a fiction story about the moment, and choices we have and don’t have… ong

We all know that nowadays, malls have replaced drawing rooms and public parks as places to meet up or get out. Great Houses of Commerce, they pass off as public spaces, with their entertainment centers full of movie theaters, amusement arcades, and their often elaborate sitting areas with dangling tea houses or lingering coffee pubs attached near by; and sprawling food courts with every type of international cuisine often in its fastest food varieties. Wherever you may be in the world, you will find them so. From Dubai to Delhi from New York to Tokyo, the mall as “civilization” has taken hold in just a generation.

This mall, Elegante Mall was, as it’s name suggested, a posh place. Tasteful and engaging as malls go, it was anchored by famous national brand department stores, and sprinkled with international branded shops across four floors and four wings. In three outings to the behemoth, she had only seen two wings, mostly because the best food was there or so the friends agreed; and often, that’s what brought them out.

But Elegante, being a mall in the smaller city of Chandigarh, had its particularly Indian flavor. Not only inside, with the glamorous jewelers and the stylish party gowns, but India, being what it is, Elegante was a hub of mercantile activity outside too. Starting with an assortment of taxis and auto rickshaws, whose drivers often seemed to stand around, or even sleep away the afternoon in the backs of their rigs, as often as to drive. Or the market merchants with their cheap little carry bags, or their colorful dupatta scarves waving on the thin breeze created as they were carried aloft on narrow wooden poles. There were the food vendors here too with the bold wafting smells of India, like smoking ghee and pungent chili masalas. The ice cream sellers, their carts all standing side by side, seemed devoid of competitive sensibility, with their cardboard placards announcing their brand Amul, or Mother Dairy, Creme Bell or Havmore. And finally came the only sometimes worn and ragged beggars, some with eyes that still shined, others in whom the light had died long ago. All were circling, day after day, to catch hold of the built-in flow of humanity coming and going, well into the evening hours. Yes, the Elegante was a pinnacle of the combined desirable economic social hub that served well all those who came to engage.

Following lunch, the three girls, amidst the crowd of shoppers, spilled out from the mall, into the gasping dry heat of the Chandigarh summer. It somehow always brought that thin layer of dewy sweat to the skin, as if one were baking from the inside out. It instantly reminded her that, “oh, right, this was still India, and it was still summer.” Sometimes, when in some shopping malls or at certain restaurants, or watching an English movie or tv program, she would briefly forget where she was, as if this reality did indeed belong to her. Then in an instant, just like that, something utterly Indian, like the heat or a smell, or the sight of an auto rickshaw on the chaotic streets, would shock her back to the reality of her foreignness; like a proof she wasn’t looking for. It was not an unwanted or unpleasant awakening, but it was strange how the mind would grasp at some now alien familiarity of Western experience with such certainty and comfort, then in the suddenness of momentary sensuality return itself to the cognition of her expat existence.

The cab had been summoned and so the sisters and she were walking toward the pick up point, and there, as she came down the stairs, it happened. Again. There he was.

He stepped in front of her, much too close, and with a smile that would shine in the light of heaven, spoke in his little person’s Hindi, with eyes ablaze, “Didi, paisa digiye! Das rupiah.” Sister, give me money! Ten rupees.”

He was young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and small for that. But still a little round. His upturned little brown face with those shining brown eyes, that stared into hers, trying to catch her heart with their innocence and playfulness, patiently awaited a reply.

Over years, she had learned there was no great way to engage in this dilemma: this beautiful, happy child, too young to understand yet, that his was likely to be a short life driven by persistent hardship and trauma, standing before her, full of enthusiasm and presence, waiting for her to decide what their singular moment of human encounter would be about. Would it be a rejection? A success, as a beggar? A moment to remember? By her very appearance, both physically with her milky white skin, grey-blue eyes and blond hair, and in this place, at this time where they would meet, while he was still so young and she so foreign an element, she had the power to make an impression that may well last a lifetime. What would it be this time?

