Recently, I watched a movie The Best Exotic Marigold hotel where a group of elderly British people make a conscious choice to live their golden days in a retirement facility in Jaipur, India. They all have their unique reasons for doing so – one goes to get a hip replacement, one goes looking for lost love, one goes due to financial difficulties. But the movie is not the reason I decided to write the blog. It is because of all the memories the movie brought back. Memories of incidents, memories of people who came in our lives for a brief time. Incidents that made me fill up with inexplicable pride that I was born in India, incidents that made me enraged over the cunning of some of my fellowmen, incidents that made me indignant against how, many in my country, were treated, incidents that made me want to hide my face in shame, and incidents that made my heart melt at the show of human kindness.
Sean and I hosted many friends and family from the United States during our six-year stint in New Delhi. The movie brought back memories of how India can be a complete onslaught on an individual’s senses. Nothing can prepare one for the country. No matter how many tour books one reads, how many videos one watches, one can’t comprehend India unless one has felt the full-fledged blast of the country on one’s sensory organs at arrival. The smell, the explosion of colors, the multitude of people, the complete disregard for personal space, the honking cars, the errant cows, the street dogs, the weaving auto rikshaws, the little make shift shops along the road – the little composites of the larger picture. And hidden within the chaos is the amazing sunset over the river Ganges in Varanasi, the silhouette of a fisherman’s boat drifting idly on the Hooghly river as the sun sets over the horizon, the tiny little nameless flower growing from the crack in a concrete within the moldy buildings of a city, the kind auto driver advising me, like one of my own, to give a warm bath to my rain drenched children as soon as I get home, so they don’t catch a cold.
The question that friends and family asked me often was, how did we deal with the abject poverty staring right at us, wherever we went. My brother-in-law was very disturbed by the people, little children and elderly folks, begging on the streets. I said ‘We have to learn to look past them because it is impossible for us to help each individual that accost us! You have to ignore them, develop a slightly clinical detachment or else, their sorrow will engulf you!” He said, “I can’t. I simply can not!” At the end of his visit, the poverty, especially the little children begging on the streets wore him down. I remember him breaking down in tears after sitting at the train station in Agra, surrounded by little children asking him for money, food!
I realized, after watching the movie, how bewildering India must have seemed to the visitors who came to tour. Living in the midst of the chaos, I didn’t completely empathize with my guests. While they shuddered at the sight of little, scrawny children hitting the window of our air-conditioned car in the hope of money, I nonchalantly talked on about the sight-seeing I had planned for them or the place I intended to take them for dinner. Their focus was somewhere else, I realize now. Since I lived with the problem, it ceased to be one, for me.
Sean developed his unique way of dealing with beggars during his eight year stay in Kolkata and Delhi. When elderly beggars asked for alms, he folded his hands and bent his head – the Indian gesture of Namaste. As they insisted, he smiled and did the namaste again. With children, he established a relationship by either juggling (he does juggle relatively well) or making funny faces or asking them their name in atrocious Hindi. The result was unadulterated, joyful laughter. The white man playing the fool. It never failed to elicit a smile, a laugh.
Every Saturday, we went to the American club where we played sports, ate pizza and swam. At a traffic light, about 5-7 children ran to the cars asking for money or food. They were led by a wild haired, young girl of about 12. She managed the kids, led them to the cars and when the lights changed led them safely back to the sidewalk. But it always made us nervous to see them weave between the chaotic traffic. They came to our car as well. Sean rolled down his window and shook their hands, I smiled and baby Sahana gave them toothy grins from her car seat in the back. One very hot summer afternoon, Sean offered the wilting children his water bottle filled with Gatorade. The faces were worth watching. They had expected plain water but what they tasted was so much better, what a treat. From then on, it was not money they wanted but “Bhaiya paani, paani” (brother, water, water)! We started carrying extra bottles of Gatorade to share. They drank quickly while the light was red, passed on the bottles to us as the light changed and swiftly moved back to safety as the cars started moving. The girl made sure each child was safe. She did a lot of talking and laughing, all in Hindi. Sean responded with a big grin and some broken Hindi. Neither understood what was being said. I smiled at the exchange.
A couple of days after Rakhi, the girl brought a rakhi to our stopped car and tied it around Sean’s wrist. Rakhi is a beautiful festival celebrating love between a brother and a sister. Sisters tie strings around their brothers’ wrist wishing long life and happiness. Brothers swear to protect their sisters. I won’t go into the whole spiel of gender discrimination here. Suffice it to say it is a festival of love, the intentions behind are beautiful and good. Anyway, Sean was touched beyond words. We didn’t have anything to give her. So the next time we met Sean got her a warm, soft shawl to keep her warm during Delhi’s bitter cold. She touched the shawl in delight and felt the softness against her cheek. “Accha hai, bhaiya!” (Its good, brother) and ran away as the light turned green.
We continued to see her and her charges for the next few months that we lived in Delhi. We never saw her wearing the shawl ever and wondered if she got to keep it, after all. Then we left Delhi…..and I forgot about her. Till I saw the movie, and the young wild haired girl came back to my mind. Now I don’t stop thinking about her. I wonder how she fared. Did she find happiness or is she still roaming the streets, begging or selling….herself?