Beggars speak English here

In one of the overcrowded lanes of Paharganj, known for its influx of foreign tourists, a 16-year-old street beggar speaks in a thick American accent. “Would you please buy some food for me and my sisters,” Neha pleads in front of a foreign couple who are surprised to hear her. Many other foreigners though pass without noticing her, as if following a routine.

Neha, like many other beggars in Paharganj, learned to speak English during her conversations with the foreigners, conversations which are marred by desperate pleas for mostly food or money. “How do you do Sir? My name is Neha and what is yours,” Neha said in an effort to show how fluent her English has become in the last six years.

“My father died when I was 10. I stay in Karol Bagh with my mother and three siblings and had to resort to begging for them to survive,” Neha told Metrolife.

While calling what she does as ‘Maangna’ (to ask for), Neha like many others here, seems to have accepted her fate, often finding solace in brief moments when she and others manage to amuse their ‘white-skinned messiahs’.

Sunita, who originally hails from Karnataka, follows Neha like a shadow, clinging on to each word coming out of her mouth. Neha in return offers ‘guidance’ to Sunita who takes notes like an apprentice would.

“I too want to speak English just like Neha. It will help me to communicate with tourists,” Sunita said.

While many locals here find it amusing to hear young boys and girls speaking English, Mattio, an Italian national, was more or less in shock. “The idea of learning a particular language in order to make begging easy is in itself a tragedy. The fact that a large part of the population suffers in poverty is somehow normalised within the mind of those who enjoy certain privileges,” Mattio told Metrolife. “More unfortunate is that we, as outsiders, get used to this culture,” he said apologetically.

Elena, from Spain, was on her first trip to India when she came across street beggars trying to communicate with her in English. “We can criticise begging as a whole, but to be honest, sometimes there aren’t enough options left for an individual. The learning of a new language is just another attempt by the downtrodden people to keep surviving,”
said Elena.

At a distance Neha sat in a huddle with her compatriots, discussing Bollywood. On being asked about her future plans she responded. “I would like to work someday but who will give me a job owing to my current status. But I hear a lot of tourists would be pouring into India soon. I better polish my English before that,” she said cheerfully while her three
siblings looked in awe at their elder sibling, an unlikely role model.

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