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India Part II – Baksheesh

July 28, 2011
tags: ,

Originally posted 8January2008

India is a country with its hand out. Sometimes this hand is reaching for your hand and guiding you to a place you never knew you wanted to go. Other times, this hand is asking you for a pen or shampoo. Most times, this hand is looking for a little baksheesh. Baksheesh can be a tip, charitable giving, or a bribe. In my experience, it usually feels like all three at once.
I once had an ethics professor who told us of his trip to India and how on that trip he realized that giving to beggars was unethical, as it did nothing but continue to support the lifestyle, and did not force the individual or the government to do something about the situation that caused the necessity or the desire to beg in the first place. From a utilitarian standpoint, giving to beggars does not serve the greater good. Of course, this same ethics professor also asked me out during the semester, so I doubted the soundness of his ethical reasoning.


Like most things in India, I found that baksheesh is a force that doesn’t really care how you feel about it. It is what it is. It’s here , it’s queer, get used to it. Is it ethical? I kept myself too busy contemplating the overwhelming number of Hindu gods to thoroughly address the question. There were, however, two occasions that put the sheesh in backsheesh for me. The first was at an airport in Varanasi. The bathroom attendant lady (and no, the existence of a bathroom attendant does not indicate that the bathroom was in any way similar to the bathroom at a fancy restaurant – no mouthwash in sight) started showing a great deal of interest in my camera. I recognized this ploy for what it was immediately – an attempt to get me to take her picture, so she could then ask for a baksheesh. (My favorite spin on this particular ploy is when you’re at some beautiful location, and there are several women wandering around, constantly walking into your frame and then asking you for a baksheesh for basically ruining your picture) I played dumb for quite some time and just started showing her pictures from the trip. I chuckled to myself and thought how funny it would be if I then asked her for a baksheesh for the slide show. But, Ganesh bless her, she persisted until she broke me down. I did take the picture, having been lulled into believing that she simply wanted to see herself on the little screen. And then, out came the hand. Baksheeshed again, sucka.
The second time was upon our departure from Delhi. An airline employee actually asked for baksheesh. An airline employee. In a uniform. Can you imagine if the person who checked you into your Delta flight down to Boca put out their hand and asked for a tip? Our Western minds simply do not comprehend the way of the baksheesh. Of course, we in the Western world assume, usually correctly, that the airline employee checking us in is being paid a living wage. This assumption cannot be made with a reasonable degree of certainty in India. We, at first, refused his request, but then upon further thought imagined our bags being sent to Kathmandu instead of JFK and pulled out 40 rupees. Which brings me to another thing – the expected baksheesh is so small, so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, that at times you can feel silly resenting it. And yet, the expectation that it is our responsibility to compensate for the social ills of an overpopulated country – well, then you feel silly for supporting it.


Lest I sound cold or unfeeling (or worse, cheap) the fact is that people are poor. Very poor. I have much more money than they do, and as I said, 40 rupees is nothing to me. But what does my giving accomplish? This question sticks even more in my mind after having witnessed the industriousness of Dhavari slum. The slum in Bombay was the one and only place in India where nobody requested baksheesh. Not one person, which does much to support the argument that people do not need to beg to survive, they need to work. And if they can’t work? Then what?


The picture posted on the right was accidentally taken by me in Varanasi. After a long day of walking the ghats, I was sitting with my travel companion reviewing the days pictures when I came across this one. I remembered the moment it must have been taken – the little boy approached me from my blind side and startled me, my arm jerked back and I probably squeezed my camera, snapping the picture. I showed my friend the picture and announced that I had finally captured IT. India that is. To me this picture is India. You are constantly faced with the hand of a stranger stretched out in your direction, and the ever-present question: What is the right thing to do? Is my ethical obligation to the group as a whole or to the person in front of me with their hand out?


I ask myself these same questions here in New York when someone asks me for money, but the stakes feel higher in India, and the outstretched hand represents something bigger than the momentary request for baksheesh. It is a country with so much to offer, and yet needing so much. Where to begin? Do I have to begin? Am I obligated as a citizen of a wealthier country, as a fellow human, as a sympathizer? If I am obligated, what is the best thing to do? Should I give to everyone who asks it of me? How do I determine need? Do I get involved on a larger scale? How much will that help? If I get involved in trying to right the economic and social wrongs of a country half-way around the world, how much energy do I have to devote to the economic and social wrongs in my own country? Am I able to focus on the problems in another country because there they can unabashedly ask for help, while my fellow citizens cannot/do not? Do my fellow citizens unabashedly ask for help, while I simply ignore them, too caught up in my own life to notice?


I wonder what H.H. the Dalai Lama would say? …
One Comment leave one →
  1. July 28, 2011 3:04 pm

    ive never been to india or even considered it but i keep reading posts that are making me change my mind

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