Sadness rings my doorbell almost every day. With each calamity, a new class of people become beggars. The construction workers tossed off job sites during the lockdown. The tourism driver out of work when the airport shut down. The lady weaving rugs that can no longer get supplies. These are people that were not beggars and now they are. They beg to survive.
These are all real people and they’re getting more, not less. Today someone named Duminda came to the door. He was visibly disabled in some way, seemed to be a motorbike accident from what he said. He spoke with an impediment. He asked if we had food.
We have food. We have lots of food. We have eclairs for guests, we have rice, we have chocolate, we have cheese. We have money in the bank and the doorbell also rings with deliveries. So I went and got him some food. Milk is hard to come by these days, I’m sure his daughter hadn’t had any in a while. Some biscuits, rice, string hopper flour, whatever he could carry. I gave him money too. A bit at first and then everything I had. What does it mean? What does anything mean?
As I gave these things that mean little to me, Duminda reached down to worship at my feet. This is a tradition in Sri Lanka. We kneel before monks, our parents, but this felt obscene. I squatted down to the floor also, told him please no, not me. He got up with tears in his eyes, asked for my name again, and my wife’s, so he could bestow pin on me.
Pin is like karmic credit I guess. It’s the idea of merit, which you accrue by doing meritorious deeds. If there’s any justice in this universe that’ll be all I have in the afterlife, the prayers of beggars. At some point, surely, the gods must intercede. Pin is a gift—more than rice, more than flour—and I feel terribly unworthy.
What have I done, besides being born, besides inheriting wealth, in so many ways? I dunno if souls are reborn, but privilege certainly passes on. And for someone like me to stand, someone else must be on their knees. I can reject the worship but he’s not wrong. The world we live in verily worships the rich and merrily punishes the poor. That’s just the way things be.
People have started breaking into houses and restaurants, largely to steal food, and honestly, I don’t disagree. We sit here in comfort giving what we’re comfortable with. We should feel uncomfortable. We should feel afraid. We should feel what everybody else feels.
Among my class, there is this fear of violence from the poor, but we are the violent ones. We just do it at a distance, through laws, through economics, through institutions. What else do you call something that makes a grown man kneel in front of another one? I feel the weight of all that structural violence, bringing this new class of beggar to his feet.
Duminda says his daughter hasn’t been going to school, because she’s hungry. This is happening everywhere. I know this. It is such a fall for my country. Even the poorest children used to somehow get sent to school in fresh white uniforms, with something in their stomachs, some energy. Feeding and learning, these are the pillars of our civilization. And they have simply crumbled, and so quickly. There’s nothing but rubble now. Just today’s survival, where dreams used to be.
He said his daughter didn’t have shoes, but she’s 9, too big for any shoes my children have. That’s why I gave him more money. But where are shoes going to take her? Where is there to go? I feel so helpless and guilty.
Whenever anyone rings the doorbell I remember that the Lord Buddha was a beggar. That he took cloth off the dead to cover himself, that he ate whatever he was given that day. I remember something from the Bible about angels testing us this way, about God being in the humblest among us, not the mighty. I remember the Zakat pillar of Islam, how this is not a choice, but a duty. But then the people turn around and worship me. Sadness rings my doorbell and they want me to be happy. It makes me want to weep.