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A Farewell To Alms

After three months of South Indian temples and mostly rice thalis, I've a temporary craving for western food, so I've just squandered more than three days' budget on a really excellent meal in an upmarket French restaurant.

Walking back to my hotel, I pass a number of pavement dwellers who are setting up for the night. A tiny bundle of possessions (when they have one) serves as their pillow. Here in South India, the warm nights mean that a blanket isn't necessary. Above one group, two brightly painted hoardings incongruously proclaim India's love affair with technology - cable TV and mobile phones. Below, in the inadequate glow of the street lamp, a young girl attempts to remove the lice from her mother's hair.

An old lady approaches me and smiles, her mouth more full of gaps than teeth. She holds out her hand, her imploring eyes fixing on mine. She raises her hand to her mouth, then holds it out once more. "Hello, Babu. Chapattis?" she says. I shake my head and walk on without slowing. Behind me she calls again. And again. Eventually she stops, clearly used to rich foreigners passing her by, most of them not even acknowledging her presence. In the fifteen minutes it takes me to walk back to my hotel I have perhaps a dozen such encounters.

A younger woman with a surprisingly chubby baby on her hip also calls me Babu and holds out her hand. Again, I decline. She follows for a little while, then gives up. A little boy, about seven years old, I guess, pulls on my shirt and holds out his hand. He's both cute and pitiful - and his parents (or whoever receives the money he collects) are banking on that. Several people call to me from the pavement, some deformed, most just old, poor and helpless...

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