It’s around 10pm and I’m being driven back through Dhaka from a generous dinner with six scientists. We had plenty of good red wine to drink. We stop at a junction, and I see just ahead of us a ragged boy of about seven with a child of perhaps two or three on his shoulder. They are begging. They will, I know, get to me soon.
And they do. The boy looks plaintively at me and brings his fingers together at his lips, the universal sign that I’m hungry and want to eat. The child on his shoulder, a boy I think, is looking away, playing, as young children do. I think of my grandson, who is the same age. The older boy knocks on the glass. Then he turns the young boy to look at me.
I’ve experienced this before, and I always find it painful. I remember in Delhi a near naked girl of perhaps five with a naked baby of a few months on her shoulder. And I’ve experienced it in Mexico, where my Mexican daughter in law tells me not to give them anything because they are victims of a scam and should be at school. A Fagin figure lurks behind them, concocting a tableau to tear out your heart.
Perhaps it’s because of my grandson, the drink, or a sense the world is falling apart that I’m finding it excruciatingly painful. I feel profoundly inhuman to sit there in my car with a full stomach and stare forward, not even acknowledging the boys. My “training” tells me not to respond, and I have no Bangladeshi taka anyway. I’ve sometimes in the past thrust money at such beggars as the car drives, and I contemplate giving the boy a £20 note, which is all the money I have. But I don’t.
Although I’m feeling excruciating pain, I’m obviously not the tragic one in this scene. The boys are the tragic ones: their childhood is snatched away; they are suffering, probably hungry and tired; and they are almost certainly being exploited. Does their Fagin look after them? I doubt it. There future is bleak.
The traffic starts. We drive away. We live in a cruel, wicked, unequal world filled with sorrows. I could have been born to their world not mine. You can determine what is just, argues the philosopher John Harris, by observing a scene from behind a veil with no idea which character you might be: if you would be happy to be any of the people then that is a just scene. My scene was a profoundly unjust one, but I, the lucky one, drove away.