A lot of my friends don’t remember their childhood. I think that’s strange because I seem to have so many memories of my childhood and I wonder sometimes if my memories are real or just fragmented narrations that I have mentally pieced together through pictures. Birthday cakes, favorite dolls, memories of parties, family and Jordache.

Lots of Jordache.

I think the year that I started to remember with clarity was around 1981. I was five.

That year, my mother took me to India to visit family. It was the first trip that I actually remember, although I had been there before. Going to India was no easy jaunt across the ocean. It was a long flight to New Delhi, with a never ending connection at Heathrow, a bustling place where my mother and I lost our way around for a while. Luckily, my mother was eventually able to steer us to the Duty Free to load up on Dunhill cigarettes for my grandfather during that break, so we got something accomplished before boarding the second leg.

Minutes seemed like hours on those flights and there were no conveniences of iPads or cell phones, heck any wireless form of gadgetry, to distract me along the way. By the time we were greeted in New Delhi, I was beat and could barely stand on my feet in the line for Immigration. But I shouldn’t have bothered to blink because whatever break we had was brief. We would then jump onto an overnight train to take us from New Delhi to a smaller city, Patna, which is closer to my parents’ childhood towns. Actually, there was no jumping involved, but there was some form of bribery that had to take place before we were able to buy tickets.

Par for the course, I would come to learn.

From Patna, it was another 1 1/2 day journey to my mother’s hometown. To my father’s, another couple of hours. These latter legs were on rickety, stifled trains, where men hung on to the train by the sides or sometimes sat on the top. These trains chugged over beautiful rivers and mountains that weave their way through the state of Bihar and I would look through the horizontal iron bars on the windows at the women washing their laundry on rocks by the river as the train passed by.

By the time we made it to close family, I was in shell shock. Nothing quite prepares you for India when you see it the first time. Nothing prepared my five year old self for the things I would see, both beautiful and heart-wrenching. The coolies, who transported our luggage on top of their heads, on a wrapped scarf running at top speed with luggage I would struggle to roll on a cart today. The rickshaw drivers, who drove carriages full of people attached to the back of their bikes, their sinewy legs straining under the effort.

The beggars. Of all ages. Children. The elderly. Some without limbs. Some blind.

It was overwhelming. And scary. Kind of lonely. I didn’t speak much Hindi at the time, so I was surrounded by voices and a language that was painfully unfamiliar. When we went shopping in Patna, I didn’t understand why my mother argued with salesmen that were her brothers, not realizing at the time that she was engaging in the common Indian act of haggling and although she called the men “Bhai” and they called her “Behen,” both sides just wanted to get the better deal. These were not, in fact, my uncles. Which is a good thing, I guessed, since by the time we were done with those deals, I don’t know how brotherly they felt towards my bargain hunting mother.

Even at five, it was a shock to my little soul to realize that a good deal of the world lives in poverty. And I was shocked to see all the indifference. It didn’t make sense to me at all. Why was nobody helping these people? Look at that little girl with the torn dress, holding her little sister on her hip. Look at that man without any legs who is scooting himself with his arms to make it across the street. People would walk down the street and pass by a child who was crying on the side of the road. Why is nobody helping them? I wanted to cry, as our rickshaw drove past them. I saw dirty children, babies, being balanced on their mothers’ hips as they thrust their change jars into the air, begging.

I know now that you have to have seen a great number of people begging in your lifetime to not even flinch. I have to tell myself that because I can’t believe it’s in our inherent nature to ignore a small hand reaching out for help, asking you to please, please help them? I remember being so angry, even then at the people around me who could not look at or acknowledge the beggars. Indifference had made them blind.

I burst into tears frequently and was always pleading with my mother to let me give them some money. But there was never going to be enough and we only had so much to give. I was never in India long enough to get to the point of indifference. I wonder if I ever will.

My family actually thinks my sensitivity to poverty is a bit … much. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that they have accepted. They harden their shells when they land on that side of the world and they can enjoy beauty in the other things that are around them. I think this is called having a thick skin. But my skin is not like that. It bruises easily and my heart beats wildly and without apology on my sleeve for the whole world to see. I have tried to hide it and have willed my skin to thicken, but some things I can’t change about me.

I empathize with my family too though – after traveling with me for extended periods of time, it must becomes quite annoying to look over and see me with tears running down my face. Again.

“Stop crying,” my mother would say to me.

