Our visit to the holy city of Varanasi began horribly. It started with a six-hour wait in the Agra train station, where I watched enormous rats race in and out of offices and even up one man’s back as I waited for our long-delayed train. By the time we got off the train, my purse had been stolen, and I was in a rotten mood. Then spending hours and hours in the train station police office, where I was required to write over and over my account of the incident (everything was done by hand, and there could be no cross-outs, so any time they wanted me to change even one tiny word, I had to rewrite the entire thing) did nothing to help. Finding out that after all that we’d have to come back in the evening to pick up the official report because the transcriber had a headache brought me to the brink of losing it. By the time we found out half of the city streets were closed for a festival, and we’d have to schlep our bags a long way through the Indian heat and humidity, I was too far gone to even care.
India was, at this point, pretty much dead to me. I just couldn’t be bothered to care…not about the cow shit I had to trample through to get to our hotel, not about the kids with soulless eyes begging for our change, not about the six flights of stairs I had to climb to get to our room. The overwhelming amount of poverty that constantly affronted me combined with my own experience of being a victim, most likely of someone without a chance in the world, had numbed me. I didn’t have anymore outrage left in me. Or so I thought.
As night fell on the Ganges, and its unholy mix of cremated bodies, garbage, animal carcasses and pollutants, we ventured out from the relative comfort of the hotel where we’d entombed ourselves all day into the chaos of the city. We stumbled up and down alleyways that smelled of human excrement, incense, chai, and sweat until we emerged onto a broad street, packed with people celebrating Durga Puja, an important holy day in this part of the country. Effigies–some expensive looking, others constructed with no more than hay and old clothes–were being transported down to the river in the beds of trucks, behind which rich young men danced to the pulse of Indian music. Crowds lined the streets and pushed their way around, a tidal wave of humanity. Kids ate what appeared to be cotton candy, and a man repeatedly brushed himself up against me (a much too common occurrence) until Jeff realized it and stared him down and chased him off.
If it had been another day, I’d have taken photos. The festival was the kind of thing I usually love. But that day, I didn’t care. Everything about it annoyed me. All I wanted was a rickshaw, a means of transport to get back to the train station to pick up the police report I wasn’t completely convinced would even be available (at least not without a bribe). Finally, after walking around for at least an hour, we found one, a cycle rickshaw with a driver that would agree to a price we’d been told was reasonable.
I hated cycle rickshaws. They seemed so inhumane to me. I felt like an old colonial subjugator, sitting primly on the cushioned seat while a terribly poor man forced his skinny legs up and down in an effort to pedal me through the streets of Varanasi. But, on the other hand, this was the only way these people had to make a living. If I denied him service, I wasn’t helping him. I was instead depriving him of a chance to have something to eat that day. That, and the fact that I always paid much more than the agreed-upon fare, were the only things that soothed my conscience.
On this evening, our driver was chatty, introducing himself to us as Michael. That seemed an odd name for an Indian to me, but he quickly added that he was Christian and Michael was the name he’d taken when he was baptized. It made sense, especially since just a few days prior I’d been reading about a recent trend in which many of India’s poorest were converting to Christianity, attracted by its teaching that you could be saved through faith and good works and in only one life time, a stark difference from the prevailing Hindu beliefs that require cycles of reincarnation, a seemingly endless road for those deemed the lowest of the low. He was friendly and helpful, pointing out sights all while pedaling his heart out, and I felt my mood lift a bit in his presence. There were good people in India, I was reminded.
At the train station, the report was ready and handed over to me without so much as even a hint at a bribe. Things were looking up. We grabbed a bottle of water, since we were covered in sweat from the heat despite having done nothing but sit the entire way there, and then we grabbed a second bottle for Michael. I think it cost all of 10 cents. It was no great act of philanthropy, though he was beyond pleased when we offered it to him upon our return.
The ride back was for the most part uneventful. Michael kept up his chatter and we responded appropriately, glad that this day was drawing to an end and hoping that a better day awaited us the next morning. But as we got within the vicinity of the hotel, the roads again became crowded, and Michael was forced to weave his way through the throngs of people. One of the “floats” was ahead of us, and getting around it was going to be tricky. We had to stop and wait while it passed, but then with a break between the truck and the followers, Michael saw his chance and decided to hurry through.
Not so fast, however. One of the celebrants, an obviously wealthy young man with nice clothes and nothing more important to do than dance behind a truck, approached our rickshaw with a band of followers. In Hindi, he began to yell at Michael. Michael did not yell back. He just hung his head and let the young man rant. Though perhaps India no longer has any official caste system, the caste system lives. Then, still yelling, the man picked up a stick and made a motion as if he were going to hit Michael. All this, because Michael dared to try to cross the street in an effort to make a living. I’d been sitting there watching, quite uncertain of what was going on, but at that point I lost it.
I normally shrink from confrontation. But, on that night, after that day, I’d had enough.
“Stop it,” I yelled, “Now. Stop it now. Just stop.” I don’t even know where my voice came from but I was outraged. “Do not be violent. He is a person. A person. Treat him like a person. ” I just kept yelling.
The men stopped and stood there dazed. It was as if I had hit them. This was not the response they usually got. This was not what they expected. I must have seemed crazy, rabid. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. They stopped, left us alone, let us continue.
Not wasting a second, or letting the men change their mind, Michael pedaled hard until we were away from them. He then slowed and turned to me. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “You’re such a good person.” He repeated this over and over.
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No.” But he wasn’t listening.
I wasn’t a good person. I was just a person. A person doing what people are supposed to do. Yet there, for people like Michael, I was extraordinary. Perhaps that should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. Instead I felt sick. Simple human kindness should not be extraordinary. Basic human dignity should not only be for the privileged.
Arriving at our destination, we got out of the rickshaw and pressed money into Michael’s hand. He smiled broadly and thanked us again and again. I walked away, shaken to the core, then stopped and turned back. “Good luck,” I yelled to him, wishing desperately that being treated like a person didn’t require luck.