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Chats with Beggars

Leisure Times (c) 2006.

Interviews with Colombo's homeless.

Most of them don't smell too good. Some are difficult to look at. I try to maintain eye contact to control their rambling monologues. So I appear politer than I am. But it's hard to stop the gaze from wandering to the severed limbs, the open sores, the rotted gums and the dirt-caked skin. It's hard to stop the revulsion from showing.

I ask the woman with boils on her face if the flies bother her. No, she says, the boils on my face bother me. I ask a homeless man of 13 years what the toughest thing about being on the streets is. Not having the privacy to masturbate, he says.

Throughout our interviews, we are questioned by police, some in plainclothes; some wielding Pajeros. The sight of us sitting in the gutter, surrounded by beggars, taking notes, arouses all types of suspicion.

What good will this article do for people like this, asks a cop pointing to the amputee next to me. Nothing, I say, I will interview him, give him a donation and write my piece, and that will be that.

The cop leaves us alone and the amputee talks. They both appreciate my honesty.

There are over 19,000 beggars in Colombo. Though the figure is arbitrary and the term badly defined. We have encountered those who live on pavements, but who refuse to beg and reject the moniker. We have met those who have homes and families, who commute to Colombo to work their patch and earn their rent.

Some are abandoned by family; some forced to the fringes by addiction, mental illness and plain bad luck. Some flaunt children and deformities; others exploit guilt at malls and ATMs. Some work alone, others are reluctant members of mobs.

"I don't beg and I don't know any damn beggars" says Yohann. "I receive donations from the public who believe in the importance of my work." Yohann is a long haired giant who swaggers down Galle road asking for rupees in pacific accented English. He is articulate, good humoured and mad.

"The UN got me deported from Thailand and had my passport stolen. The Sri Lankan government knows I'm dangerous, so they refuse to let me go home."


"I have a radio transmitter implanted behind my ear," he says, pointing to what looks like a wart below his lobe, "The CIA switch off my brain and send signals through me."

Yohan is one of the more colourful characters to grace our streets. (See inset) He receives the blessing of three churches in Colpetty, who clothe him, and allow him showers and prayers. He flits between taverns and sleeps on pavements.

Essentially a harmless drunk, he is deeply delusional, but easy to warm to. It's not many derelicts you find lying face down at Galle Face Green, reading a Time magazine and writing letters to Prince Charles.

Most beggars come to Colpetty to get as far as possible from their homes. Nisha from Gunasinhapura has been coming here for 33 years. She began begging to escape a sadistic husband. She claims to have earned enough to send her four children to school and to get them married off.

Today she begs more out of habit than necessity. Though no one in her home town knows what she does for a living.

You learn to beware the sob story. Everyone has one and is more than willing to part with it. When it is told, you know it has been rehearsed and refined and rewritten.

We met Letchimi and Sunil, who eloped from Gampola in the early 80s to seek their fortune in Colombo, only to find themselves unemployed and shunted from Dematagoda to Peliyagoda to Kiribathgoda by cops and street gangs.

"The kindest are those who have nothing," says Letchimi, gargling saliva and betel, "Those who aren't that far from being beggars themselves are the ones who help us most."

They live on the steps of Colpetty market with their two children, both born on the streets. Their habitat is a cardboard dump, infested with flies and rotten food, which they share with two other families. One is an aging prostitute with two silent children. The other, an angry amputee and his wife. They all sport thousand-yard stares.

Most are happy to chat, but suspicious. "What's the point in talking to you?" asks Suneeta, mother of three junkies. One dead; one in jail; the other, a dealer.

Truth be told, we're hoping we stumble on something. Two things, actually. One based on fantasy; the other, on fact.

Beggars are surrounded by folklore. The archetype of a God or an heir to a throne, disguised as a vagrant, roaming the earth, is an enticing one. It's nice to imagine the cripple outside Cinnamon Grand to be a prophet of the apocalypse. Or the maniac who barks at buses on Galle Road to have once been Colombo's biggest entrepreneur.

But the cripple is simply a poor sucker who lost both legs while drunk on the Bamba railway tracks three years ago. The maniac tells us nothing, but soils himself repeatedly while he glares and blows on his tuneless flute.

So much for fantasy. Let's try fact. Sociology professor Nandasena Ratnapala's classic live-in study f beggars in the 1970s, The Beggar in Sri Lanka, unearthed the existence of a beggar mafia - an organised operation led by thugs where mendicants are sent on the field like sales reps to work an area and bring in their earnings.

Ratnapala disguised himself as beggar and lived in squalor for three months. He endured beatings, being 'hosed down' by the police at Fort railway station and attended beggar auctions, where crippled children were sold off as props for other beggars.

Questions relating to Ratnapala's findings (see inset) are met with blank looks. Whatever rapport we believe we may have built, it's nowhere near enough for them to spill the beans. They don't tell us what really happens on the streets of our city. Instead they tell us that everyone is nice to them, the cops, the shopkeepers and the public.

I begin to think that Ratnapala's findings are fabricated or just dated. And then we meet Danuka.

