Trip Start Mar 01, 2006
30Trip End Dec 25, 2006
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As I crossed the street, a woman in a dark green sari approached me
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.