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.

Impressions from Delhi

This is a older post, written while I was in Delhi last year. I hope it captures the immediacy of the city a bit better than my historical musings and I also hope to have more time to write actual new material soon. Nonetheless: enjoy, immaterial readers.
  When looked at through the lens of history, Delhi proves to be one of the most fascinating places you could hope for. A city of ruins where you can find something unexpected that will propel you back sixty, two hundred or several thousand years at street corners. But it is also a place that devours the present, digesting it into history, at a monstrous, tropical pace. Only seventy years ago what is now Old Delhi, the Walled City, the location of the Lal Qila, the Red Fort that still draws thousands of visitors, was a place of havelis, large and pleasant villa-style homes with verandahs and courtyards, fountains and peacocks. The ruined tombs of Mughal emperors in the Lodi Gardens sketch out sumptuous courtly dreams of pearls, soft silks and palaces. The gigantic imperialistic government buildings of the Raj era, the British colonial times, are still in use – a deeply impressive fusion of Asian and European styles of architecture, softly differing shades of red marble, large enough to dwarf and awe any crowd – but keeping the tombs and vanished palaces in mind one cannot help but wonder how long it takes for weeds and cracks and shantytowns to appear on the open fields around Rajpath.Delhi of today is, as it must have been during almost any time of its existence, an uneasy mixture. Beyond the historical awe, day to day living in this city can be an unbearable grind. The press of people, the never-ending crowds often makes me wish for a bit of empty space. In Majnu ka Tilla, a small Tibetan colony at the outskirts of Delhi where I stay in a decent hotel room, this wish is partly fulfilled. Whenever the crowds and the dust and the endlessness of Delhi becomes too much to bear, I can sit on a small balcony and watch the banks of the Yamuna river. A few hundred meters behind me is a dusty highway and a district of small, crowded huts, but in front of me are green riverbanks. There are about twelve small huts along both riverbanks and I can watch families of farmers dividing the banks into neat rows, growing vegetables. It is a calming scene, especially when one is convinced that India is nothing else but an endless city and a ceaseless stream of people. But the idyll is short lived – when the Monsoon comes in three months the Yamuna will rise and swallow the huts and the vegetable patches. The farmers will move away, perhaps huddling together on the streets, to wait for the rains to pass.
  I was visiting Nizamuddin, a small Muslim village within the city of Delhi. I wanted to see the famous Sufi shrine that is at the center of it. Earlier that day I had met Gonzalo, a young Brazilian who had been touring Europe and North Africa before coming to India just the day before, and we had hired a rikshaw together to safe some money (since we had come across a savy Sikh driver it took a lot of haggling and I still felt it turned out too expensive and wasn’t too pleasurable at all). In the beginning the streets were oppressive but manageable. A steady stream of people and cars, motorcycles and obstacles, much as I am used to by now. Then the streets became narrow and started turning and twisting. A walk through any part of an Indian town can yield disconcerting, surreal or plainly funny scenes that vanish as fast as they appear – this time it was a door frame painted with advertisements for a travel office, bus tickets etc. Looking through the door all I saw were light brown meat carcasses. An abattoir. A strange sight, since I hadn’t seen any Hindu meat vendors before, but of course those were Muslims and the business of slaughtering animals (pigs excepted) has always lain in the hand of Muslims. Further into the labyrinth of Nizamuddin, there was an opening to what vaguely reminded me of a Moroccan soukh, a roofed alleyway filled with stalls. We tried entering it but soon the crowds, the endless stream of people, the incessant voices, many calling to us to buy something or offering to store our shoes, holding bright pink flowers into our faces, to buy them as offerings, became a scene of nightmarish claustrophobia. It felt as if it was impossible to escape from this village. That the passage would close behind us or that maybe the people would become more and more until it would be impossible to move on. People lose character and individuality in such a scene – it becomes impossible to process all the information one receives. I felt that without a local guide, who could help us make sense of what we saw there, we would be hopelessly lost. I suppose it is a bit like an attack of agoraphobia (which, literally, means a fear of cities), but at some moments the crowds drive me right to the edge of it.

Mr. Singh, our agreeable but slightly greedy driver, also took us to Gandhi Smriti, the house where Mohandas Gandhi had lived. It is now a museum erected to his memory and I found it to be disconcertingly sycophantic. There were a few interesting photographs by Cartier-Bresson and others taken from various newspapers, but the essential information about Gandhi’s life was simplified and repeated until I felt it had no impact at all and served only to reduce the memory of the man who, apparently, stood for great simplicity. His belongings (glasses, a spoon, a pocket watch – although I strongly suspect that Gandhi’s real pocket watch did not have a fake dial dramatically stopped at the moment of his death like the one enshrined) were enshrined in a glass case, endless rows of charts described the same things over and over again and Gandhi’s rooms at the time of his death were re-organized “just in the state that they had been in” (apparently Gandhi liked stagey sterility a great deal). A tangential multimedia exhibition on the first floor provided sensual overload. Unsurprisingly, it is a place of worship more than a historical museum – as the faultless Mahatma, Gandhi has ascended into the thronged Indian pantheon and all traces of his real persona are absent, lost in the eager and decorative arrangement of his life and acts. The visitors were a few Westerners scattered mostly amidst groups from rural Gujarat (Gandhi’s birthplace is in Gujarat) and Rajasthan and the staff was mostly listless, rattling of memorized speeches that left me as bored and glassy-eyed as they must feel giving them all day.

The Lodi Gardens, on the other hand, are pleasant. The location of three sandstone tombs from the sixteenth century, filled with Indians who are out to relax a bit or to sleep and rest in the shadows of the old tombs.