Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Road to Moradabad

I have been thinking a lot lately about relative misery. Poverty, pain. 'Tis the Season, tra la la, my apologies but I just have to get this out. Everyone I know is in some sort of funk. And yet everyone I know is also lucky in a thousand different prismatic ways: I know it and they know it. And yet here we are, afraid or nervous or lonely, whatever, our minds ricocheting between what we have and what we don't, what we want and what we need, what we see and what we ignore.
Two years ago I went around the world in eight days: Hong Kong, China, Thailand, India, Germany and then home. It was a work trip but I had the pleasure of going with two colleagues that just so happened to be friends. And if we weren't friends to begin with then surely we would have been after those travels.

There is a lot about that trip that I only remember if I really think about it. The sharp sweet of a mangosteen. $18 cocktails in Hong Kong. Haggling over fake bags in China, and how the leather later dripped red dye in the rain. But what I will never forget is India, how the beauty of that country seemed to be so inextricably tangled with the pain.

These women were on a pilgrimage to the Ganges to bathe in the river for some sort of holy day. We saw them while driving from Delhi to Moradabad, a trip that should've taken 2.5 hours but instead took almost ten because of the holy festival among other Indian foibles. Our Indian agent, Anuj, called the day auspicious, a word that I have never really heard used here. I wonder why.

We were miserable in that car, hot and muggy and clausterphobic. Outside the car it rained, at times spitting, other times a torrential downpour. For countless hours we got stuck behind a truck jammed full of wet people while one woman leaned over the tailgate and vomited continuously. We were homesick and afraid to eat the food on the side of the road.

But the people--the women were stunning in their pink and saffron saris, the men with their dark eyes, the families piled onto one scooter holding babies and grandparents as if they were simply bundles of cloth. And even when the trucks were driving straight at us with no intent of moving out of our way, we could not help but notice how pretty they were--big industrial toxic-breathed monsters decorated like marzipan princess cakes.
At some point during the trip a beggar came to my window. I was sitting in the front seat because I felt nauseated. From the back seat Anuj told me not to open my window under any circumstances. So we stared straight ahead at the rain and listened to the strange music from the next car over. The beggar began to rap on my window, and when I turned my head I noticed that he was rapping the glass with the stub of an amputated arm. Bap bap bap, a dull thud, bap bap bap. I couldn't look away and for what seemed like forever we stared at each other, two accidents of birth through the looking glass. They cut off their own limbs to make more money begging, Anuj said. Sometimes it's their legs, sometimes it's their arms. Don't open your window. And I didn't. But I couldn't look away. How can you look at him? my friend asked from the backseat. I feel so bad, I can't even look up, she mumbled from behind her hands. But I felt so bad I couldn't look away.
In India the oldest caste rim their children's eyes with kohl, both to strengthen the child's eyesight and to ward off the evil eye, to prevent the child from being cursed. I wonder which was worse: looking away from the beggar, or looking him straight in the eye? Which is more respectful behind a closed window in the rain? Or maybe it doesn't matter since neither option would have helped anyway. What we see and what we ignore. I wonder if that beggar is lucky in some ways--it's hard to imagine--and if so, how.
What would you have done? What do you do when you walk by a homeless person? Look at them, or away?


hej said...

Give. Whatever you can, wherever you can, however you can ... if only a small smile, a kind thought, a prayer .... whether you believe it or not.

Jessie said...

I feel like I could just inhale your writing, Susannah. It's floats into my head as easy as breath. I can't help but mouth the words as I read.

To answer your question, I have a hard time looking away from a homeless person who may or may not be begging me for "a downpayment on a hamburger" as the one I frequently pass likes to say. I am a little jaded, I suppose, because there was recently an expose done on some of the homeless here in Kansas City. Many were follwed as they walked to their working vehicles and then drove to their apartments to be with their families. When approached, they admitted to making between 30 and 40 K a year! Depending on the generosity of passerbys, of course.

Now when I pass people begging for money, I try and talk to them a little and give them something more than money. Maybe kind words or a smile and a "God bless you." Not what they are hoping for, I'm sure, but the best I can do sometimes.

I can't imagine reacting any differently than you did looking through the window at the man with no arm. I think you gave him a bit of respect by doing that, as I'm sure many can't or don't.

Anonymous said...

Look at him just as you would look at any other human acknowledged your shared humanity...and it sounds like such a powerful experience. Now, please go write your book as I need a good one to curl up with!

Aartee said...

This is a beautiful post...I have been to India twice in my life and you capture how I felt excatly...How could I ignore the woman in front of me carrying a baby and begging me for money, or the sweet little boy trying to sell plastic toys admist bumper to bumper traffic. I knew what India was going to be when I went and I wanted to capture the every day beauty, the reality. It's gut wrenching really to look away to act like that person is not even there like their pain does not exist.

Aartee said...

P.S. I linked back to you today...thanks for the inspiration!

Oh Brother! said...

It strikes me as interesting that many of us posters, myself included, initially respond to this amazing post by telling Susannah what the answer is.

We've missed the point. The question.

What will we do? You? Me?

Susannah already knows what she did. I believe she believes in what she would do again. Or how that may change.

