How not to do things in India

#7 – Maintain a soul of stone

She looks like she’s 12.  She’s probably seven.  A little persistent thing in faded but  untattered clothes, pushing her wares with a few bitten-off words that are more hope than spiel.

We spot her before she does us, watching as her erratic path of approach-and-rejection eventually and inevitably leads to her gravitating into our orbit.  Where she remains, weaving in and around our little party, prodding, prodding, undeterred by the initial quiet-but-firm No, not fooled by our stern exteriors, convinced she can get through and make a sale if she keeps pace with us long enough.

And she’s right, and we stop.

And we watch as she takes one look at the letters we pencil out on a scrap of paper, and then plucks out the corresponding beads and briskly starts stringing them along.  She’s a focused little thing, and surprisingly, one of few words.  She keeps glancing around while her fingers make complicated knots, presumably scouting for more potential customers, maybe keeping an eye out for the cops, perhaps just out of genuine curiousity.  She glances at each of us as we tower over her slight frame, and I can see the brief flicker of questions, but she never once asks us anything, nor does she talk to us.  Just glance, knot, glance, knot.

And we watch her quietly too.  Perhaps just a bit taken aback by this lack of chattiness from a vendor who works in one of the most touristy spots of this city.  Perhaps just a bit because of the fascinating way her fingers seems to move independently of her vision. But mostly because of the wariness in her eyes.  A wariness that stops short all of our questions –

how old is she, really?  How long has she been doing this? Is she the only one doing this, or does she have family involved as well?  Where is her family?  Does she even have a family?   Does she have trouble with the authorities, with the local hoodlums, with the other hawkers?  Does she make enough to justify all the hassle?  Is she expected to make a certain amount in a day?  What happens if she doesn’t?  Is her entire life taken up this, or does she get to go to school as well? Would she go to school if she had the chance? Would she …

– and makes us just stand there passively, watching her watch us.  All the while knowing that pretending to respect her wariness is a facade.

Because what it really is, is our way of protecting ourselves from the answers we may hear. Do we really want to know just what it takes to fill the eyes of somebody that young with so much world-weariness? Do we really want to know what she’s had to see, and bear, and touch in her short, short life? Do we really want to know just how miserable and degrading the simple daily routines of life can be for somebody as poor as her? More importantly, do we really not know all this already, and are we not just choosing not to have to face it once more?

What it also is, is an excuse to help us avoid facing the sheer helplessness of the situation. Assuming she doesn’t take us for predators and run away the instant we get friendly and smile and talk nicely to her, what could we do? Offer to pay her parents for her schooling and upkeep, and hope they are decent enough to not make her do this anyway in her spare time for the extra money? Offer – if she doesn’t have parents – to find her a place in an orphanage, and hope it’s not one of those scores of places that take advantage of poor oversight rules to seriously abuse the trust (and the children) that people place in them? Yes, we could, and perhaps we should.  But then what are we to do about the other such children we see wandering nearby? What do we do about all the others we can’t see, but we know are out there?

And so we stand there, watching, waiting. And having completed the transaction, we walk away.

Walk away leaving behind yet another life, yet another story, yet another piece of our soul.
Walk away vowing to help those who attempt to make things better for children like her.
Walk away knowing that whatever will be done will never be enough, and that there will always likely be someone like her here in the future, and that all the platitudes about saving at least one life mean buggerall if there’s at least one life that won’t be saved.