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.