He's 19 and hangs outside a shopping mall on crutches. He lost his left leg in the Slave Island bomb blast five years ago. His parents died within weeks off each other while he convalesed in hospital. His aunty took over the family house and threw him out. He became a heroin addict, and then found God.

A word about religion. I am yet to meet a beggar who's an aetheist. The people who have more right than most to curse a higher being are, without exception, humble believers. Yohann and Nisha never miss church, and Sunil, Letchimi and Suneeta all observe sil every poya.

I'm no theologian, but I figure the promise of a better life is all these people have that resembles hope. And what is prayer if not an elevated, more exalted form of begging? We meet no Muslim beggars. I'm told they don't exist, as their community serves as a safety net, and an effective one at that.

Back to Danuka. He tells me about the compensation he was promised by the government and how much he has actually received. He tells me about his 14 days of hell after being jailed for vagrancy. He tells me that a tourist once gave him $100 outside Majestic City. And that beggars and prostitutes exchange favours on the railway tracks after dark.

He tells me that beggar 'dons' drive from Galkissa and Angulana and herd beggars by the vanload. That they steal children from orphanages and prostitutes. That chandiyas have even approached him promising protection and 'career management.'

He speaks of amputees who lost their arms in the Middle East and who now earn between two and three thousand rupees a day; of junkies who pretend to be beggars on buses; of homeless parents in Borella who break their children's limbs with iron rods.

I ask him if he has friends and he replies that no beggar has friends. Unless you agree to an alliance like the families at Colpetty market, or unless you join the chandiyas, you are on your own.

In the movie Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle's samaritan asks Nick Nolte's soldier why the world does nothing to prevent African tragedies. The reply is curt. "You guys are just Africans. You're not even niggers." What unifies these people is that they do not count. Politicians do not request or require their vote. Reforms for the poor do not touch them. They have few rights. They can be 'picked up' for vagrancy at any time; raped, maimed and no one anywhere will lift a finger.

But what struck me was how aware they are of their own humanity. Aware that even though their life is painful - that it is a life and it is worth preserving. Danuka dreams of owning a petti kade and his own prostitute. Sunil and Letchimi dream of sending their children to school. And Yohann dreams of escaping the UN and returning to his wife and daughter in Australia.

Like it or not, these people are very much part of Colombo. Reminders that however progressive we believe we are, our reality is flawed and unforgiving. That the city is a very different place, when observed from the gutter.

Ratnapala concludes his book by calling for state-funded shelters, welfare programmes and wider access to education and health care for all. While I cannot argue with his plea, I find it difficult to applaud. A welfare state is a luxury we're told we cannot afford, especially with wars to fight and coastlines to clear.

But I did notice something about myself. Since writing this, I've begun doing something I've never done before. I now make eye contact with beggars. I smile at them, ask after their health, wish them a good day and, most of the time, apologise for not being able to reach into my pocket.

And while this token gesture does little to alleviate their situation, it does serve to remind me that there's a human being before me with his palm open. And if I can't give him a home and a livelihood, it costs me nothing to give him the tiniest bit of respect.

Ratnapala's findings

Beggar bosses (usually underworld characters) 'employ' armies of beggars who pay a commission from each day's earnings in return for 'protection' from the authorities.

They run training schools where beggars and their children are 'coached' in the art of crying, lamenting, wailing and acting dumb or blind.

Artificial wounds are created using bandages with various dyes and by rubbing treacle or dryfish on the skin, to attract flies.

Beggar auctions exist, where beggars can bid for a specific locality or a disease-stricken accomplice. At one such auction, a child with an oversized head was sold for 1500 rupees. The worse the deformity, the more lucrative the prop.

An elaborate code exists amongst beggars. For example, two bricks placed in a certain way outside a house indicates whether the occupants are generous or not.

Colpetty's coolest tramp

Yohann Yogananda Harischandra is 47 years old and has been on Colombo's streets since 1993. He comes from Canberra, Geneva or Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, depending on what time of day you talk to him. "How should I know where I was born - I was a ****ing baby! Babies don't know geography..."

He used to be a womanizer, "I've banged over 100 women. Mostly Thai". He used to play jazz percussion, "Chick Corea is my guru." He doesn't have a favourite actor. "If I pick one actor or actress, all the others will get jealous. They'll say Yohann likes me more than he likes you. There'll be a riot in Hollywood."

His backstory takes some macabre turns and grows with each telling. He says he was a traveller who got deported from Thailand. He was a radio engineer who found out too much and was banished here by the CIA. He mentions a wife and daughter in Australia, but gets defensive when pressed.

He's been jailed twice, but he says they serve him pepper steak, because he's a political prisoner. The same UN operative who stole his passport and cut his clothes, also stole his address book. So now he only writes letters to kings and leaders, like Prince Charles, George Bush, Kofi Annan, Lee Kwan Yu's son and British runner Sebastian Coe. He writes to them asking for a billion dollars in compensation for his sacrifice. He is still awaiting a reply.

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