Not so different…

I finally wrote this almost a year ago, months after my visit to India. Writing it helped, but I decided not to publish it at the time. Today I read a post by Suneeta, an Indian herself, which reminded me of my own experience. With her permission, I post the two pieces here together…

A Moment in Time… by Edna 

I’m walking down a pretty street in the spring sunshine listening to ‘White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga. The accent, the sounds and smells, the vivid images  send me hurtling onto the bustling platform at the train station in Paharganj, Delhi. I recall our train trip from there to Agra to see the magnificent Taj Mahal. But more powerfully than that, the image pushing itself into my mind yet again, is the platform at Agra Station. I can feel the disabled beggar children, tugging at my sleeve. It’s a scene that haunts me.

It comes to me often, unbidden, when I think of India… when I don’t think of India.

I stand on the platform, no escaping the maimed children, hands outstretched. I give a coin to the boy with no legs tugging at my legs and am suddenly surrounded by a whole group of beggar children. I know that if I produce another coin, more beggars will appear and I’ll become their target. I’ve seen it happen. I try and move away but they follow me relentlessly. The recommended protocol is to look away and ignore them. But you can only look away with your eyes…

A confusion of thoughts, feeling and pictures tumble into my head…  pity, sadness, doubt, the deliberate maiming of child beggars in Slumdog Millionaire, shock, sympathy, a disabled family member, remorse, guilt, the cost of our flights to India, whole families living at the side of the road, panic, confusion… The people with whom I am travelling deal with this in their own ways. I feel utterly alone on the crowded platform. Alone.. except for the beggar children, pulling at my sleeve, my legs, my heart.

I position myself near an Indian businessman, who glances my way and sees my anguish, my inner turmoil, my tears. My saviour gestures angrily at the beggars and shouts at them to leave me alone. We exchange glances and he nods imperceptibly.

You can learn so much from a moment in time… about people and cultures and history… about luck and life and fate… and about yourself.

A Difficult Question… by Suneeta

Anand asked this question over 20 years ago… and I still don’t have an answer… at least not a convincing one.

We were headed to the Bus Stop at Flora Fountain, at Bombay (Hutatma Chowk, Mumbai) to get into the long queue for our regular 84 Ltd that would take us straight home from college. Anand used to attend the lab preschool at Nirmala Niketan where I taught Child Development in those days.

And the families of flower sellers that were in semi permanent residence near the stop were busy with their afternoon chores as usual. Some busy with the task of stringing together garlands that someone like me might buy to adorn their hair with, others grooming themselves or combing their children’s hair, yet others washing their few utensils post the mid day meal.

A few kids were off to one side, playing in the dirt with stones and broken bits of toys. Unkempt hair, snot running down from their noses, torn and dirty clothes. Quite different from the care and attention lavished on Anand. As we passed them, he commented (fortunately directing it at me])“Dirty!” Embarrassed, I tried explaining to him that they couldn’t help it… they didn’t have a nice home like us to live in, with running water 24 hours a day… the usual attempt to get away from feeling guilty about the socio-economic difference. He seemed satisfied and we proceeded to stand in line.

It was a long wait, not unlike other days. One of the slightly older kids from the flower seller’s family, who couldn’t have been more than 6, with a year old baby on her hip, started her begging round. Something I always wished I could escape… Feeling bad, yet not wanting to reinforce the begging habit. Feeling that contributing to organizations that would support them was a more meaningful way to help out. But that day I was out of luck… The little one came and stood right next to us, looking beseechingly at us as she held out her hand asking for 10 paise (It was still valid currency in those days.) I, with averted eyes, after saying “no”…

Till I was brought to another plane of realization… Anand accusing me – “Why aren’t you giving her any money? Didn’t you just say they didn’t have any?”

Over the years, I have continued to work on different projects that are aimed at making a difference in children’s lives. But I am still haunted by the look in that little girl’s eyes and by Anand’s question….

 

6 thoughts on “Not so different…

  1. Edna, Sad, touching, moving, and beautiful. Thank you and Suneeta for sharing feelings we all have experiened in our daily walks. May your words inspire readers to continue their service to man kind. May we also count our blessings on daily basis.

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  2. Living in the heart of Bangkok, on a street attached to a train station frequented by tourists, I made a connection reading this post. Every day I see children begging, new born babies being used. As a person and now a mother I ask myself every day how I can just walk past. If I could I would scoop the babies up and take them home but that doesn’t solve the problem. If I give money then I’m sure it is not used to buy the babies what they need. So usually I walk by. When my sister came to visit she was brought to tears almost daily and asked how I can ignore it and accused me of being cold hearted. I explained that there are children suffering just as much in Australia that she doesn’t see and that it is impossible to help everyone. Still her words stuck with me. I have lived in Bangkok for five years now and even though we give money to charity and have donated our time to working with children from the slums it just never feels enough and I’m sure it isn’t. What is the answer? I don’t know but now instead of money I usually buy food and drinks and give it directly to the children I see. It’s normally demolished by the time I am a few metres away and it gives me some peace for the day.

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  3. Reminds me of my times in Cambodia: disabled/deformed children begging, then hurrying to hand over their cash prize to grandma, who adds it to a wad of cash three inches thick.

    Those deformed, limbless or blind because of unexploded bombs and land mines, dropped and laid by US soldiers during the Vietnam war and ensuing civil war and communist revolution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime.

    Children bearing defects from birth, due to the passing of thalidomide to third-world/developing countries when it was banned in western countries: another scar on the world caused by the influence of the west.

    You are right – there are some moments in time where turning a blind eye may be the only realistic option, but it doesn’t turn your mind.

    My way of dealing with beggars was to carry the smallest denominations of currency I could, and in large quantities. I could buy the removal of my guilt (and confusion) by giving everyone something, however small. But it only encourages them to keep doing it, and for their grandmas to keep beating them if they fail to bring in enough money…

    Try to Imagine living in a place where economics didn’t extend beyond today: having no need to worry about how to improve your lot, or make more money tomorrow, as surviving today is not a certainty.

    I can’t imagine it. Can you?

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  4. thanks for this enlightening post! I traveled a number of times to visit missionaries in Sierre Leone, West Africa. I wasn’t on train station platforms, but on corners of roads or in a traffic jam with windows closed tightly from beggars. It is all too sad and brings home a great reality. As an educator, we must keep this reflection before every student. It is part of their “global and local” education.

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  5. Hi Edna,
    I wrote that bit because like I said…. it continues to haunt me [and that’s only one of many such instances]. But as I mentioned elsewhere… it is among the memories that guided not just my career decisions and choices, but many of my life decisions.

    That is what makes it possible to be at peace with myself, despite knowing that I can reach just a few….

    Suneeta

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    1. Having lived recently in Brazil for five eventful years and having travelled to Asia, India and Egypt many years , yes, I relate to all that you write about. The pain and questions were and still are never ending. The constant, nagging feeling of helplessness and heartwrenching sadness that enveloped me was soon replaced with the stance of becoming proactive by trying to help someone, even if it was just one person
      . In Brazil I was strongly advised not to give money, so I took the advice and helped with food, clothing, a genuine smile, an ear to listen and a warm-heart to give some advice. Yes, I have found many people in our own backyard are in need of the same life necessities. i often wonder about human beings and how the world ever reached this deplorable state, where so many innocent people suffer so inhumanely. If only we could all put out that little bit more???

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