“Bu-ut, bu-ut, I ca-an’t,” I would sob. I was 5 then.

“You can’t give them anything. This is totally organized. It’s a racket,” my sister said, pointing out the ringleader as I was doling out money to two little boys, who were working me over “Slumdog” style.

“Bu-ut, bu-ut I can’t NOT do anything,” I said in between tears. That was the last time I was in India. I was 22 then.

I still don’t think I can. NOT cry.

NOT do anything.

I’m 37 years old. I have been on this planet for thirty-seven winters. And summers. I like to think I am a little older and wiser now at 37 than I was at 5. But the further I am from India, the further the harsh reality of that poverty seems to me. The longer I wait to go back, the less clear the eyes of those children become.

In a way, I think I am avoiding that part of India the most.

It’s strange what you remember from your childhood at different stages in your life. My daughter, Shaila, is five and I can’t help thinking about how different her first five years were from mine. Sometimes I look at her face and the face of the young girl on the street begging for change in my memories becomes Shaila’s. And I want to cry. Because I AM grateful. That Shaila is here and she is mine. But I am NOT grateful for what has become of that child on the streets in India. The many children on the streets. For that child, and so many others, I am sad and ashamed all at the same time.

Coming back to live my life felt like a crime. I felt like I was complicit in something terrible. The five year olds I played with in America talked about Barbies. The five year olds I had seen in India had no food.

It was a heavy burden to carry at that age.

Even as a child, even at five, I knew that I could have had a very different life. That my soul had swept into my neat little, temperature controlled life while someone else’s was begging on the streets of India.

That trip to India is when I started remembering.

When I was five.


27 Comments on Five

  1. Alison
    March 31, 2013 at 9:22 pm (2 years ago)

    I don’t know how many winters and summers you need to live, to be desensitized to poverty. I suspect, a lot, and a lot of poverty thrust into your face.

    I love your sensitive heart, but I am sad for it too. That such a burden, a global, and Indian problem, weighs so heavily on you.
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    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 10:31 am (2 years ago)

      I think when you see it as a kid and are thrust into it like that, it can be traumatic. I know that pain and suffering are part of life but why do some have to suffer so much? I think when you are around it, you find excuses for it. Oh, they are part of a ring. Oh it’s a racket. Oh, it’s not my problem. I do think you become numb, partly as a matter of survival.

      Hey I tried to comment on your blog, but couldn’t find the comment button. What am I missing?

  2. vanita
    April 1, 2013 at 2:23 am (2 years ago)

    Ah girlfriend, my very first memory is my parents taking me to guyana when i was almost 4. i remember my mom packing suitcases of pretty dresses and fancy hair things and toys that i thought were for me until i saw the boy clothes and little cars too. mom said nothing in these suitcases were mine. they were for my cousins in guyana. i was 4 and pissy about this the whole 8 hour plain flight. i stayed pissy for another day after our arrival. and then i met my cousins. children just like me, that weren’t like me. i was only 4 but as i met all these cousins, i realized why mommy brought them clothes and toys. i remember how happy they were. i remember hugging my mom after all the gifts were shared and just being glad she was my mom. i also haven’t returned to guyana since. i hadn’t thought about guyana until marrying hubby and learning so much more about guyana these past few years, i keep saying im going to find an orphanage there and send things for the kids. i keep saying i will. it hasn’t happened yet. there are books and clothes and toys packed in a box in my closet to send, but doing the research, reaching out to the charities, figuring out how to send these things – it keeps getting pushed to the back burner. sad but true. i hear you girlfriend. big hugs to you.
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    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 10:34 am (2 years ago)

      My parents and family do the same thing. Suitcases stuffed to the gills with old clothes, new clothes, candies, small toys. Giving it out when we got home to the village was one of the best feelings because my cousins were so happy. The joy was something I also can’t forget. But yes, I struggle with that too when meeting family in India.

      “They were children like me, that weren’t like me.”