And this post is no coincidence. Not with the holidays. Not with the "Depression" (there, I said it!) And not with recent comments here at Petunia Face.

This is about relative pain. Or privilege. Or perception. (Perhaps the last being the most important).

How do we dare throw stones at people we believe to live in beautiful glass houses, accusing them of building their homes of glass? (We didn't build them, we just borrowed at 5.7% to buy our glass houses)

Because we each live on one side of the glass, be it our house or the window of a car; and to cast a stone would be to smash our side first.

Maybe we should. Smash "our side." Before we go on to critique another's life.

Do we ever think we aren't both the on-looker AND the beggar at any given time? Depending.

Thank you for this reminder, Susannah. No answers here, just consideration of the question. And I appreciate that.


Anonymous said...

I used to walk by, without looking, then one day I turned around and went back and as I was going to drop something in the can, he grabbed it away and yelled at me. I'm back to walking by without looking.

Anonymous only because I haven't takent the time to create an account yet :o)

zakary said...

Someone tried to break into our store today and when I got here, there was busted, broken shards of glass EVERYWHERE. Now we spend money we don't have to get it fixed. It could have been a lot worse, I guess.

I'm so over all of this. I just want to take a long nap. Wake me when it's over.

kristinimartini said...

i'm reminded of a few things...
living in italy for school(a potential guilt inducer) and seeing the gypsies w/ kids lying almost lifeless in their laps only to be told they dope the kids up on cough syrup to make them lethargic to attract more money:( i guess better than loosing a limb?
i kinda have a rule that i try not to give money, but food if i can as a lot of homeless around here where i live now "work" the food shopping areas. that has been proven to be difficult on my part after this incident:
me-going into market
homeless man-asking for money for food
me-in market buy him a sandwich and give it to him as i leave
homeless man-" what the fuck am i supposed to do w/ this? i need money!"
after that i broke my rule and gave 20 bucks to the guy on the highway on ramp.
i don't know--i think most of the time i can't look, but when i do i try to do the most i can.
i guess that's it
give the most you can
even if it's acknowledging that one human is looking at another human.
comparing things is hard. is the cough syrup kid better off than someone in india?
i just do what i can in the moment because it's too much to think about...

kristinimartini said...

oh, in response to your brother:
i WILL at least acknowledge the presence of another person even if that's all i can give. no one wants to be unworthy of at least a smile...

Oh Brother! said...

Uuuugh... someone else specifically mentioned this and others allude, but I am so with you on the feeling of "when will 'this' be over with?"

Yeah, I too feel a collective worsening :(

And to another, I too get angry when I try and give food, but that's rejected as if its an insult.

And lastly, to another, yes, I agree; even mutual acknowledgment is worth something. And if I'm to be perfectly honest, I have to make an effort at this. There are days when I feel resentful of some of the above behavior or the hassle or the feel of animosity and I just can't "look." So, I admit to my failure there at times.

But, I did give food yesterday.

THAT said, (ok, now into ramble mode), I had a homeless guy invite himself into our house here in Santa Monica. Yeah, we were having an open house, but I don't think he quite had the funds to purchase... he got agro when I suggested he leave... huuuuu argh... its hard to balance compassion with the tire of all the other stuff.

My confession.


monkey said...

we just donated all of our outgrown baby stuff (including seven boxes of clothes, a stroller, an infant swing, etc) to an abused/homeless women's shelter. i tell myself i did it for them because i felt better about these particular women and children using these objects that i loved and needed than just giving them to goodwill. truth is, i did it for me. to balm my guilt at having more. to balance the scales for the times i've walked past a person begging for money as i say 'sorry' knowing full well there is five dollar bill in my bag that i will spend on a latte later, treating myself.
eye contact depends on my mood and i am not proud of that. (although i will add that last sentence applies to every single human being i pass regardless of place in society.)
perspective. from up here, from down there. and the power of a piece of glass between the two.

Robin said...

I used to work in NYC and when they passed the panhandler law there was a palpable difference in the air with the lack of begging. Now I travel to Chicago quite a bit, and there is no panhandle law there. I walk the same route from the same hotel to the same conference venue every day and there are always the same panhandlers at the same spots. It's "their corner", their spot that they "work", in a very touristy area, acting like they are newly homeless, newly destitute, this is all new to them, please help. And some of them act like you owe them because you have money and they don't, and they hurl insults if you walk out of Starbucks and don't give them the change from your latte. Every day.

When I went to Mexico, I was shocked at how many children were begging, and if you gave one a few coins, the others flocked to you like a magnet, and each expected a similar handout. They turned nasty when you ran out of coins; you learned quickly not to do it again. But it was so hard not to give, and not to look. They are so tiny, and dirty, and hungry looking. In different circumstances it would be as if they were kindergarteners, surrounding their teacher, begging for attention instead of money.

s. said...

Tragically, many people panhandling on the streets suffer from mental illness or addiction. So, I never ever give anything directly but try to make brief eye contact and a civil response to their request, like "I'm sorry, not today."

And then I write a cheque twice a year to an interfaith organization that allows churches, synagogues and mosques to open their doors throughout the winter, providing beds and warm dinners to the homeless. You'd be amazed by how many people a few $5 donations can feed at a temple where a big communal soup is made from scratch.