Monday, June 29, 2009

Being charitable to a fault

I WAS having dinner with a friend in Setapak recently when a male beggar, whom I reckoned to be around 60, approached us.

Apart from his scruffy look and the aluminium crutch he was occasionally leaning on, he appeared to be able-bodied.

If he had been clean-shaven, had worn a coat and tie, and had walked into a hotel lobby, he would have passed off for a corporate figure or even a politician.

A doorman would have gladly opened the door for him and call him “Sir”.

But that evening, he cut a forlorn figure as he hobbled from table to table, right arm extended and palm cupped.

He would bow, mutter something under his breath, and look so pitiful that it would take nerves of steel not to sympathise with him.

Some of the diners did not have those nerves, so they dug out some loose change and gave him — for which he bowed even lower to show gratitude.

Others pretended he wa s n ’t there but the less forgiving few just shooed him off with a wave, just as theywould a hovering fly.

But the beggar appeared unperturbed, diligently moving from table to table.

When he saw that I was watching him, he quickly hobbled up to us and asked for a ringgit.

Not more, not less, just a ringgit.

And he kept bowing until I reached for my wallet, when my friend stopped me with a piercing stare.

Realising that he could not get what he wanted out of us, the beggar immediately stopped bowing and hobbled to another table.

When he was out of earshot, my friend, who lived in Subang Jaya, said he had seen the beggar making his rounds there.

My friend’s daughter had seen the same man walking without his crutch one day and had told her father about it.

I was about to give the beggar the benefit of the doubt when what happened minutes later made me reconsider.

A diner seated next to our table pointed at a familiar silhouette across the road.

It was the same beggar, running in full stride towards a cab with his crutch held high.

Any injury which had caused him to hobble from table to table just moments ago seemed to have disappeared.

I wonder how many people had been fooled by the beggar that evening.

Those who had given money to him and seen what happened later must have kicked themselves for having been so gullible.

In bad economic times such as these, who can tell if a beggar is really what he or she appears to be underneath those tattered clothes? Anyone who looks like a beggar, and acts like a beggar, can just as easily tug at our heartstrings and get our ringgit.

Even those who claim to be collecting donations and who can produce all the “endorsement papers” from the “author ities” stand to laugh all the way to the bank if we fail to temper our charitable nature with some common sense.

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