Give Someone a Hand and They Rip Your Arm Off

“It is for you to find a way, my friends,

To help good men arrive at happy ends.

You write the happy ending to the play!

There must, there must, there’s got to be a way!”

Epilogue, page 113, Good Woman of Setzuan

 

In Bertolt Brecht’s moralistic play “The Good Woman of Setzuan”, the main character, Shen Teh, a poor young prostitute, is the only person in Setzuan who the gods deem to be “good”. Because of her charitable heart, the people of Setzuan take advantage of her to the point that she cannot even maintain her own needs. In order to get ahead in life and gain economic wealth without tarnishing her reputation as a charitable woman, she dresses up as her fictional male cousin, Shui Ta, a ruthless business man willing to do anything to get ahead.

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“Ramkali – The Good Woman of Delhi” Based on Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” Adapted in Hindi by Amitabh Srivastava

In the last scene of the play, Shui Ta reveals his true identity to the gods as Shen Teh, criticizing them for creating a life for humans were it is impossible for people to be “good”, and for not intervening to protect good people from the vulnerability of being good. There is no concrete ending to this play and nothing is resolved in the plot. Instead, Bertolt Brecht asks the audience to solve this problem: How can a person be good where good acts are not appreciated?

This is a problem that I have pondered about during my stay in India; how can I do acts of good in a world that is essentially not good? When I first came to the U.S., I became painfully aware that my socioeconomic background was not in par with those of many Syracuse University students. I would be considered middle class in Puerto Rico, while in the States I would be considered more lower class. So while in the United States I was faced with adjusting to dealing with people who are used to a prevailing culture of privilege, coming to India has been the exact opposite. Here, a lot of people are used to having to struggle and work in order to survive, so they are more appreciative of the little things. Throughout the many interactions I’ve had with children begging on the streets, I’ve been conflicted between ignoring them, giving them all my money, or taking them home with me. Sometimes, giving them money is not the best idea since we don’t really know where the money will end up and with what purpose it will be used. Also, if I gave money away every time I had an encounter with a beggar, I’d end up on the streets right along with them. Still, even when I do give money away, some get angry and ask for more, and others have even tried to lead me to strange places with the pretext of buying them food (God knows for what purpose).

In Puerto Rico, most of the homeless and beggars are also drug addicts. Since Puerto Rico is the gateway from which drugs from South America enter the U.S., a lot of it ends up in the hands of the homeless population. Puerto Rico has been nicknamed “Zombie Island” due to the large amount of homeless that roam the streets under the influence. Horse tranquilizers are also a very popular drug in Puerto Rico, which makes people walk and stand around in a manner very similar to that of a reanimated corpse.

So while I have had a lot of interactions with beggars, I’ve only been accustomed to ignoring them or giving them a couple of quarters. Back home, it’s: “Misi, no es pa’ drogas, de veldad, es pa comel” (Miss, it’s not for drugs, I swear, it’s just for food”), but some of the times I have offered them food they have gotten angry or told me that they just don’t like that sort of food. Here, children will put out their hands and then signal their mouth; as if to say that they need the money to eat. In the Dominican Republic, the little kids have been trained to smile and yell “Money, money, money” whenever they see tourists.

I’m not unfamiliar to poverty; Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is about 45% — three times the national U.S. figure. Yet, here, poverty has been presented to me in an unfamiliar light, which has made me contemplate about these differences, especially comparing it to the way that some students live in our campus. Some of the people on this trip have taken pictures of the beggar children here, uploading them to Facebook with their smiling faces as if to say “Look, how cute these little Indian children are!” but when the children extend their hand and bring it to their mouth, they answer with “Sorry, I don’t have any”. While I understand that this practice does not come from a place of malice, it does come from ignorance, and it ultimately denies the children’s humanities, replacing it for that of a decorative figure. By acknowledging their cuteness, but ignoring their suffering, we are continually reinforcing the comfortable utopia that has been created for developed countries, in which poverty is not a real thing, and it is hidden behind smiling faces.

Jesus: Surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot. There will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Look at the good things you’ve got! – Everything’s Alright, Jesus Christ Superstar