We’d hardly sat down before he approached.
This little kid, no more than eight years old, wearing rags, carrying a tray of bracelets. He looked down at me with big brown eyes, tilting his wares in my direction.
“For you, for you.”
It was about an hour before sunset at the India Gate in New Delhi. Crowds of people were there in the park. Cricket balls flying, children laughing, a few dozen folks splashing about in the shallow waterways.
I’d been walking around with my friend María for the past few hours, doing my best to ward off rickshaw drivers and numerous other folks whose eyes lit up with rupee signs as soon as they saw the color of our skin. I was learning fast that, for as much English as these people knew, the words no and thanks were not in their vocabulary.
And now this kid.
No thanks wasn’t working with him either. Not once, not a dozen times. So I tried ignoring him, but he just stood there and tapped me repeatedly on the shoulder.
“Sir, sir. For you. Please, sir.”
I looked up at him as he put his hand to his mouth. I didn’t doubt that he was hungry. And although I had plenty of money in my pocket, I never gave him any.
After a good two minutes of his pleading, we accepted that he wasn’t going to quit. And so we got up and left.
I felt like an asshole as I walked away.
Why hadn’t I given that kid a damn thing? A few rupees would have meant nothing to me, but could have meant the world to him. Even if he was a little scammer, wouldn’t it have been better to risk being scammed than to risk him skipping another meal?
Two weeks in India and I’d yet to give up any money to a beggar, entrepreneurial or otherwise. I’d been heeding the warnings of all those folks who told me not to give, on the basis that no matter how much you give in India, you’ll never make much of a difference.
But thoughts of starfish had been flashing through my mind: It might have made a difference to that one.
As we left the park a little girl came running up to us, younger still, though equally ragged. She had nothing to sell, just open hands and hopeful eyes. I figured I’d try testing the conventional wisdom, and so gave her what few coins I had in my pocket. She barely glanced at them before asking for more.
Again we walked away. Again I felt like an asshole.
I’m finding that India’s a tough place to feel good about yourself. Well, at least the small part of India I’ve seen thus far, that being just the densely-populated cities of Delhi and Mumbai. I’m sure I could spend a few weeks at an ashram in the countryside and emerge feeling all eat, pray, and in love with the world.
But as far as day-to-day life in a Hindu city goes, I’m not sure I could hack it long-term. Almost every excursion proves exhausting, an assault on the senses, a questioning of your humanity. I’m not sure I ever want to grow numb to all the poverty, but it seems you’d have to in order to stay sane here as a foreigner. Either that or pull a Linbaba and go work as a slum doctor.
And then there’s the fact that I feel bad just for feeling bad. Poor privileged me getting down in the dumps because I come face to face with a couple of shit-out-of-luck kids in a developing country. Boo-fucking-hoo, right?
There’s no tidy summation to this post. I have no conclusions, no resolutions. All I know is that India is indeed changing me, but not in any way I imagined.