“Neither you nor I are God. It's not up to us to fix everything. We can't carry all that responsibility. Some things you've just got to walk away from.”
I said words like these recently to a travelling companion in India. Words that didn't seem all that convincing to me then or now, but I felt the need to respond to her reaction to the deeply unsettling sights and experiences of street children begging for money. Maybe it would have been better to have said nothing, as the words sound pompous and superficial to me now.
It was the young children, in whose faces I saw the softness of my own grandchildren, who made any glib dismissal impossible for me. I would hold up my hand to ward them off, harden my heart, shake my head, and stare through them, but their eyes penetrated me and left a grief and a rage on their behalf that has not diminished.
I saw many beggars in India. Deformed limbs, stumps where hands should have been, feet or legs amputated. Beggars are not a pretty sight. By the nature of things beggars do not set out to blend in with the background. In your face (literally) asking for money, they do not give up easily; at least those I encountered did not.
They can, however, be ignored relatively easily. Our guide told us that none of them were short of food to eat, and that some were quite wealthy. All of which might or might not be true. When we intellectualise things we can rationalise them and keep them safely separate from our emotions. If these annoying confronting people are not what they seem, then how easy it is to pidgeon hole them in safe sealed emotional boxes, never to be opened
I find it hard to believe that anyone would choose the life of a beggar, but no one, it seems, needs to go hungry in Delhi, or anywhere else in India. Sikh temples have it as their mission to feed the multitudes free of charge at least for one meal each day. One temple we saw in the centre of the old city fed thousands each day in its kitchens, and employed dozens of volunteers to prepare food bought with public donations. This example of simple gracious charity is a powerful one in a country wracked by poverty and injustice.
(Sikh Temple worship, Delhi)
It wasn't the apparent poverty of the beggars that disturbed me. It was the invisible but very real bubble surrounding each one of them. A bubble that denies humanity a place and dignity a value. Those I saw begging had not lost their dignity because of their poverty. They had lost it because they operated in a transactional paradigm. They saw their fellow human beings as sources of income, to be manipulated; nothing more.
Many people I passed in the streets were obviously poor, but had the undeniable dignity of sovereign human beings. Unlike beggars, they lived in a paradigm where trust, respect, and community rule.
That is how I could brush an adult beggar aside and ignore him or her. They were trying to manipulate me. They did not respect me as a fellow human being. I would not play their game.
All buttoned up; all settled then.
Having written that, there are two young people I came across during my visit to India who blow such a convenient dismissal and rationalisation out of out of the water. At least one of them is quite possibly no longer alive. The other will be a little harder and tougher this week than he was last week.
Something in each of them spoke to my centre, caused barriers to evaporate, and left my soul trembling.
I have photos of neither. No matter. They are hard wired in me.
The first was a girl, about sixteen, amidst the crowds in the railway station at Jhansi. Pretty, sort of, her hair was dark and her sari colourful. She was fine featured and very thin. She stood in the throng howling like a dog, breaking her howls with what sounded like a denunciation of individuals around her (I know very little Hindi). Nobody payed her any attention. She berated passing faces and gesticulated angrily, almost as if she were defending her territory. I looked to see if she had a support network anywhere. I couldn't see any. It was obvious she was not a rail passenger.
Next to her on the platform was a pile of clothing, obviously hers. After a few minutes of unsettling canine howling she knelt down meekly as if no one else existed and proceeded to fold the clothes in her pile neatly, covering them carefully when she had finished, with a bright piece of silk.
That was the extent of our interaction, if interaction was what it was. I had simply stood and watched her from several metres away, shocked first by her howls, but then overtaken by concern for her. Mental illness? Probably. What hope did she have? Little or none. The vultures were surely circling even then on the platform. A young girl alone in the world. No prospects. No safety. No charity. No grace.
She has remained in my thoughts. I have not been able to dismiss her as easily or as glibly as the beggars above. Is she still alive? Who knows? I believe she matters to God. Is that enough? It has to be.
The second person to blast a hole in my defences was a young boy whose face appeared at the side of our tuk tuk as it stopped in traffic in Delhi. He was maybe five years old, but probably younger. Someone (his mother?) had painted his face to give him monkey whiskers, maybe to charm the punters. He saw I had a note in my hand to pay the driver and reached for it. Without thinking I knocked his hand away, only to see his hurt, injured look. At that moment he reminded me of one of my grandsons, and I deeply regretted what I had done. I had contributed to a loss of innocence and gentleness, the traces of which were still obvious in him. He was barely more than a baby.
I was not proud of myself. He was learning his trade of begging and manipulating people. He had no choice in that. I saw in that monent he was no different in his humanity and in his need for love, from my own young grandsons. He needed what my grandsons need. I gave him nothing.
Easy labels are comforting. They are, however, of no value. Beggars are a nuisance. They are undoubtedly dishonest. They are also my brothers and sisters and I turn away from them at great cost to myself in ways I can barely recognise. I know I cannot fix all the injustice in the world or right all wrongs, but I so badly wish I could!
At times like these I can't understand God. Why did God make me the way I am: to have a yearning for charity, love and justice, but then not give me the means to achieve them. Yeah, I know. Why should I expect to understand my creator. Such hubrus; such arrogance. But those two spoke to my soul. Why give me a soul if it is seemingly so powerless?
Maybe then, superficial words are all I have. That, and a gut response that somehow, hopefully, is enough.