Disheartened

Trip Start Mar 01, 2006
1
21
30
Trip End Dec 25, 2006


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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Once I was on my own, without Greg and Pushpa as my protectors, the touters, beggars, and gawkers came out in full force. I had moved to a hotel in the Colaba district. My room was actually more of a closet than a room. It fit exactly a single bed and my backpack. The main street in front of my hotel was lined with little stalls and annoying young men. The Annoying would call out, 'Yes, what you want?', 'Come take a look!', 'Rickshaw?', 'Madame, where you go?' There were t-shirts, scarves, brass trinkets, cheap jewelry - unwanted tourist items. Some of the Annoying were not fortunate enough to have their own stall and wandered up and down the street selling giant lightbulb-shaped balloons that they pushed directly into my walking path. I stubbornly refused to have my attention attracted and brushed past and down the sidewalk, head down, as people called, 'Madame, come!'

As I crossed the street, a woman in a dark green sari approached me. She had a naked baby tucked under one arm and was holding a half empty bottle of milk. With her free hand she was gesturing that her baby needed food. I shook my head and said, 'No.' She didn't give up that easily, and continued motioning with her free hand. I started to walk across the street to get away from her. She followed holding on to my wrist. I worked my arm free and said in a stronger tone, 'No!' As I waited for a space to open in the traffic she grabbed at my arm again. I let her hang on knowing that I could break away as soon as there was the opportunity. She strategically moved in front of me to maintain eye contact when the side mirror of an oncoming car grazed the baby's head. I wasn't sure if I had heard or felt the whack. The woman's focus didn't change. I met her eyes with disgust. This obviously wasn't her baby. Either that or she didn't give a damn about this child. I shook her off and crossed the street, angry at the woman for her lack of concern, angry at the world for being this way.

I had seen the beggars at work while I was still in the company of Greg and Pushpa. Mostly the locals ignored them. Just like I do at home. But at home, the beggars sit quietly, or maybe jingle the change in the bottom of their cup. Here they tap you on the elbow, grab you by the wrist, pull at your clothes, stand in your path, and follow you for blocks. They ask for money or food - the children, chocolate or school pens. They demand it. They expect it.

I had asked Pushpa her opinion on the matter, I wanted an inside perspective, to check my outside one against. She replied that most locals do not give to beggars, that it only perpetuates the problem and that there are a lot of jobs that these people could do. We talked about stories that we had heard. Stories about babies being rented out to women begging for formula, which gets sold back to the store for cash. Children selling back their new school pens, or not attending school because begging is the main source of income for the family. Men faking being handicapped because the money is better, and easier, than working. I agreed with Pushpa. There were jobs to be had. I had seen for myself a small vegetable stand operated by a woman without hands.

Pushpa told me about some articles she had read in the newspaper regarding the people that lived in the slums. The story was that the government would come in and tear down a section of slums and build apartments for the families they had displaced. The people would move into these flats but find themselves feeling isolated from their friends and neighbors that had moved in down the hall. The women were cooking and washing alone. The children couldn't play in large street groups anymore. The men couldn't stand around at night drinking chai and sharing stories. These new apartments with running water, flushing toilets, secure walls, and solid roofs had completely cut-off these families from the only life they had ever known. They eventually
sold the apartments and rebuilt shanty houses at the other end of the slums, or started a new slum somewhere else.

Hearing these stories gave me an ugly hollow feeling. Not wanting to believe. Knowing that this was just the way it was here. This was India. I am not saying that anyone wants to live in slum conditions. And maybe the new apartments were just that bad. But if people value their lifestyle over their living conditions, then it is simply a choice, and one that makes me build my own sturdy walls.

So the question became - Who do I help? I knew I couldn't help everyone (400 million people live below the poverty line - by Indian standards). But if I were going to give someone money, who would it be? I decided that of all the poor people in India, the people missing limbs or ones with gross deformities would be the ones most deserving of my assistance. No sooner did I complete this thought than I picked up the morning newspaper and read about three doctors arrested in Mumbai as part of the Beggar's Mafia. What? Mostly men - either desperate or lazy, I'm still trying to decide - paid these doctors 10,000 rupees to have an arm or leg cut off so that they could become a card carrying member of the Beggar's Maffia. They earned six times the minimum wage by sitting on the street corner, minus a few parts. How could someone willfully cut off a piece of their body? What kind of thinking leads to that decision? What kind of a life would lead to that kind of thinking?

