Image Selection XVI – On the Road

The village of Ki is home to one marvellous monastery-fortress, which you can see in the back here. The impressive gompa (monastery) is close to a thousand years old and sits right in the middle of nowhere, home to about eighty monks (depending on the season).  | ImDorf Ki in Spiti findet man eine atemberaubende Klosterfestung. Die Gompa (Kloster) ist knapp eintausend Jahre alt, thront stolz im Nirgendwo der Himalayatäler, und beherbergt im Sommer etwa achtzig Mönche (mehr zu Festivals).

The gate to the right can be seen at the entrance of villages in Spiti. It is decorated with images of protective deities. Here, however, it only welcomes the mountains.  | Das Tor zur Rechten findet man am Eingang vieler Dörfer in Spiti. Für gewöhnlich ist es mit Darstellungen von schützenden Gottheiten bemalt. Hier heißt es allerdings bloß die ewigen Berge willkommen.

My friend Ngwang and I went hitch-hiking in Pin Valley. Unfortunately we did it on a holiday, which meant no jeeps at all, anywhere. Lots of walking that day. |Ngwang, mein Mitreisender, entschied sich mit mir per Autostopp ins Pin Valley zu fahren. Unglücklicherweise erwischten wir dafür einen Feiertag – kein Jeep weit und breit. Knapp dreißig Kilometer zu Fuß durch eine Steinwüste.

The Spiti car wash is free. You back up down an incline and park right in the river, throw out the passengers and commence washing. | Autowäsche in Spiti. Rückwärts einen Abhang hinunter, im Fluss geparkt, Passagiere rausgeworfen und los…

Image Selection XV – Faces

Those naughty ones were spotted in a schoolyard of the TCV Dharamsala (Tibetan’s Children Village). Most Tibetan kids can be funny little demons…or perhaps the demon was the pale man with the camera. | Die zwei Strolche fand ich in einem Schulhof des Tibetan’s Children Village in Dharamsala auf dem Heimweg. Zu entscheiden wer der Dämon ist – der Junge oder der blasse Herr mit der Kamera vor ihm – sei jedem selbst überlassen.

Somewhere between pride, curiosity and anguish. I am still not sure if he came up to me to get a picture of his daughter (what would be the use, since he never saw it?) or if he simply wanted to exchange a few words and we couldn’t understand each other. He came up to me and asked to be photographed, then vanished again. Perhaps he thought I was a travelling photographer. | Irgendwo zwischen Stolz, Neugier und Pein. Vielleicht wollte er ein Bild seiner Tochter, vielleicht wollte er nur ein paar Worte mit mir wechseln. Er kam in der Strasse auf mich zu und verschwand nach geschossenem Bild wieder.Vielleicht hielt er mich (nicht fälschlich) für einen vagabundierenden Fotografen.

A proud young Sikh boy dressed in fine “Sunday” clothes, looking at me with some of the most open and calm curiosity I have ever seen. | Dieser junge Sikh im Goldenen Tempel trägt seine beste “Sonntagskleidung” und blickt mich mit unglaublich offener und entspannter Neugierde an.

A Bihari worker. He kept the small monastery of Reckong Peo in order, laying bricks, cutting down trees. He is a migrant, travelling for work up to nine months a year. The money is sent back to his family. He and his colleague asked me if I was married and, clearly thinking ahead, brought me a packet of Lays chips and a copy of a porn movie as gifts. | Ein Wanderarbeiter aus Bihar, der hilft das kleine Kloster von Reckong Peo instand zu halten. Für bis zu neun Monate pro Jahr ist er in ganz Indien unterwegs. Das Geld schickt er nachhause. Sein Kollege und er haben mich gefragt ob ich verheiratet bin und haben mir später – wohl aus Mitleid – eine Packung Lays Chips und einen kopierten Pornofilm geschenkt.

