There is a young girl. She is about 12 years old though the age that sits behind her eyes is years beyond. A minute in this girl’s life could probably equal a week in someone else’s.
She has no shoes, at least she didn’t when I met her and she lives in the North West streets of Delhi. I don’t remember her name, though I am sure I asked and in her soft voice she told me. But, I no longer remember. She is slender and should grow to be tall. She wears a traditional sari but it is faded and dirty; an emblem of national identity within a social culture that was against her the minute she was born. A girl with no value.
She holds her hand out and stares right at me, wanting me to see her face. “Madam, please” stretching her arm further. I shake my head no, and walk on trying not to show my shock when I look at her face. In a split second I am grappling with my own sense of morality, negotiating between my five selves, the ones all battling against each other as to whether I reach into my bag and give 10 rupees. It’s not even 25cents in my own currency.
Her face is scarred. Burnt. Scrunched like an old piece of paper, stretching the skin around her eyes and lips so that they are exaggerated shapes of what they once were. She is not burnt anywhere else and it takes me a second to understand. She has been doused with acid.
Now she has value.
She is a beggar child. Holding the hand of another small child they walk the streets asking for money from western tourists, to the chagrin of the local shopkeepers.
I keep walking and she doesn’t persist. I could have given her 10 rupees and I am appalled at my decision to keep walking, but I am fatigued by it all. Earlier in the day I had bought cupcakes for two young girls and an old lady who basically sat at my table to beg. The young girls ran off with the cupcakes and left the old lady, on her hands and knees, grabbing my shins begging for something. I’d already given money to three other children and bottles of water to some kids who saw mine and wanted to drink from it. The conversation of various, educated, local friends who told me about all the scams and racketeering going on was always in the background of my mind.
The poverty in Delhi is extreme and pervading but money won’t help it. Not alone anyway. I realize that there is no reasoning for who I say no to and who I say yes to. I am constantly on the precipice of feeling helpless and helpful.
Later in the day I follow my path back toward the train station. She is there again; the girl with the acid burnt face. “Madam, please” as she holds out her hand. I slow down ‘I can give her 10 rupees right now but they keep telling me to give food instead. The money just goes to whoever is pimping her’ the conversation bellows in my head.
“Madam, just some rice, please. One bag of rice”
I can buy her some rice. “Yes, c’mon” I say and we walk toward the store.
“Thank you madam.” She looks at me with kindness and something else. I don’t know if it’s gratitude or fatigue or indifference to the enormity of life.
“You have very beautiful eyes Madam” she says in a voice that has no hint of disdain or condescension. I turn to my right, where she is walking alongside of me and stare right into her eyes, right past her disfigured, acid scarred face. I want to hold her gaze, I want to reach in and hold that little girl and say sorry for the cruelty that this life has bestowed on her. I want to tell her how beautiful she is, how sweet that soft complimentary voice is. I look at her and want to save her from it all. Strangely, I feel melodramatic and naïve. My sympathy and well laid out ‘western’ intentions are well meaning but trite. I know it is not as simple as that. Instead, I say thank you.
We talk about mundane things on the short two minute walk to the store and when we approach the counter of the store I think the shopkeeper looks at her with kindness and me with gratitude but I can’t tell. He stares at both of us.
I buy a bag of rice and she asks for a bag of lentils also. I buy the lentils and she asks for milk, I refuse. Why did I refuse to buy the milk? I can’t say. The pull to protect myself against being taken advantage of, perhaps. This thing called pride, being made a fool of. I could afford the extra 25cents for milk. The negotiation in my mind about how to save the world vs my naiveté rings loud. She doesn’t ask again. I should have bought the milk.
I should have bought the milk.
She says thank you and ‘have a nice evening, madam’ in her kind voice and we go our separate ways except, she hasn’t left me. She walks beside me all the time now. Days later when my coffee wasn’t hot enough and I wanted to talk about the injustice of it. She says thank you. When all the many beds I am sleeping in on my travels don’t always live up to my expectation. She’s there. Complimenting my eyes. When I start to stress about money, or the fear of things not working out. She’s there. The girl with the acid scarred face and kind eyes, begging for food in the dirty streets of Delhi. She’s is next to me, kindly telling me I have nice eyes and to have a nice evening. Reminding me that I have more than I need. That more than I could imagine is working out for me. I can buy rice when I need. Lentils when I feel like it. Milk if I desire.
There is a girl in India. She is about 12. Her face is scarred; poured over with acid so that she is more valuable and will bring in more money as begs on the streets of Delhi. She says thank you, and offers compliments. A good day for her is still worse than any bad day you or I could have.