Slumdog Millionaire, the movie Mark mentioned below… it brought back a lot for me. A lot I had forgotten. About the children in India and Nepal. Not forgotten intellectually… no, images of ragged, dirt-caked children missing a foot or an eye do not easily leave one’s mind… but the visceral emotional experience of maneuvering the chaotic streets of Delhi, Bodh Gaya, or Kathmandu with not one…never just one… but two or three or sometimes four children pulling on my shirt, my hand, my bag, whatever they could grab, and begging for money. Sometimes food. Sometimes a pen. Mostly, money.
(Photo courtesy of chancefornepal.org)
I spent two months in India. A month and a half in Nepal. Not a long time of my life, but enough time to get below the surface layer of the culture and see what daily life is like. Enough time to get to know a couple of these street children, these kids who have no parents and are sent out every day to beg for money from the wealthy. And if you can afford to eat food each day and to be dressed in intact, relatively clean pieces of fabric, then you are wealthy.
The kids I befriended were a little better off… they didn’t have any adults forcing them to beg…at least not yet. They were a group of three, two girls and a boy, that stuck together and somehow managed on their own. They were Nepali children who hung around the big Boudhanath stupa, which is a primarily Tibetan area with a lot of tourists. I never gave them money, but they would find me most days, making my kora around the stupa. We would walk up to the top of the stupa and sit down, and I would get out a pad of paper and a pen and we would practice English. They spoke a surprising amount of English already… they had been in school for a while. They wanted to learn words that would help them approach tourists, help them beg. Sometimes a nice Tibetan lady who owned a nearby restaurant would give them food and let them sleep inside after hours.
I can’t remember their names. I can’t remember their ages. But I do remember how enthusiastically they greeted me, even after they learned I wouldn’t be giving them any money. How quickly they learned new words. How the sun felt when it would hit my face as I sat on the stupa, looking out over the rooftops of Kathmandu, with three young children pressed up against me, so desperate for the slightest bit of attention. I wanted to take them with me. To give them a home, a shower, enroll them in school. I knew the statistics for street kids… their likelihood to be victims of child prostitution, disease, drug addiction. I was 22. I knew I couldn’t save all the kids I encountered. But why couldn’t I save these three? It tore my heart.
And then I left Asia and I began forgetting, throwing piles of laundry and new friends and new jobs and new loves over that little rip in my heart.
I miss those kids.