Image Selection XIII – A Monastery Festival

Dzongsar Khyentse, the mildly annoyed loooking man on the throne, is a high ranking Rinpoche from Bhutan. He is an author and a film director and an immensely charismatic individual who straddles two worlds, Bhutanese tradition where he is a living god and Western disciples (mis)understanding, where he is (yet again) supposed to be a living god. | Dzongsar Khyentse, der Mönch mit dem milde genervten Gesichtsausdruck auf dem Thron, ist ein hochrangiger Rinpocheaus Bhutan. Daneben ist er Autor und Regisseur und ein immens charismatischer Mensch, der sich zwischen zwei Welten findet – der Tradition Bhutans, in der er lebende Gottheit ist, und das gutgemeinte Missverständnis seiner westlichen Akolyten.

A procession of traditionally garbed female dancers makes its way to the stage. | Eine Schlange traditionell gekleideter Tänzerinnen auf dem Weg auf die Bühne.

Eagerness and determination is visible on the faces of this family, for whom the participation in this festival meansacquiring immense spiritual merit. | Eifer und Zielstrebigkeit kann man auf den Gesichtern dieser Familie sehen. Die Teilnahme an dem Festival bedeutet für sie immense spirituelle Belohnung und einen Bonus für die Anderwelt.

Traditional buchan dancers. The group of mystics, harlequins and balladeers travels through the Himalayan valleys to perform in front of audiences everywhere. The arrival of electricity and TVs will mean a slow death to their tradition, but they are still alive and dancing so far. | Traditionelle Buchan Tänzer. Diese Gruppe von Mystikern, Harlequins und Balladensängern reist im Himalaya-Sommer von Dorf zu Dorf um dort ihre Darbietungen zum Besten zu geben. Sobald sich Elektrizität und Fernseher in den Tälern verbreiten, werden sie wohl aussterben, aber noch wandern und tanzen sie nach Herzenslust.

Hard Bones Beneath a Flexible Spirit – Spirituality, Wealth and Power in Middle Class India

The acquisition of power bestows unto someone a certain moral imperative – this holds true of any society. A high ranking politician is governed by different laws than a garbage man. Yet what happens in Hinduism is that the ethical objectivity that is prevalent in the West and which leads to the development of humanitarian feelings is replaced by a multiplicity of ethical and circumstantial subjectivities. Ethically, a person is only required to judge a situation correctly and turn it to their advantage. If a person succeeds that way, it is an essentially “good” action, regardless of the methods used. The winner makes the rules and you can only enter into a position of power by outsmarting others – it’s the ultimate expression of the trickster god, Loki in Norse mythology, Krishna, the honey-thief, in Indian. Any immovable ethical construct can only be considered ballast by someone who needs to be ethically nimble in order to succeed.

In America and increasingly in Europe we have an ethical construct that I will call, merely to illustrate it, the Spoiled Child System. It is, maybe, an inevitable construct for societies that are predominantly middle class and have been so for a long time. The one who cries loudest, not the one who steals the honey, is at an advantage. Progress and ingenuity are not awarded, but the system is in place to support the weakest link. The whole socialist structure cannot, of course, be reduced to something that simple and the view is prejudiced and simplistic, but consider for a moment that an Indian dealing with a group of Westerners in a competitive environment will always take himself to be Krishna and the others to be those whose honey is to be stolen, one way or another. An Indian with a group of other Indians…pretty much the same.

People who approach the Indian society up to a certain point are often appalled at how medieval it seems to be in certain aspects. This moral relativity, the prevailing conservatism, the option to purge oneself of all sins through the performance of a ritual and the fact that Indians are spiritually flexible enough never to feel any sort of crushing spiritual dread may well be an approximation of the mind of a European in the fourteenth century. By distancing ourselves from religion we have forgotten that it has a noticeable effect on the day to day life of a people and makes the mind a lot more robust. I find that side of religion very hard to deny. However, most Indians will react surprised if anyone ascribes a strong spirituality to them – religion, in India, is seen as something very pragmatic that enables a person to keep their self-regard under all circumstances and to allow them to purge themselves from whatever trouble they have whenever they desire to do it. Spirituality, in the sense of the contemplative Western tradition, or as something absolutely removed from worldly affairs is barely existent in India (it is, of course, there in the wanderings of countless sadhus and the idea of acquiring tapas, but even there is it driven by a certain kind of acquisitiveness, the wish to own something, spiritual powers in that case). Mind and matter are not separated from each other. A Hindu separates his life into four stages – brahmacharya, the learning stage where knowledge of the world is acquired, grihast, the householder, during which stage one works to acquire wealth and to experience physical pleasures, vanprastha, when the baton is passed on to the next generation and one slowly removes oneself from worldly matters, and Sannyasa, contemplation of the afterlife in the final years. One can decide to forgo one or several of the stages and enter into moksha or renunciation before one enters old age.