That was one of my many breaking points. I was done thinking about it (or so I tried). If these people cared so little about their children, about their bodies, about living, then why should I? And in my urge to help, am I only doing more damage in the end? Am I part of the reason a man cuts off his leg?

It was my last day in Mumbai. I was excited to be moving on, but wasn't sure what to expect with my new negative attitude. I thought maybe I was experiencing delayed culture shock since leaving the safety of my neighbor-friend's home, and hoped that I would find a positive outlook in the next town. I had several hours to waste before boarding my first night train. I was a bit nervous which didn't help. I decided that a bit of shopping would possibly change my mood. Shopping and chocolate.

Wandering down the street, looking at all the unwanted items, I came across a stall selling salwar tops - the trendy long shirts that Indian women wear over trousers. I thought they would look really cute with jeans and decided that I should have one. I picked out a cute red one that was obviously too small for my frame, asking if it came in a larger size. The man working the stall claimed that it would be perfect. I explained that I was an American and that I needed a bigger size. He repeated, 'No, it's perfect for you. No problem!' I decided to prove my point by trying it on over my shirt. I barely made it over my head, and the part that was supposed to slide smoothly over my hips was gathered in a clump at my waist. I looked at him and said, 'See?' He ignored me with, 'It's perfect!' I laughed at the ridiculousness of our conversation and repeated, 'No, it's not perfect.' A young Indian girl was standing next to me wearing a beautiful blue salwar top embroidered with white daisies. I showed the man the way it fit this girl was how it should fit me. It was useless trying to communicate with the Annoying. They had one goal. And it was Anything Goes to exchange products for cash. I walked away convinced that it was impossible to have a conversation with anyone on the tourist circuit, a conversation that wasn't the result of someone working very hard to get my money.

Just then the girl introduced herself. Suhan was a beautiful, twenty-three year old Muslim. She offered to help me find a top that fit, we walked together chatting and window shopping. Suhan was intelligent and educated with almost perfect English. We spent the entire day together. Shopping. Lunching. Getting to know each other. My mood was improving. I had finally found a someone in India that wasn't interested in my wallet. My new friend.

Suhan insisted that she escort me to the train station because, as she put it, she was now responsible for me and I shouldn't be alone. I grabbed my bags from the hotel and we shared a cab to the train station. While we were waiting, she searched out a policeman and explained that I was her friend, that I was traveling alone, and would he please make sure that I got to my destination safely. He nodded. I smiled.

Thirty minutes before departure, Suhan told me about the most exquisite sari that she wanted to buy for her brother's wedding. She described the fabric and the beadwork and I could hear the excitement in her voice. She explained that she needed three-hundred more rupees than she had saved to be able to get it. Was my new friend hinting at something? My heart sank a bit. I wished her great luck in saving enough before the big day, then changed the subject.

Twenty minutes before departure, Suhan told me about her friend who was very poor and didn't have enough money to buy school books. That her family offered for her to live with them but it wasn't proper to have an unmarried woman living in the house with her unmarried brother and that she would have to pay to stay in a hotel because her house had burnt down and... and could she borrow three-hundred rupees from me. I didn't want to believe it. My new friend. She had just spent nine hours with me. Nine hours getting to know each other. All for three-hundred rupees. I pulled a great lie from the pit of my stomach, the one that had just been kicked. 'I don't have any money, I have to hit an ATM as soon as I get to Aurangabad.' She looked hurt, abandoned. I'm sure I did too.

The train pulled away, out of the giant vacuum that had just been created by a recent conversation. Two women trying to figure out what went wrong. One expecting her new friend to share what she had. The other expecting her new friend not to ask.

For days I debated whether or not a Westerner could actually make acquaintance with the locals. I had convinced myself that it couldn't happen at the tourist level. Then I decided that even if I were at home, I wouldn't necessarily be inviting taxi drivers, cheap hotel owners, and t-shirt dealers over for dinner. Then again, maybe I would. I longed to be back in the two-bedroom flat with my neighbor-friends, having great conversations and drinking chai.
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Comments

scottb
scottb on

worth the wait....
What a wonderful poignant story! I just love your writing....it's real and subtle and deep....just like life itself. You have a gift. Thanks for sharing! After the long break I thought maybe you'd gone missing. Your stories are well worth the wait though. On to the next......

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