I flew to India in late January to attend the wedding of one of my dearest friends. Before arriving, I had been told to prepare for an assault to the senses. I thought I was prepared for the smells, the colors, the sounds, the tastes, etc. However, what I wasn't prepared for was the way India would show me my own inhumanity.
The wedding was spectacular! Truly, it was a once in a lifetime experience being part of an Indian wedding. I will likely never again attend a wedding ceremony in the middle of the night, nor feel as glamorous as I did wearing my Sarees. During this time, we were showed endless hospitality and generosity by the bride's family. It is something I will never forget.
I will also never forget the people of India, especially the children. The first day we arrived in Hyderabad, we ventured out to one of the famous forts. While there, fifteen people asked to take my picture (and I'm certain many took a picture without asking). Even though I was wearing typical Indian clothing (lent to me by my friend), as a 5 foot 8 inch tall, blonde, curly haired, blue-eyed, extremely pale, american female, I was conspicuous--to say the least.
As someone who doesn't typically turn heads in a room, the attention was flattering. Women wanted their children to be in photos with me, calling me beautiful. I imagined what would happen to these photos--"here, look at this american I saw today!" I hoped none of them ended up in scrapbooks or framed on walls because I don't feel that I deserve that kind of attention as a complete stranger. Still, feeling like a movie star was flattering. Though, it also quickly became tiring. I couldn't go on tours without being stopped by someone. While I began the trip eagerly accepting to take photos with these strangers, I ended it coarsely and curtly answering, "No."
India's overstimulation wore me down and closed me up over the 10 days. On the streets, especially in the markets, I could not walk without being prodded. If it wasn't someone wanting a photo, it's someone begging me to look at their wares, step into their shop, take their tour, buy their trinkets, feed their child, etc. The thing is, I know it isn't with mal intent, it's just business. They need money, and I might have it. Even if I say, "No, I am not interested," maybe I could be persuaded, or worn down enough to give in. I understand. But, there was little let-up and it soon took a toll on me.
I was worn down, but not in the way they wanted. I wasn't warming up, I was just turning off. I soon mastered the art of putting my sunglasses on, looking straight ahead, and walking. (If I don't acknowledge them, maybe they'll go away?) I became coarse, hard, admonishing men for heckling me and hiding my face from children in need. I, literally, turned my back on humanity.
I wasn't ignorant of it. I noticed this creeping coarseness and attempted to combat it early on. Maybe if I never have cash on me, then I can tell these kids I don't have any money, and they will move on to someone better? (This sometimes worked....most of the time they didn't believe me. It was "No" = "try harder.")
One little girl followed me for about 7 minutes asking me to buy an elephant keychain. I told her I wasn't going to buy anything. (didn't work). I told her I didn't have any money. (didn't work). So, I asked her what her name was. She answered while still pushing these keychains at me, telling me they were a good price. I agreed with her and told her my name. I said I was from America and that I was a teacher. I asked her if she went to school. She said she did--a bit defensively--and then lowered her price. But, as I tried to keep talking with her, it became apparent that she did not want to converse with me. She wanted me to buy these keychains, that is all.
You've maybe heard about the slumdogs in India, and you might know about how the money they earn rarely goes to helping the actual kids. I knew about this too, and while I wanted to help them, desperately wanted to save each one--I knew that nothing I did was going to be enough. Even my money wouldn't help these people.
When our car was parked--or stalled at an intersection--women and children would tap on the windows to get us to look at them. I will never forget the toddler's face covered in flies and the woman carrying her. They'd motion their hands toward their mouths, begging us for money, food...human kindness. Instead, I had to look away. Once, or twice, I even ducked in my seat, knowing that if they couldn't see me, they wouldn't tap on the window. I didn't know what else to do. I just couldn't keep looking at them and not helping them, so I ran away.
As I rested my head on the back seat of the car, wondering if the young boy would disappear, Ingrid Michaelson's lyrics popped into my head:
"People are dying, I close my blinds. All that I know is I'm breathing now. I want to change the world, instead I sleep. I want to believe in more than you and me. But, all that I know is I'm breathing. All I can do is keep breathing."