She never “didn’t see” the otherly-advantaged, especially in India. She always looked, even if just for a second, because no human being should feel rejection and shame was their fate in life. Any moment they came to ask her those questions, “Am I here? Can you see me? Will you stand with me in this expression of existence?” was a moment to refuse the dictates of cruelty and collective indifference that had landed this boy and so many others into such circumstances throughout all places and times in human existence. Our human capacity for wickedness, our refusal to engage, our denial of our great good fortune in favor of a belief in our meritoriousness, the absence of a collective will to intervene, crushes our hearts and the lives of so many. India presents infinite opportunities to explore this collision with the incomprehensible, and though it more commonly presents as an assault on the conscience, it’s a moment to see your Self. It can be so debilitating that people shut down, become numb; many give alms; yet, almost anything one does reinforces the cycle of misery. But she always made the one effort that struck her as truly, safely, human: to connect.

She saw his dancing eyes, and the dust that covered him as if someone had thrown a blanket in the dusty dirt, rolled around on it, and then picked it up and wrapped him in it wrong side out; his hair, his clothes, his limbs peeking out from his little jeans and small red, white and blue checked shirt, all covered in the fine earthen dust.

She knew in the face of a blissful neglected child her heart expanded like a blowup toy. This little guy like nearly all children, even many of India’s poor children of a certain age, was so connected to this moment and its possibility, that even the indignity of circumstance could not, at least not yet, touch his naturalness and enthusiasm in this game of getting his needs, or if not, his wants met.

After breathing him in, with a heartful smile, and letting that fullness rain down on him, she began to walk on.

“Didi, paisa digiye! pleeeease…” Sister, give me money, he said, running ahead to step in front of her, his little hands outstretched to stop her momentum. She had no choice but to stop, missing his bare toes by rolling onto her own, her body left leaning over his head just short of on top of him. His determination was not news to her, but it never ceased to amaze and charm her when with so little fruit for their effort, still these children remained engaged.

“Paisa?” she asked him, “Kya paisa? Kider?” “Money? What money? Where?” pointing to her empty hands and absent pockets.

This trick had often left her instantly abandoned when the River kids of Rishikesh would try to catch her and wrangle much greater sums out of her. Those kids were real pros. “Sister, hundred rupees, just hundred rupees for flowers,” and yes, they spoke in English. They wouldn’t get more than 10 rupees from a local or even an Indian tourist; she knew, but it took them a year of seeing her on and off regularly, and her refusing to be cheated, before they voluntarily brought the price below 20 rupees.

But she loved those kids. They’d chit chat, and come running when they saw her. But it was the same story: buy this, or buy us that. Sometimes yes, sometimes, no. For a while she took to leaving her wallet empty or walking without a bag, just to avoid haggling with them over things she didn’t want or need. But she also loved them and cared for them, often buying bananas, or a bag of candy or a box of crackers just to share with them. She also often bought flowers or chat, just to support them in their efforts to work rather than support them to beg, or worse. But over time the smiles didn’t depend on yes, or no, or what they got or didn’t. They were happy just to meet, and walk a little way along the river together, and laugh and play with their American big sister.

By her second season in Rishikesh though, she began to see a little deeper. Once she came upon a group of the boys, and quickly discovered they were gambling. One of them was only 8. The eldest 14. She scolded the older boy telling him to think about what he was teaching the younger ones. He knew very well it wasn’t a great idea, but he was hoping to cheat the little one because he made good money. Like a flash, she realized what was going on, and like any mother might have, gave them all a blasting. It wasn’t more than two days before she found them at it again. And never gave any of them another penny that winter, reminding them over and over again that she wouldn’t support their gambling. She never saw it again, but knew it was likely not because they had stopped.

She had discussed the situation with one of her friends who was a Swami there. He also felt the children on the ghats needed an alternative; a place to play, a place to be kids. Most who were willing could get an education. Many of them weren’t interested and with no one educated before them to make it important, they were at a great disadvantage. But there were social and political obstacles as well. There were lots of people making money exploiting these kids, and their parents for that matter. Plus, shutting it down was not necessarily the best recourse, if there was nothing to replace it. At least there was income in these families because of these “jobs”; otherwise they all may have been begging. This was a generations old problem, and solving it would take more than just he and she talking to a few people. After their conversation however, they both had stepped up their efforts to engage the kids around them. Neither of them was the type to do nothing when they knew that love could have an impact.

