Wednesday, July 14, 2004


As she sat down on her bags on the train platform, having been careful to find a place without a blood-red pool of beetel-"juice," she pulled out a journal and uncapped a pen. From yards away, she saw the boy approaching.

Earlier in her travels, after a conversation over a long dinner with a journalist friend, she'd agreed that giving money to India's begging children was not a moral good, but only quick personal relief. A way to buy oneself out of the discomfort of staring into the face of abject need. The journalist had discovered that most children only took the money back to whatever adult had sent them into the street and rarely ensured them a meal or even a safe place to sleep. Plus, he argued, they would otherwise continue to be dismissed by the government as self-sufficient as long as begging were viable. The moral action, they had decided, was to find a truly effective humanitarian organization who was making a difference and give the money to it. Over a good meal, across the table from a man she knew to be deeply compassionate and more traveled than herself, it had sounded so reasonable.

As the boy continued his approach, she noticed that none of the locals were giving to him. In a rash moment, she decided not to even look at him as he moved closer, soon toward her to get her attention. "Money? Money?" she heard his soft voice and continued to keep her head bent over her journal, pretending not to hear, pretending not to see.

She knew what he would look like if she raised her eyes. He wouldn't be taller than her shoulder if she stood. His shirt would be too small --- a belly smeared with dust and oil revealed at the top of pants also too short, and frayed. His face would be streaked in soot, saliva and mucas. His eyelashes would hold bits of drying sleep. And under all that she'd see his soft boy's skin to match his soft boy's voice, pouty full red lips and deep, dark mesmerizing eyes. He'd be adorable, in another setting. In a place where he was loved.

"Money? Money?" He put his small hand between her face and her journal. The dirt, as though left behind in a drained bathtub, formed a ring around his palm. She knew without having to see it that the back of his hand would be mottled with the tan and gray dust of the train station, nearly blended to make his brown skin seem much darker.

She held her breath and he moved away. She blinked back tears.

Someday, she wrote in her journal, I will be safely encapsulated again -- all of this will be invisible, this open and oozing wound of human degradation and despair. It won't be gone. But it will not sit next to me, tugging on my sleeve. I will have to remember it on my own. "God," she wrote "make my heart break and keep it broken. Please don't let me forget."

As she read the words over, she was reminded of several days earlier, when a child had grabbed her pants as she was hurrying across a busy, noisy street. "Please!" he'd cried, fingers digging into her thigh. In a flash of sudden anger she'd slapped the hand away, hard, and was immobilized immediately after with shame. But turning around, the child had disappeared. She hadn't thought of it again until now.

She heard the train pulling in and lifted her head to look around. This boy was gone, too. She closed her journal. "May God save us both," she whispered to his ghost.