  3. MomWithaDot
    April 1, 2013 at 3:43 am (2 years ago)

    Is it the sheer numbers, the awareness of what ‘actually’ goes on behind the scenes or is it the fact that poverty is a constant feature in any given Indian landscape that one gets used to it being around? Like electric wires hanging low from poles with open switch boxes? Like open drainage manholes that ‘gobble’ up people during heavy monsoon? Like the shrill voices of the drunken guy from the slum and his wife fighting, even beating late at night? Or like the beggar maid who chases you for the lunch you are just about to eat saying she’s been starving for days and then promptly sells it for a measly Rs.10 (=20 cents)? Or is it the trusted servant who gets caught red handed stealing gold from your house but tells the police you ‘gave’ them to her and the police warn you to not make false accusations again? I don’t know if it is any of these, all of these or something else totally that plants the seed in us ‘educated’ folks as kids, which grows into an iron shield as we grow too. Or is it the shield that teaches us to focus on studying – because that, we are taught, is the only way out of ‘this’ place! Sorry, I don’t know. It is a bundle I chose not to open – because if I did, the overflowing contents overwhelm me, engulf me and I get lost.
    But now, miles away and with many years passed since, I look at the bundle from your point of view (still not brave enough to open it) and your post brings tears. You have a heart of Gold. God bless and hugs <3 I can image the rude shock it must've been at such a tender age.
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    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 10:44 am (2 years ago)

      I think that in order to survive, you kind of have to harden yourself or find comfort in creating some boundary between yourself and the poor. I think we do it in the United States as well, by creating this idea that the poor are bottom feeders mooching off of welfare. Some have “villainized” them even.

      I think that the indifference is a defense mechanism, because otherwise, everyone would be drowning in tears.

  4. ilene
    April 1, 2013 at 4:40 am (2 years ago)

    I don’t know if I could ever go to a place as poverty stricken as India and not cry. Even today. I had the fortune of traveling as a child to Egypt – and saw poverty there that I never knew existed and in my 20’s to Thailand and the same thing. If I ever experienced a great measure of gratitude and sadness at the same time, it was in those places.
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    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 11:04 am (2 years ago)

      You can put fierce in your name and you are, but you? You have a huge heart.

    April 1, 2013 at 9:28 am (2 years ago)

    awesome to know that u was so kind at 5, i meet u in patna on ur last visit and that time also we were too impressed about ur kind heart and all of stories about it, and apart of all ur memory is really mesmerising

    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 11:02 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you, Navneet. That’s really sweet to hear that people thought highly of me there. I felt the same.

  6. Nelson
    April 1, 2013 at 10:07 am (2 years ago)

    You obviously showed great empathy even at five years of age. This can be a heavy load to carry as we get older. We have a tendency to get lost in the fate and feelings of others and to ignore our own. However, it is who we are. I’d rather be thought of as too sensitive than insensitive. Hugs to you.

    • masalachica
      April 1, 2013 at 11:45 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you, Nelson. You’re right. It is who I am.
      Hugs to you too.

  7. Arnebya
    April 1, 2013 at 10:26 am (2 years ago)

    I don’t remember anything until the age of five.

    Your sensitivity is who you are and nothing is going to change that. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become desensitized to extreme poverty. Never judgmental but just…aware and inactive. I love how you knew even at five though that things were wrong, that you wanted to do something. That’s a good feeling to have, a good thing to pass on to our own children. I love how my girls say “remember that time you bought that lady coffee in McDonald’s?” because there was no reason for me not to. I had the money and she asked. It wasn’t hurting me and it was helping her. I can’t not be that way. And I don’t want you to stop.
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    • masalachica
      April 2, 2013 at 9:00 am (2 years ago)

      I don’t want you to stop either. Thanks, Arnebya.

  8. Mercy
    April 1, 2013 at 11:39 am (2 years ago)

    My childhood memories are all scattered around, some I recall better than others, but like you said, it’s hard to know if the fragments are actual memories or pieced together from photos.

    I’ve lived in India for 10 years now. Yes, it has not gotten any easier to see the poverty, but I have had to harden myself to it. It just isn’t possible to help every person you see, especially when you see the same ones in the same spot every time you pass. While I don’t give money, I do donate the clothes my kids outgrow, or stuff I’m no longer using, toys they no longer play with, etc., usually to the property caretaker, or sometimes the garbage collectors. I’ve actually seen our local garbage collector wearing a shirt that used to belong to my husband.To my husband, it was worn out and smelled; to this man, it was a find because it didn’t have any holes.
    I’ve often wished I could do more, but then if I stop and think about it, I realize that as long as I’m doing what I can, even for those who may be well off but need encouragement or cheer, than I am doing something.
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  9. Anna See
    April 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm (2 years ago)

    I think it’s beautiful that even at 5 you were tuned in to the needs of the world. I am sorry, however, at the burden you bear. But it, too, is a beautiful burden as we are all connected.
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    • masalachica
      April 2, 2013 at 9:01 am (2 years ago)

      We all have burdens to bear. Maybe I just wish I had held on to my innocence a little bit longer. But, for better or worse, it’s made me who I am today.