“Money? What money? Where?” she had asked him. She followed his wide surprised eyes as he watched her show she had no wallet and no pockets. Though he was young, he was already smarter than that. When she shook her hands showing their emptiness something in her movement alerted him to the small red pack on her back, and he laughed his child’s little giggle.

“Didi! Ider, ider, ap ki paisa.” “Sister, There, there is your money” he exclaimed as if to say, “I am not falling for that one, Didi!”

“Kider?” “Where?!” she demanded with an even bigger smile, glancing over her shoulder as she bent down to his eye level. She already wanted to pick him up and smother him in a bear hug for being so cute and smart. “But,” she thought, “you’d really need to give him a bath first.”

Looking right at her, still grinning ear to ear, “Ap ki pack, Didi! Ider!” “Your pack Didi. There!” he said finally turning his eyes back to the little red polar bear printed bag she had bought on her last trip to this mall. She took note the money she’d spent on it could probably feed his family for close to a month. And it wasn’t expensive.

“Ohhh,” she laughed, and in English, “you caught me, you’re too smart for that one!”

She wanted to rip open her pack and give him some money, solely for his unshakeable commitment to the goal. She wanted to take him and at least make sure he had a decent lunch. She knew from experience, however, that if she moved with one kid, there would five in a heartbeat, and before she was done she would be feeding a dozen people, and fighting off more to escape with anything left in her wallet. Here again, her appearance worked against her. A generous Indian could feed someone almost unnoticed, but Westernness had been over commercialized on the global scale. The blond hair, blue-eyed female variety was stereotyped into a generous savior or a porn star, or often both; by the Western sales machinery; not Indian. But India has an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s built into the social structures. Given a chance, someone will take it, and make it work. So we gave them an image, and they universalized it for a cut of the profit. That’s the problem when leaders lack ethics and vision. They can sell the future of their very own into oblivion without even realizing what they are doing. The number of men who on meeting her for the first time wanted to know if she was considering marriage, or worse, wondered out loud would she have sex with them, well let’s just say, it was not uncommon; and not entirely their fault.

So, she knew, in this place, opening her wallet, or even buying him a meal was already out of the question.

But he wasn’t done, and she didn’t mind his smallness stalking her. She almost never minded the little ones stalking her, because they were all still in it for the game; they were too young to need to win, and too poor to expect, or worse, demand a result by tantrum or thievery. Such need and expectations are born out of predictability, out of some degree of certainty. This kid had very little he could count on. Without something to count on a demand by tantrum breeds only greater insecurity, like a slap, or being left behind; and unless something changed, thievery or at least a habit of cheating, would catch up with him soon enough. But for now, in this moment, they could both rest in his innocence, and play a little longer

So he took it to the next level. “Ice cream, digiye!” “Give me ice cream!”

When she looked at him with an eye brow raised and questioned, “Give you Ice cream?!” she was not surprised, but not without her ever maternal, mildly reactive, “no dessert until after proper food” impressions resonating in her voice. Then she wondered was there anyone to make sure he ever got proper food?

“Ji Didi, Ider,” “Yes, Didi, there!” he said pointing his pudgy little index finger towards the line of ice cream carts whose contents were also surely suffering the heat.

Somehow they were eye to eye again, this time with her bent down, her hands just above the knees, supporting her lean. “No, I am not buying you an ice cream,” she said shaking her head “no” as she answered again in English, as this somehow made the finality more bearable, at least in her own mind. “But you’re awfully cute,” she said, tickling his belly gently to let him know she adored him, and “no” was not a lack of love.

