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Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011