I tighten my fingers around the rupee bills in my hand, the sweat from my palm and the heavy humid air of the Indian monsoon season wrinkling the delicate paper. I feel my pace slowing down as the afternoon sun beats down on my feet, clad in the thin slippers I had thrown on after my mother asked me to buy some supplies from the nearby market.
My long, dark braid hangs heavily on my head and shoulders. The tendrils of stray baby hairs that usually frame my face are starting to curl and stick to my forehead. My white cotton churidhar, usually very comfortable, is weighing me down, its long tunic and sash seeming to pull me to the ground.
The streets of Hyderabad are busier during the weekends. Men in neutral-colored cotton shirts stand in line, waiting for the soft-drink vendor to pop the bottle caps off their ice-cold Thums Up soft drinks. Women in colorful sarees haggle loudly with flower vendors for roses and garlands of jasmine. The vibrant greens and blues of some women’s sarees stand out against the dusty copper-colored sky and dirt roads. The fragrant smell of jasmine pulls me to the stall selling flowers.
I gently touch the jasmine petals. Each flower is no larger than my fingernail, but the garlands, which stretch as long as my forearm, contain hundreds of these flowers.
“How much is this?” I ask the vendor, pointing to a long garland of jasmine.
Five rupees. Less than ten cents. It must have taken at least three people to make this garland, from planting to weaving, yet I would be paying less for it than for a pack of gum from American vending machines.1 I turn away from the stall, making my way across the street.
With my every step, the sound of metal on metal gets louder and louder. The clanging of coins against rusty metal plates emanates from one side of the market, and I can hear echoes of the words, “Mother,” “Father,” and “Dharmam.” Beggars moan out to the passersby, addressing them in Telugu as Amma and Ayya as the women and men walk by, dodging the dozens of beggars who follow them with metal plates. Fulfill your Dharma—your duty—help a poor one.
Not wanting to encounter a beggar myself, I awkwardly keep my head down as I quicken my pace on the side of the dirt road. I feel something tug, almost imperceptibly, at the bottom of my tunic. I continue to move forward. The next tug is harder, making me stop in my tracks. I turn around.
Before me stands a child, probably no more than five years old.
I cannot tell if the child is a boy or a girl, their shoulder-length hair matted to their small head. “Akka,” the wispy voice rises from the child’s throat. “Could I have money for food?”
The child’s eyes are brown, flecked with glittering specks of gold, but as I continue to stare at the child, I can see the tiredness buried in their features and appearance. The darkened circles under the eyes. The traces of baby fat in the cheeks that are beginning to hollow. A stained pink shirt that was once too big, its tattered hem now starting to reveal the tanned skin underneath. Did the child have a family? Were they orphaned or abandoned, left to fend for themselves on the ruthless streets?
Despite my effort, sound does not escape from my throat. “Akka,” the child had called me. “Sister.” I look down at my fist full of cash and then into the child’s tired eyes. Twenty rupees (forty cents) out of the money I have can probably buy the child four meals, or maybe, a new shirt. As I start to open up the rupee bills crumpled in my hand, I remember my aunts’ and uncles’ voices over the dinner table after my family and I had first arrived for vacation in India. There had been news of underground networks that recruited children to earn money through begging and stealing. My relatives’ advice echoes in my head. Don’t trust the children on the streets. They’re part of gangs. They’ll lie and cheat and steal.
The child is still holding on to the end of my churidhar. Yanking the cloth out of their grasp, I start to run, sprinting down the road, the loose dirt coming up in clouds behind me. I do not dare stop. I turn the corners of the street, slowing down only in the wealthier neighborhood near the supermarket.
The houses in this neighborhood are large and ornate. Their cement walls are painted various colors, ranging from light beige to bright blue. There are single-story cottages and three-story mansions, each with its own distinctive style. One thing about them, however, is consistent: they are all surrounded by large walls.
