The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.
I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.
The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.
I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.
“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.
“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”
And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.
Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.
“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”
“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.
She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.
The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.
It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.
“May I help, Miss?”
I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”
The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.
“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.
“Two, please, “ I add.
“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.
“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.
The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.
Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.
“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.
“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.
“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”
I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.
And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.
I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.
In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?
I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.
As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.
The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.
I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.
Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.
“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.
“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.