Once she had made that mistake. She had been walking alone on a busy Delhi lane en route to meet a friend and she was late. She saw a relatively well-dressed woman, speak to her also reasonably well dressed daughter, who turned around to look at her. They stopped and she past them on the street. After a moment the little girl came running up behind her and asked her for 50 rupees. Clearly her mother was teaching her to beg, and figured again, the rich Westerner, was an easy mark. But 50 rupees to start was just cheating, even for a beggar; and she was already rushing and fed up with being the endless target of this false yet persistent narrative. It was a common cycle of frustration for all the Western-looking foreigners she’d met since she’d been wandering India. Usually it meant it was time to get out for a couple days or weeks or months. Your compassion was spent and India was no place to be without it. But she wasn’t out yet, and she was rushing because she was late; and still, she had patiently told the little girl “no” repeatedly. But when the girl gave up and her mother sent her back again, right there in that moment, she hit her limit. She walked a few more steps with the girl trailing her, “Pleeeease, Didi, 50 rupees. Pleeeease…”. Then in an instant, she stopped, turned, and shouted at the girl, in a single rapid motion.

“I said no! Leave me alone!”

It’s one of those things, with a person who is full of patience and love, they often forget that when they lose it, its just as big and terrifying, as that love is charming. One just flips into the other, but the intensity remains the same; and while the love breeds joy and happiness, the anger just brings terror. But such people rarely realize their own power, because they have no interest in having any.

And so it was in this case. The child froze; her face crumpled and she began to shake, and then sob. Finally, her mother found it in herself to behave responsibly and ran to the young girl’s side, “Kya tum? Kya te karo? “What you? What are you doing?”

She wanted to scream at the mother now too. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING! This child is clearly not a beggar, so why are you teaching her this?!!!”

The little girl said through her sobs, “She yelled… at me!” breaking down, her head buried in her mother’s heart.

Whatever the circumstances, taking a 10 year old girl who has never begged and trying to teach her to do so, is perhaps, if its possible, an even greater cruelty, than a child born into it. Though a woman with no education, who loses her husband and cannot hold a job because she doesn’t have any skills, will try anything to keep her child fed. But this was just not the day to ask her, and certainly not to be begging in dollar values instead of rupees. It was just not the day. A bad call. And a traumatized child. And nobody’s and everybody’s fault. dutta

By now they were both hooked. He, on the game; she on his unflappable supreme cuteness. Both of them knowing how it would end, even if the details weren’t determined: separated, never to meet again but each having left a relentless impression on the other’s sense of the world and how it is; impressions, where neither of them would ever understand the other’s, but that shared the fullness of what humans could share in a moment, even at his tender little age, and her great distance from it.

Realizing the girls and the taxi were already waiting, she increased her stride to avoid adding to the echoing chaos of cabs honking and riders calling out. Her friend threw open the door as she approached looking anxiously from behind it to see where she had gotten distracted. But the little boy had pursued, running up behind her, arriving just as she dropped herself into the back seat. He was already between her and the door, before she could reach for the handle to pull it closed. He rolled down her window, and looked at her as if he had just completed the terms of his employment.

And that was it, he won. She cracked. “I have to give this one something; he’s done that as work,” she mused in the awe and ecstasy of love. The competition against poverty was not one between have and have nots; especially not in India where a large swath of it’s upper class waits ready to empower a motivated underclass. It is a battle against the forces that rob motivation and steal dignity before the age of ten. Forget that it was too hot for windows open, and the AC was already blasting. What did he know of such things? But he swept in to do the work for her, to roll down that window, and rewarding that instinct was necessary, especially in one so young.

She pulled the little backpack around to get out her wallet. He sweetly slipped from between the door, and they closed it together as the driver scolded them to hurry, “Jeldi! Jeldi!” and went on muttering something she couldn’t understand. The little angel peaked his beaming face at her over the window. She turned to the zipper on her pack, and as she was looking down, the driver pulled away in a hurry. She instantly turned searching out the window but her little friend had disappeared behind a wall of passing people, shifting cars, and noise. She turned away, looking ahead, frozen for a moment, speechless, incomplete, unfinished…

Another gone moment in India.

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