Maybe all of this can be considered day-to-day spirituality, but it is not the kind of spirit that engenders compassion. The Indian society is structured to a degree that is not obvious to a casual observer (if you think the pervasive chaos is a sign of lack of structure, try dropping a billion people in Central Europe and see how that goes), but proves to be all-pervasive once the observation becomes more acute. People in power are expected to flaunt their power and wealth in the most obvious and unmistakable terms – a politician without a revenue, ten man strong, a big Ambassador car and an arrogant, larger than life bearing is not considered a powerful man. Explosions of anger that, to a Western eye, often seem like arrogance or childishness are actually performances of power. Someone on a low hierarchic rung would rarely dare to show his displeasure to someone of higher rank. Both power and weakness need to be demonstrated in order to affirm the structure that holds Indian society together. The absolute constructs of morality that exist in Christendom are completely absent in Hinduism. A rich man is not expected to show humility, quite the contrary. He is expected to flaunt his wealth by the most extraordinary means.

Without an absolute morality, visible power becomes a spiritual focal point. But this also means that the powerful will never have a sense of compassion for the powerless, because it is due to a failure of their own that they are in a position of weakness. Equally, the powerless often accept their position as their karma, their circumstance – however these circumstances are no longer as fixed as they have been for centuries. There is no concept of charity in middle-class India, the very idea of it is considered stupidity. As such it is not unlike the middle-classes dotted all around the globe. Anything that is not obviously concerned with making money, must harbor some secret designs on it. The hierarchic structure of society gives credence to that idea, especially now that money has become a sanctioned way to climb that structure to the topmost spots. The structure itself is not questioned – it is considered an indelible result of karma. Poor people are deprived simply because they occupy the lowest ranks and wealthy people are entitled to every bit of wealth that they have simply because they occupy higher ranks. Even the gods have their hierarchies and while you can manage and shuffle and climb and fall, the structures themselves are tougher than bone, tougher than time. This is why an Indian does not consider it strange or conflicting when a guru who is teaching abstemious spiritual practices, for example, drives a brand new Mercedes and lives in a gigantic villa. His social position gives him all right to material possessions even if his teaching speaks against them. From an Indian middle class point of view there is no contradiction here. Even people who are in a position to speak up against the practice will rarely be prepared to do anything against it. In place of charity there is the right of each individual to amass as much wealth and affluence as he can, unburdened by any moral considerations or considerations for the other. Charity is offered by various religious institutions, but often as a form of advertisement or recruitment, or it is simply part of the personality of some people. It appears as the most commonsensical thing to do. If I help another, he might help another and might help me, too, if I am in dire straits.

Image Selection XII – Losel Doll Museum

Lost in a realm of gold, flowers and brocade – imagine you come a long way to see an image you consider to be a treasure on earth and enter into one of those temples. Opulent and beautiful or sometimes bright and kitschy, the images stand as a testament to the religious imagination of the people and for a religion that ultimately discards sensual reality while celebrating its irreality. | In einem buddhistischen Tempel fühlt man sich manchmal verloren in einem Reich von Gold, Blüten und Brokat – aber man stelle sich vor, man kommtnach langer, entbehrungsreicher Pilgerreise an so einen Ort…wirkt er dann nicht wirklich wie ein Schatz auf Erden. Opulent und schön, manchmal auch grell und kitschig – diese Bilder und Skulpturen sind Testament der religiösen Vorstellungskraft der Menschen, die sie geschaffen haben, und stehen für eine Religion, die zwar schlussendlich der sinnlichen Realität entsagt, ihre Irrealität aber dennoch feiert.

The Losel Doll Museum is home to multiple dioramas detailing the history of pre-invasion Tibet. It’s the only place where you can find such scenes, real or unreal. The multiplied monk is  numerous in his dreams and imaginations, but very solitary in reality.