I figure the houses are not much different than my family’s house, which I consider pretty big. Within each fenced-in property, I imagine there is a large and spacious shed for the vehicles and a shaded veranda for the children to play under during the warm summer months. Vegetable and flower gardens are sprawled across the front yard, and the faint scent of jasmine plants permeates the heavy monsoon air.
As I reach the store, I make my way through the automatic doors, the air-conditioned air cooling my skin and helping me catch my breath. My heart rate finally slows down to normal. I watch as the shoppers in the store walk around leisurely, putting Dove soaps and Fair and Lovely creams into their baskets. The women’s colorful churidhars and sarees are bright under the store’s light. Their thick and shiny hair is in braids down their backs, decorated with fragrant garlands of jasmine–the garlands that, as my experience with the flower vendor reminds me, were made by many pairs of tired and scarred hands.
Making my way around the store, I begin putting items in my shopping basket. The rush of adrenaline and fear that followed my encounter with the child has caused my face and back to stiffen. Seeing the familiar Little Hearts biscuits and Ponds talcum powder, I start to relax and hope that shopping will calm me. However, as I glide through the aisles, the store’s cool air that had initially felt refreshing starts to make me feel uncomfortable.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I read dozens of articles and listened to many stories of poverty in India, but seeing it for the first time in person shocked me. I had felt separate from the issue, feeling no accountability for helping those in need. For fifteen years, I had guarded myself by subconsciously building a wall of ignorance–one that was like the walls of the wealthy houses. This wall, which had protected my world of comfort, was beginning to topple over due to a child no taller than my waist.
Placing the shopping basket on the floor, I unravel a 100-rupee bill and flatten it out in my palm. The soulful eyes and
knowing smile of Mahatma Gandhi from the rupee bill seem to shame me. During his life, Gandhi had rallied for the rights of the untouchables2, a group of people who had been unfairly discriminated against through the Indian caste system (Kapur). Many of these untouchables are poor, hindered by a lack of education and trapped by the societal expectation that they would do the menial, low-paying jobs that their ancestors had been forced to do. Gandhi had set up sanctuaries and participated in hunger strikes for them, whereas I let my bias cloud my senses and prevent me from helping a child in need.
The feeling of guilt rises in my stomach, and I glance at the money in my hands.
I turn around, placing my unpurchased items near the cash register. Folding the rupee bills neatly into my pocket, I sprint out onto the street.
- After my experience, I started researching poverty and minimum wages in India, where there is little enforcement of minimum wages. The people who had carefully sewn together that garland of jasmine flowers would likely be paid much less than the 50 rupees (approximately $0.70) that they should have been getting hourly as minimum wage (Paycheck India). Seeing this, it is not surprising that 82 percent of Indians are living on less than $6 a day (The World Bank).
- The caste system is heavily entrenched in Indian society, where people belong to one of five castes. Brahmins rank highest on the social ladder and are generally priests or teachers. Kshatriyas were once warriors or rulers and belonged to royal families. Below the Kshatriyas on the social ladder, Vaishyas are generally farmers or shopkeepers. Shudras are second-lowest and are generally considered as laborers for farming and construction. Dalits, or untouchables, are the poorest and considered the “lowest” of the Indian social classes, and they are involved in jobs like street sweeping or cleaning sewage systems and pipes (BBC).
BBC. “What Is India’s Caste System?” BBC News, 19 June 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616
Kapur, Sudharshan. “Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Eradication of Untouchability: Articles : On and By Gandhi.” Gandi, Ambedkar, and the Eradication of Untouchability | Articles : On and By Gandhi, www.mkgandhi.org/articles/Gandhi-Ambedkar-and-eradication-of-Untouchability.html
Paycheck India. “Minimum Wage India – Telangana, Shops – Zone I.” Paycheck.in, 2020, paycheck.in/salary/minimumwages/21802-telangana/21837-shops-zone-i.
The World Bank. “Poverty and Equity Brief: South Asia.” The World Bank, 2019, databank.worldbank.org/data/download/poverty/33EF03BB-9722-4AE2-ABC7-AA2972D68AFE/FM2019/Global_POVEQ_IND.pdf.