The beggar, thief & clerk
IN the beginning there were beggars, one or two or four folded on sidewalks at traffic lights or lingering in alleys and outside bazaars, hands spread before shaved and showered men going to work, housewives carrying bags of tomatoes and potatoes.
If there was spare change in the latter’s fists, stray notes or coins left behind from the purchase of this or that, they dutifully handed them over; if not, they muttered a perfunctory plea for forgiveness against the sin of having just a bit more, enough to make them the target of another’s greater want.
Those were the slightly better days of old, when beggary was a recourse and not a profession, and the beggar a tolerated — even pitied — edge-dweller at the margins of society.
Now, as reams of newspaper articles and media exposés heavy with the revelations of anchors have told us, beggary is a business with all the sophistications of revenue projections and market shares.
In Karachi, in the area behind Boat Basin, training schools can be found where children ‘purchased’ from hapless villages afflicted by floods or fighting are brought for instruction.
They are taught the speedy calculations of money and manipulation, who will give and not give, what signs suggest a bleeding heart or a guilty one or simply one that will cave in before the dirty palm or the wilted rose against the clean windshield.
Those that beg from us know our demons as well as we know our deepest desires.
The beggar is the most benevolent of Pakistan’s new agents of redistribution. His arsenal is emotion, persistence, guilt — small, sly dramas of filth, suffering and destitution played out in parts before his targets.
Others in the business of taking are less benign, more entitled and focused on the task of easy acquisition via the cold barrel of a gun peeking from a pocket or pressed against a vulnerable body.
For these, the daily take is better: phones and wallets, a gold bangle or two, maybe a locket that spells a name or a prayer, all pocketed easily before the move to another intersection. It’s quick work that pays well, no longer even maligned by the guilt of the days of old when holding people up was unarguably evil, morally impermissible, legally punishable.
If you care to chat, the assailant relieving you of your cellphone may tell you, like the beggar, a saga of constricted choices and the evisceration of opportunity. Your wealth, however meagre — the cellphone you may have saved up to buy, the ring your grandmother gave you when you turned 12 — all render you guilty.
The mere fact of their possession proclaim your membership amongst the supposedly enfranchised; legitimate targets for righteous robbing. There is no taint in taking from the supposedly rich to cater to the hunger of the certainly poor.
The beggar and the thief are the visible assailants in an unequal society. But the morality of self-help, of taking because you can, is not simply a strategy of the street employed by those visibly beyond the margins.
Inside stuffy offices, up crumbling staircases that pause at paan-stained landings, are the secret thieves who enable their own acts of redistribution — some more overtly than others.
The clerk at the water board office who wants a few hundred rupees to pass a paper to his boss, the shopkeeper’s assistant who takes two bottles of shampoo for himself before he stocks the shelf, the almost-executive who charges the birthday dinner to the company credit card — all, it seems, are complicit in small acts of thievery, practised by the righteous criminals of Pakistan, believers all in the mantra that commands ‘if you don’t take you will never receive’.
The beggar, the thief and the clerk are Pakistan’s modern-day agents of change, far from the armchair sort that march at rallies and gulp down whatever new elixir of hope is pedalled at such occasions, or are proffered on Twitter.
Visible in the righteous confidence of the acts of taking of the beggar, the thief or the clerk are the symptoms of a system broken for so long that the recovery of its limbs can no longer be imagined.
The transformation that they enable every day would not be so tragic if it were complete. Their acts of imagined retribution for the wrongs that each of them have suffered — blows from the pimp who bought one, taunts from the boss who wronged another — are directed at random, helpless others with only chance and unfortunate resemblances to their tormentors.
When justice is enacted by those who have been denied this very thing, it becomes quite simply vengeance whose severity seems warranted even when it victimises without discerning. In the Pakistan run by the beggar, the thief and the clerk, a price must be paid by someone, anyone, to sate the roaring fires that burn in the land of the so many wronged.
In one of the bleating talk-show presentations that are forced down Pakistan’s robbed and ravaged throat everyday, a religious leader suggested a solution for the breakdown of justice, the decade-long adjudications that decide nothing at all.
Thieves, he insisted against a video of a brazen bank robbery, must be hanged in a square for all to see, within one week of their crime.
The proposition is an attractive one, not least because all of us consuming it imagine ourselves circling the square in gawking safety rather than be wrongly hanged in it.
In the beguiling simplicity of this solution lie some clues of the Pakistan to come: when selecting a cure, an ailing society selects not the inoculation that will dig deep into muscle and bone to dig out disease or to heal completely, but the painkiller that will instantly, potently stem the pain.
The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.