Group scenes show opulently dressed women and finely garbed monks in marketplace scenes, evoking a strange medieval-religious atmosphere that is only eighty years in the past.

One feels strangely transported and affected by those little guys and dolls – it’s easy to imagine that they come alive at night and play out scenes from Tibet’s timeless past…

10,000 Steps to Salvation – Up Girnar Hill

I met Ritu and his friends while climbing Girnar Hill, the Hill of 10,000 Steps, in Gujarat. Girnar Hill is a famous pilgrimage site. It is about 1110 meters high and topped by  a number of temples, with a Jain temple situated a little bit lower, at about 7000 steps. There is something bombastic and challenging about Girnar Hill. 10,000 steps? Who wants to climb 10,000 steps and back in one day?
Well, I do, so just before dawn a riksha takes me to the bottom of the steps. It is chilly, but low temperatures are a blessing on such a trip. The driver is swaddled in a rag to keep him warm. His teeth clatter. So do mine. I start thinking of my own people, of the reasons Austrians or Europeans might have to climb such a hill. Being devoid of most religious sentiment, we can only start by seeing it as a sport-like challenge…but for me there is something else as well. I have been dreaming about the place, long dreams about climbing endless stairs and the stairs have begun to show up in the drawings I do daily. For me there is something mystic about it and I begin to think about how the Indians approach such a climb. I cannot number one god for every step that I take, I even have troubles with the basic concept of divinity and here I am in a world that is steeped in it. I smile patronizingly about the various Western “truth-seekers” that I meet from time to time and who come here for markedly “spiritual” trips (often translating as “ganja whenever you want it and no authorities” )…but the idea of spirituality is unmistakable. Has it snuck up on me? No, it can’t…it is here all the time. Sneaking is something decidedly un-Indian. It would ring a loud bell or shout at me. I’m about to climb a holy mountain and while the mountain may come to Mohammed, I’m sure it makes a whole lot of noise while it does. So I am safe from sneakers. But what about the obvious?
I realize that the very idea of a holy mountain is staggering to me, defies to be grasped by any sort of rationality. I do what everyone here seems to do when confronted by sheer irrationality: I shrug, chose a god to say some prayer to (Odin, who I have always liked – after all he’s the god of travelers) and race in headlong.

The mundane and the divine go hand in hand – look, the steps up the hill are lined with shops! It’s early so not all of them are opened yet. Those that are hold lonely figures swathed and swaddled in layers of clothing and the shops themselves are lit by a few candles. They sell Prasad, offerings to the gods; brightly coloured flowers, coloured powders, little tasteless rice puffs and pin-point heads coated with gold, silver or sugar, fragrant garlands in orange and yellow that one can hang around the necks of statues. They also sell more prosaic stuff – water bottles, chocolate, namkeen (tasty snacks). Other shops are still dark, the counters turned into makeshift beds where the proprietors sleep like corpses, clothed in white linen. Later, as I climb higher, it becomes clear to me that many of the shopkeeper live in their little shops…they sleep in there and, given the number of steps they have to climb up and down, they probably leave them only when necessary. It is certainly not the worst kind of life – shopkeeper on a sacred hill – but how do they live there? What about their families? (some shops are run by a number of people, women and children included) Who carries their goods up the hill?

I didn’t pause to find answers to those questions because climbing up steps is a consuming task. After a while one falls into a rhythm and that rhythm can be improved all the time. Watch out that you take one step with the left leg and the next one with the right or your knees will start to hurt. If you can take a stair in one step, perfect, otherwise you have to devise a pattern to put equal weight on both knees. The mind is engaged, one tries to keep oneself motivated, begins to trick oneself by saying “Look, a hundred more steps, then I’ll take a break…hundred more steps…ten more steps…one more step…oh, you know, let’s make it another hundred” and so on.

I cannot pause long enough to admire the landscape for fear of taking too long a pause, but the higher I climb the more breathtaking it becomes. I slowly clear the smaller overgrown hills and can see the sprawling villages surrounding them. There are other, smaller hills, topped by other, smaller temples (“Hills of 3,000 steps, hills of 5,000” steps says a small, exhausted and sarcastic voice inside my head). I am ambitious when it comes to climbing hills and mountains, so the people I started out with are soon left behind.

