“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.
As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.
However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.
This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.
Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.
And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.
Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.
So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.
It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.