Things have changed in Colombo over the past few months almost overnight. You haven’t noticed? Main Street at Pettah has been cleared up, half the street stalls have disappeared, and the busses are almost never interrupted by travelling musicians. You know the ones, they get on with a tambourine and start singing songs in voices not-so pleasant to listen to, and then turn their instruments over into bowls as they beg for spare change. I miss them.
There was one particular “performer”, an old woman who’d get onto the busses as they stopped at Attidiya Road and start singing, slapping her tambourine the whole time. Her face would light up and you couldn’t tell that she was suffering, and that jovial smile of a child hid it well. She’d make probably less than 50 rupees each time. But I haven’t seen her in a bus in months now, thanks to the new regulations.
What purpose does it serve? Does it really disrupt our “peace” in transit? What about the annoying music played through the bus speakers itself, why not ban that too? In my opinion, what these people do is better than the beggars that come onto a bus with fake medical reports, fake eye-patches, and fake stories about their ailments. I hope the new regulations take care of them. But the others? What about the ones who get on and sell small packets of inguru dosi for 5 rupees? Is that illegal too?
I don’t understand how any of this can be seen as “inconveniences” to travelers – people who can afford a bus or train ticket, people who have homes to go back to, privacy to resort to at the end of the day, meals to look forward to. And a beggar is an inconvenience? I have to admit, I get annoyed too sometimes. You tend to wonder why these people can’t just get a normal job and earn a living. But how could you possibly know what their life is like.
There’s one beggar that stays around Town Hall, you can find him sometimes crouching under the bus stand opposite Odel, picking up cigarette butts off the ground and smoking them. He doesn’t take notice of anyone around him; he doesn’t ask anyone for money. Hardly anyone notices him; I suppose he isn’t an inconvenience. He frankly doesn’t care. In the evenings you’ll find him sitting back in his chair at Lipton Circus and watching the traffic and the stars. I suppose there comes a point at which you give up on society and its “charity”, and live on what comes to you.
I saw that woman with the tambourine sitting on the pavement last night. She didn’t look so happy, but when she recognized me she shot back that smile of hers and I couldn’t help but give her a 100 rupee note. And I know even that will barely be enough. But at least it kept her smiling, if only for a while.
by Imaad Majeed