Before my climb I found out that you can actually climb Girnar without ever setting foot on one step. You can hire porters who will put you on a little wooden seat tied to a long pole and on this seat they will carry you up and down without ever complaining. You pay accordingly to your weight and so you will be weighed publicly and, I imagine, ceremonially before your trip. I was hoping that I would see some people being carried, but the carriers start their work later in the day, so I have to wait until I climb down again.

Later, higher up, a group of young men catches up with me. I don’t want to talk. I want to climb. But they are chatty and so I answer their questions evasively at first. But they are persistent. One has a piece of lemon that he sucks of when he feels exhausted. He is small and slender with a fine and noble face. A good-looking and charismatic man, a little younger than me. He smiles easily and acts assured. This is Ritu. Ritu is the leader of the group. They number about ten, all of them boys around twenty. Most of them are engineering students in nearby Allahabad. Only of them has chosen a different field of study. He’s going to be an Ayurvedic doctor and he has to endure some gentle ribbing from his engineer friends. They take turn asking me questions, but there is respect and restraint about their questions. Soon I find myself caught up in their interest, their manner of talking, their quick and friendly spirits. They are from Junagadh, where my guest house is. They have lived in the area since they were boys and they quickly offer to show me around. They point out, while we are walking, all the different things that we can see. Sasan Gir. Have I seen Sasan Gir? There are lions in Sasan Gir! Have I seen wild animals? Have I been to the forest? Will I visit them at their houses?

They are exuberant and curious. After a while it is very good to have someone to talk to and to point out things to me. We exchange compliments and observations, goad each other on when we get tired, pass the first temple, the Jain temple (“7,000 steps”, we sigh) and finally reach the top of the hill…

Having reached the top the first thing I felt was how strangely energized I was by the walk up the steps. I couldn’t have stopped and stood still even if I wanted it. On the top, I saw now, there was not a single and huge temple complex like the Jain temple, situated a little lower, which we had passed a while ago. There were small temples, almost like huts, some on rocky spires that stood against the clouds and made them seem like miraculous castles out of some deeply strange and affecting fantasy.

One thing, something that I had never seen before, was the way the sun, which had risen while I was climbing the stairs, illuminated the clouds around the hill. For some atmospheric reason it looked like a halo of light surrounding the entire hill. The lower parts of the clouds were dark, but the upper parts where they slowly vanished to show a light blue sky were brightly lit. Halos of light? Temples on top of rocky spires? I was pulled ahead by my wish to explore more of this miraculous place.

The first temple I passed was a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. There were a few pilgrims sitting around the temple – in fact there was a surprising number of people, men, women and even children, already at the top which made me think that they must have climbed up her during the night. If a place is called holy, it is never left alone.

I met two elderly men who greeted me with surprising friendliness and patted me on the back and one of them showed me his rosary which held attached to it an image of Osho, one rather controversial spiritual master who had founded the Pune commune and who held the belief that sex is the best way to spiritual development and enlightenment. We said goodbye and I moved on. There were more steps, but now they led down. I felt truly removed from everything else, as if by climbing these steps I had found some lost magical kingdom and now I could wander around here for as long as I pleased. Ritu and his friends were next to me one moment, gone the next. We chatted freely and joyfully.

I noticed stones painted in bright acrylic orange with two little stones painted like eyes glued to them. They were everywhere. They represent Ganesh, the elephant headed god, as I found out later. Little representations meant to remind you that the divine is watching from every place.

I climbed up to the temple that I had seen first, the one I had seen outlined against the clouds. It was a small temple, the highest point of Girnar hill and when I stood before its open doors I could see in every direction of the compass. Rivers, forested hills, villages. Everything lay spread out before my eyes.