  10. Angela
    April 1, 2013 at 7:37 pm (2 years ago)

    The true dichotomy between the beauty and the ugliness that is present in India and so many places in the world. Your beautiful writing conveys the bewilderment and the sadness of your five year old self. One of the reasons I’m not sure I could handle travelling to India, which I can only imagine as being fascinating, heart wrenching, beautiful, exquisite, exotic, sordid and guilt inducing. What an extremely powerful first memory, filled with so many sights, sounds, smells and intense feelings. So overwhelming for such a sensitive and caring little girl, my heart feels so sad for the little girl that experienced that.

    Your true sensitivity and loving and generous nature is obvious in the fact that you cannot harden yourself to not see the poverty and pain that is present in India. That is part of who you are, I hope you do not change.

  11. Renée Schuls-Jacobson
    April 2, 2013 at 11:52 am (2 years ago)

    You are soft and wise beyond your years. Meeting you, there is something so wonderfully maternal that you exude. I’m sorry people tried to make you not see the things around you. But of course, you had eyes. And a hand that was already preparing to write about these things. I love that you don’t neaten things up or present them to us with a pretty little now on top. I love that you see the injustice underneath it. May you instill these seeing eyes in your children. May we all.
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  12. Marilyn
    April 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm (2 years ago)

    I grew up in Pakistan and poverty was on our doorstep night and day. I too realized at a young age that life wasn’t fair; that I had so much and so many around so little. As I’ve grown and moved my family first to Pakistan and then to Egypt, my kids had similar experiences. I’ve since been able to go back and work in refugee situations, where people have lost even the little they had. One of the things I feel strongly about in the poverty conversation is that we can’t empower those we pity. I blogged on this recently and feel this strongly. I’ve been affected by Teju Cole’s writing recently as well as a new book that has come out that I highly recommend – it’s called Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. She paints a picture of the poor with so much self determination and strength that you are left with admiration. Glad I found your blog through a random tweet I saw!

  13. dixya
    April 2, 2013 at 3:54 pm (2 years ago)

    Kiran- you have one kind heart and were able to feel for the poor when you were 5. I grew up in Nepal and only moved to USA when I was 17..and every time I go back or read posts like these- reality hits me and I remember little children especially on the streets..but some part of me grew up seeing that and like your parents I have accepted that its normal. But the least we can do is help, volunteer, donate money, clothes, time to people in need with whatever we can.
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  14. Naomi
    April 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm (2 years ago)

    Kiran, I am sitting in the lounge at the Chicago airport and tears are streaming. People are assuming I’m missing my children, or that I’ve fought with my husband, but the reality is I have seen what you have seen and I cannot forget, feel as though I cannot help and cannot ever turn a blind eye again from others’ needs. Thank you for penning it so beautifully.
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  15. LisaAR
    April 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm (2 years ago)

    Desensitization due to overexposure to pain is probably a survival instinct, but it doesn’t make it any less sad. I’m glad your heart still hurts for the poverty you’ve described. Mine does, too. Though I haven’t seen what you’ve seen, I have seen it in other places in the world. It sucks and it is overwhelming. I tell my son that he needs to understand how blessed he is right out of the gate because he was born where he was–a place where he need not worry about being clothed and fed. That 17% of the world still doesn’t have access to clean water in 2013 is beyond my grasp. Yet, at the same time, I often feel overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

    As always, thanks for sharing, Kiran.
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  16. Katharine V. Joyner
    May 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm (2 years ago)

    Jokes about A s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think! It’s about believing in your child more than anyone else—even more than they believe in themselves. And this principle can be applied to any child, of any level of ability. My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a PhD! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits. Today, my sister works at Wal-Mart, has a boyfriend and still plays piano—one of her favorite things is performing for her friends. She and my mom have a wonderful relationship, and we all love her for who she is.
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  17. Troy L. Gray
    July 12, 2013 at 10:57 pm (2 years ago)

    Sheldon: Oh, yes, born alone, die alone. It’s a tragic human condition. Now, Raj, if you’ll excuse my mother, she’s about to make a pecan pie that’ll be so good I’ll almost forget how she blew it with the fried chicken.
    Troy L. Gray recently posted…No last blog posts to return.My Profile


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