Since my return from India, I’ve been reading a lot about the emerging middle class and its affluence, but that even with the proliferation of new apartment complexes, the garbage still piles up in the street and the sewage system lags far behind. Yes, India has horrendous problems with its infrastructure, but, sad to say, they are not alone. As you know from my previous blogs, I had very little exposure to these people, since I was traveling and exploring the countryside and small villages, wandering through markets and mixing with school children at the caves or in the airport. The children are always curious about Westerners and not afraid to engage in a conversation, usually starting with “What is your name? Mine is…… Where are you from? Do you like India?”
This experience changes when you hit the large cities. And it is here that the meandering tourist is accosted by swarms of children in tattered clothes and bare feet, begging. And this is what is most difficult for many Westerners to understand and to accept. I have written about it in my travels in Myanmar, but it is much more prevalent in India. My usual answer when asked for money is to say “thank you” in the native dialect (given to me by the locals, who sympathize with the problem), rather than “NO, GO AWAY!” If you say thank you the right way it telegraphs, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
In Myanmar there were few beggars, but if approached, I always took them to a sidewalk food stand and bought them something to eat. By my third month in India, however, I was losing patience. On my last day I was staying at a charming hotel, Wongdhen House, in Majnu Ka Tilla, the small Buddhist enclave/colony in Delhi. It was a dreary day and I was wandering the small lanes lined with shops and food stalls. There was a tug at my pants leg. I looked down at a most forlorn, pitiful little boy with matted hair and dirty hands and face, gesturing for food with his fingers pointing to his mouth. My emotions ran the gamut from pity to irritation to anger and back to sadness and pity. Where is your mother? How dare you prey on me? Why aren’t you in school? I knew the answers, but that didn’t stop the feelings. He was skinny. He was hungry. He was alone.
I walked over to a fruit stand and bought a banana, handing it to the boy. He shook his head. What, you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth? He pointed to a small bunch of green grapes and smiled hopefully. They were expensive compared to a banana, and as always happens when I travel, I immerse myself in the local economy and do not calculate exchange rates. Here was this little kid being fussy about my gift. He waggled his head from side to side. I looked at the vendor, then at the kid. His eyes were appealing. This must be a monumental treat. I hesitated. The vendor looked at the little boy and, almost imperceptively, motioned with his head for me to give the boy the grapes. The boy’s hands were trembling in anticipation and he immediately started gobbling. I looked at the vendor, who had tears in his eyes. I had never seen this on the part of an Indian in this situation. Usually they appear disdainful of such a child. But what did I know of this man’s life that led to his compassionate act? I said, “That was a lovely thing to do. You are a kind man.” He nodded, wordlessly.
“Here, let me buy some more bananas,” I said. I handed them to the boy. This time he took them, eagerly. A little girl had come by, which often happens when you give something to one child. He handed a banana to the girl and they walked off together.