Soon I was driven inside the temple by the throng of people pressing up to it. There were three priests inside the temple. One sat next to a divine image observing the worshippers. I had no idea what to do so I studied the people who sat down in front of the image before me. This gave me very few clues since most of them simply sat in front of it and then supplicated themselves to the image. Then they moved off, moved around clockwise in the temple room and then, upon leaving it, they rang a bell. When my turn came I sat down in front of the image and got up again. The priest called me back. “You didn’t do it right,” he told me in English. “Sit down and relax.” I crossed my legs, breathed a few times. “And now you bow down.” I did, touching the cool stone with my forehead. He seemed satisfied, so I put a few rupees next to the image as a ritual gift and moved off. I reached the bell and another priest who was sitting right underneath the bell, an expression of absolute bliss on his face. I was puzzled for a moment, apparently long enough for the first priest to turn and tell me, “You ring it, as loud as you can.” I nodded and rang the bell, moved outside of the temple, slightly stunned and dazed.

The cool air outside refreshed me and I climbed down again, made my way back to the temple of Hanuman where I hoped to meet Ritu and the others again. On the way I met some men from Rajasthan, a desert region, who invited me to sit down with them and share a bit of their food. They gave me cooked flour mixed with spices. We couldn’t communicate much but the mood was very friendly. They asked where I was from. There was a graffiti right next to us, on one of the rock faces. It said “Austrian-Indian Mountain Climber’s Association” in Hindi and English. I pointed at it and said, “From there, from Austria.”

Later I found Ritu again and he showed me something next to the Hanuman temple. There was a formation of rocks and if you climbed through it, you were said to be allowed to make a wish. We went down on our bellies and slid through a narrow mouth made of rocks and entered something like a little cave. We had disturbed two young boys who had sat there and who looked at me with wide and surprised eyes. We climbed out through an exit on the other side and Ritu invited me to come and eat with him and his friends. He had seen that I had not brought anything to eat with me so I had to share with them.

We sat down on a ledge behind the Hanuman temple and had chapattis, some pickled spicy vegetables and even some sort of dessert, which I couldn’t identify. It tasted wonderful. Monkeys had gathered to watch us, hoping to snatch some of the leftovers, but there weren’t any. Afterwards we sat in the sun, enjoying the day, enjoying the sunlight and watching the faraway and blurred world below.

Hidden Babies and Ineffectual Gifts – An Encounter in Howrah

I was at Howrah, the main railway station of Kolkata or Calcutta as the city was known four years ago, before it was renamed in an effort to turn the name into something a little closer to its pre-colonial and traditional form. I was at Howrah and I was watching a couple of sinewy workers load big chicken baskets onto a carriage, waiting for the train that would take me up North, to Siliguri, where I would get a jeep to Darjeeling, my actual destination. The names of towns and of cities which – to a foreigner or “non-traveler” – mean nothing more than dots on a map or unorthodox piles of letters become very important in the view of the traveler. They become a kind of temporary identity. “Where are you going?” is what travelers ask each other. “Oh, from Delhi to Jaipur” or “I’m making my way to Kathmandu” and so on are the answers and while they may seem boasting or strange or fascinating to anybody sitting at home, for the traveler such answers are a kind of temporary home and give them some shaky sense of comfort.
I had with me three apples, which I had bought the night before, a bottle of badly tasting clean water (water from the tap is undrinkable in India) and a bar of chocolate – some overly sweet British manufacture containing bits of nut and raisins – and my backpack.

They appeared suddenly. Two brown skinned girls with matted hair, who somehow seemed like ghosts formed by the streets, because they had about themselves something grey and dusty. It covered everything – their faces, their hands, their clothes – everything except for their eyes for one looked at me with lively eyes and in the eyes of the other I saw nothing but tiredness, resignation and apathy. Two beggar girls.

The two weren’t old enough to be aware of themselves as beggars, so they behaved very naturally around me, without any sign of neediness of deference. The girl with the lively eyes exuded energy and curiosity, the girl with the apathetic eyes didn’t even look at me properly. She held a bundle of sorts in her hands and she seemed tired, so tired that she could hardly stand upright, but sat down next to me and stared straight ahead into some private emptiness where none could follow her.

