Lisa J Cole

I have read that only when a traveller returns from India, will they know for certain if they wish to go back. As if an Indian experience needs to be processed over time, like film used to be. And an Indian experience assaults all of the senses. Travellers depart with a collection of rich and often confronting experiences that go one of two ways: yes, I’ll have more of that or no, but thanks anyway.

As my family of six begins an adventurous gap year around the world, we embark on our Indian journey gently on the southern backwaters of Kerala. Snaking our way up the western coast on rattling trains, we stop off to explore seaside Goa and metropolitan Mumbai, where we take to the sky, landing in the country’s food bowl capital - the Punjab.

Humanity is on public display in this land renowned for its contrasts and contradictions. We soon discover the lush, green pastures of the Punjab do not provide for everyone. In the city of Amritsar we visit the Golden Temple in the morning, stopping for supplies at a local bakery in the afternoon. In a hazy sunset street, I notice an Indian girl standing outside the bakery.

Clad in tattered layers accompanied by an old, blind man standing behind her with his hand resting on her small shoulder, she appears to be a street beggar. My thoughts assemble. Maybe that’s her grandfather? Are they homeless? Maybe she’s a part of a beggar syndicate? She’s not at school? Can we do something here?

My mind lingers in the chill of having no answers to any of my questions. And throughout the night, questions float untethered like upset dust particles from local street sweepers.

As a family of intrepid travellers, we’ve wandered around inequality before. It looks and acts the same in manicured streets, damp train stations, or outside the golden M arches. It’s easy enough handing over stray Rupees without thinking it through. It helps lessen the western guilt loading without getting involved. But what if our do-good handouts are gifts wrapped in evil? We know, we’ve watched the movie Slum Dog Millionaire.

I do not know this Indian girl, her story or the procurement contract that fate may have signed. I know nothing. But I feel it.Each day, I watch her stand and beg silently amongst the chaos and street echoes. I am her witness. And each night more questions pile up that go unanswered: How old is she? Maybe ten. Where are her parents? Where does she sleep? Will she see the inside of a classroom?

Language and culture sideline me. But I know her. She’s one of my daughters, a little human that I’ve spotted, and now I’m complicit. I desperately want to help with no harm. I want to know for sure, like a guarantee. I visualise scooping the Indian girl up into my arms and letting her know that I care while holding the old blind man’s hand extra tight.

And there’s a sign. An exchange occurs between a local Indian woman in a colourfully pleated sari who exits the bakery and hands a food parcel wrapped in silver foil to the girl. The woman acknowledges the girl bringing her hands together in prayer while the girl lowers her head in gratitude placing the silver package into her bag. The restraints around my heart start to relax. If a local Indian woman gave her some food, then we can help too. A no harm guarantee.

The next day the Indian girl and the old blind man stand in their usual place. The whole family is now on board a giving mission as we enter the bakery with purpose beneath our feet. What should we buy to give them? With limited choice, I grab bread (a rational choice) that will last for a couple of days and can be shared. My daughters select the sweetest looking cookies in the shop and add them to the basket.

As we exit the bakery, the street bombarding us from all directions, we walk calmly to the Indian girl. When we arrive there are no words, just haphazard gestures. I smile into her perfect eyes and lose my senses. The stars conspire. The world stops talking and finally listens as I offer her the food, “These are for you.” The exchange is made. Mission accomplished. It’s not a reunion.

We walk on and I turn to capture one more image of the Indian girl. She’s chatting with the old blind man; a shy smile. A cookie smile. I’ve seen them before with my own. Good choice. But around the corner out of sight, I start a brawl with unspoken thoughts and weep in pain. She didn’t get to choose where she was born. And neither did we. How can that work? How can life be so cruel to this Indian girl?

Fate, it seems. Circling like a vulture. Around and around and around. Who knows why. As my head and heart start processing, I listen again as the world did. Yes, I’ll have more of that.

All story rights belong to Lisa J Cole.