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
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….