The other girl grabbed hold of my sleeve and of my fingers and started to chatter happily. She didn’t beg. We started the exploratory kind of talk that happens between two people who speak and understand little of each others languages. Among other things I pointed out the scores of beaks that poked from the woven chicken baskets next to us, but she was more interested in my hands, so I started a game of “dancing hands” with her, making my fingers slip and fly from her grasp and dance in front of her eyes. This made her laugh and with an unsurprising lack of distance she started grabbing my arms. I know I asked her for her name, but now I am a little torn because I have forgotten her name and I do not want to invent a name for her – it would turn her into too much of a fiction.

I held out one of the apples for her to take and was surprised. She didn’t want it. I had thought, arrogantly, that she was begging from me but she wasn’t, not at all and the arms crossed in front of her chest made this more than clear. In the end it was me who had to beg her to take the apple and to take another one for the apathetic girl who I thought to be her sister. The lively girl had to hold the apple right under her sister’s nose and hold it there for a while until the girl reacted. She didn’t react too pleased, either. She sniffed disapprovingly and waved her sister’s hand away. She didn’t want to be disturbed. She held on to her bundle tightly and lay down on the floor, resting her head on my knee. Where her head touched me I imagined that I could feel all the cold and all the tiredness that was inside of her small body. I could feel just how cold she was, just how weak and how much she needed the rest. For a moment I began to wonder how it could be that one girl was so weak and the other so energetic and I thought, strangely, that the lively girl was somehow taking all the strength from her sister. This filled me with a small, irrational anger for her.

Accordingly, the lively girl reacted angrily, put down the apple and cursed her supposed sister and then turned back to me, smiling. She inspected her own apple carefully, found a spot where the apple was spoiled and said, “Uncle, uncle, look.” and pointed it out to me. I said something apologetic and she shrugged her shoulders, bit the spoiled spot out of the apple and spat it on the railway tracks. I tried to get the other girl to eat her apple, but she kept waving my hand away. Her movements caused the cloth that was wrapped around her bundle to slip and suddenly I saw that she held a little brown-greyish baby in her hands. I looked at the baby for a moment, searching for signs of life in its immobile face, uncertain what to feel.

Only then, as if the discovery of the baby was necessary to wake her from her slumber, the apathetic girl came alive. She sat up and moaned for a while until her sister, unwillingly, took the baby-bundle. She started to eat her apple and I began to feel quite glad…glad that she was cautiously enjoying her apple, glad also that the baby they had was alive.

I hear a voice over the loudspeaker calling out my train. It would leave in ten minutes. I realized I had to leave the girls. Looking through my pockets I found that I only had twenty rupees left.

The lively girl had returned the baby to her sister, who held on to it in a way that made it impossible for me to say what she thought. Was this her little brother or sister? Was it her own child? (Couldn’t be – she wasn’t older than ten…those were children who had been sent to beg or who came here because they knew they sometimes got something to eat here.) Did she try to give warmth to the child or did she hold onto it because the child warmed her?

I let the thought go and gave the lively girl the money – I had two notes and I pointed at her and then at her sister. For both of you. She grabbed both and turned stubborn so for a few moments we had a little quarrel.  While quarrelling I realized that it wasn’t about the money for her (maybe that is obvious, but India and money are an easy cause for paranoia among visitors to this country) but that it was about dominance. She was the older, she was the stronger. She would never give something willingly to her sister who was weak. But I, stranger or not, was still a grown up and in the end she gave in, crumpled up the note and threw it at her sister (by then I was pretty sure that they were indeed sisters). I had nothing else to give to the girls and only the fact that my train was leaving in ten, no, five minutes, kept me from feeling more guilt and responsibility than I did.

I took my bags, said my goodbye to the weak girl, trying to put as much, sadly ineffectual, kindness into it as I could and went to the train. Her sister came along. She hopped and danced around me, displayed once more all the life and strength that her sister lacked, and asked me to buy her something from one of the stands. She felt so much like a child that I had adopted for a couple of minutes and not longer. I told her, with some leftover anger at the way she treated her sister, that she had all my money and that she could buy something for herself. When I was about to enter the train (and the train, with all its controllers and wardens is taboo for beggars and street kids, unless they are selling something), her quick eyes spotted the chocolate in my bag. I broke it in half, asked her to give something to her sister, said goodbye and stepped on the train.