is the fierce self-flagellation practiced during trance-like dances to the “music” produced by the woman with the drum. A wonderful description of a child petrified by the mysterious Potraj is told by that child grown up. He called his nemesis the “boogoo-boogoo man,” and although he had nightmares about the Potraj as if he were a bogeyman, he refers to the sound of the scraping of the drum: boogoo-boogoo-boogoo-boogoo.
Watch the video if you dare. The sound may haunt you.
The male beats himself—hard—while his wife or mother stands by like a one-man-band and takes offerings. She balances a heavy wooden altar on her head, in which sits a statue of her goddess. Children begin as trainees at a painfully young age, and have their own little whips.
I saw one of these Potraj in Chennai a few months ago. He was on a tea break. I didn’t notice if a woman was with him. I had no idea what he did, either. His colorful costume was arresting, and the long yellow rope whip slung over his shoulder fascinated me.