October 1, 2016
Through the great walled gate, the magnificent entrance to the “Pink City,” rushed the evening’s chaotic traffic: cars, bikes, busses, donkeys, horses, motor(tri-cycle) taxis, motorcycles, mopeds, and pushcarts, all jockeying for position.
Getting from one side of the street to the other is perilous. One must show extreme caution when crossing.
I made it across. My colleague stayed back, spooked by a large bus which nearly clipped me. I waited on the other side for him, happy to have made it unscathed.
Whilst my colleague looked left, then right, a small figure caught my eye. A child , a small boy, was walking in the middle of the traffic, completely oblivious to the massing streams of machinery. The boy was alone and weeping, loudly. His face was dirty and it looked like he’d been crying for some time; tear marks streaked his dusty face. He was naked from the waist down; he kept pulling his ragged shirt down, as if ashamed he had no pants, his penis exposed to the world. He kept looking around, as if lost, or looking for someone, something.
Vehicles barely swerved around him; a man on a cart shouted at him; a near miss with the moped. People on the streets did not heed him; he was invisible. I’d heard about certain children here who were “dropped” by their parents because they thought the children were somehow ‘possessed’; and others who left their children as they could not provide for them. I’d also heard about the caste system and the people who were known as ‘untouchables.’ This was all on my mind.
When the traffic died down, due to a traffic light turning red on the other side of the gate, the boy wandered over to a safe zone by the white line. I took my camera and took a picture of the little boy, with pedestrians around him paying no attention to him as they crossed. He noticed me, with my camera, and walked over to me. My colleague, meanwhile, signaled he was going to some souvenir stand that he’d been eyeing from across the street, and I nodded.
We’d become accustomed to the extreme poverty of India: the poor incessantly knocking on our taxi windows or following us around, begging for something, anything. The children by the side of the road holding tiny things for you to buy, making gestures with their hands to mouths they were hungry. We’d had our heart strings tugged a few times. It wasn’t that we were immune to poverty, but after a week, we’d become accustomed to it, let’s put it that way.
The boy came up to me and was still shuddering in his crying, but it subsided a little bit, tears still coming out, and he looked up at me with a look I can only describe as a ‘humanity looking back at me’. He did not hold his hands out like the other kids, nor come up to me and grab the edges of my shorts. He just stood there staring at me with that ‘look’. It was a moment which, looking back, still stings. I saw a depth, and an ask, at the same time, from that little boys’ face. Oddly, I felt like God - a higher power - or whatever you believe, was giving me a challenge, looking at me in real time. Hair on the back of my neck, even in this insane humidity, stood on end.
And then the boy did something which just killed me. This lonely little boy held out both hands towards me, palms down. It was not like other little kids holding out just one hand for money, as I’d seen before. It was an ask, not for money or food, but for me to take his hands; to take him away from here. Palpable this was, like Jesus in a child, commanding me to take him. His look, the most tender look in the world, was asking for mercy. A plea. God was talking to me, right then, right there. Clear and present. I couldn’t control my eyes. They just welled up. I tried to look away, but my eyes kept coming back to the boy’s face.
My colleague made it from the souvenir shop, he’d gotten his peacock fan. He came from behind me, and didn’t see the child who was in front of me; and began “well, that was tough, you almost got clobbered by that bus” and he continued walking and said “come on, let’s go…” I hesitated. The boy was still there with that look. My colleague then saw the boy, grabbed me and said “come on, let’s go”, and I began to walk away. I turned, over my shoulder, and saw the boys’ hands down at his side; he stayed in place and began crying hard, his face crushed in anguish. I stopped and turned around. My colleague, an extremely perceptive chap, noticed the situation said “James, there are tens of thousands of these kids here; you don’t know his story…come on.”
I nodded, slowly I agreed. We walked away. I didn’t look back, but my heart sank.
I had let down God. God was watching me, and I had failed. Miserably.
That night, in the shower to wipe away the grime of the day, I thought about all the things I could have done. I could have taken the boy to the hotel, cleaned him up, got him some new clothes, given him some food; a nanny to take care of him; a side room for him and the nanny to sleep in. I could have asked to adopt him (for me this is huge; a person who thinks of children as only delightful in other people’s homes…). I could have taken him back to the U.S.A. and my partner and I could have raised him as our son; given him a good education; change his life for the better, help him try to forget the vast insecurities of his early life. Then, when he’s all grown up living his life, he could remember back to a time when a tall white man – a foreigner - came to his rescue; taking him away from the scum dirt city streets of Jaipur. I had an incredible urge to go out; go back to the gate; find that boy. But that was impossible.
As we sat in the upscale restaurant of an upscale hotel that evening, full of glittering, elegant Japanese people, all attending some fancy conference, I got a text message from my airline alliance. “Congratulations it said, you’ve become a “Diamond” member, and are nowl entitled to all these wonderful things... etc. etc.”
The waiter came back to tell us the specific type of wine which my colleague so desired was not available today. We ordered the other one.
The wine arrived as my colleague got up to go to the washroom.
An old man, a beggar, outside the window, saw me and pantomimed - pointed to his mouth and used his hands to imply he needed food. I thought about the young boy I’d encountered at the gate. “Is this how he’ll end up. Will this be him?…”
I turned away, took a sip of the wine. I turned back and the beggar was gone. I craned my neck to see where he’d gone, but it didn’t matter. My eyes were too clouded by water. I wiped the tears streaming down my face just in time for my colleague returning from the WC.
“Shame about that wine, no?” said my colleague.
I just looked at him. I felt a knot in my gut.
I talked about a moral dilemma the other day. This was it.
I am still haunted. I still feel it in my gut. I still see that face. I cry regularly at random things now.
This is what India does.