India shows me her mean side
I’ve been living in two Indias: the bright, beautiful one that surrounds a newcomer to Goa; and the dark, dangerous one that surrounds long-time resident and writer Gregory David Roberts in his true-life book Shantaram. Until yesterday, the two were separate, and I was able to curl up with the compelling book at the end of a glorious day and lose myself in another person’s tales of crime, violence, and corruption.
But yesterday, his world crossed into mine and I caught a glimpse of an India that hurt me to my bones. I knew that it would happen, but I resent that it happened so soon.
Being a Sunday, I’d excused myself the usual practical tasks and packed my bike basket for a beach exploration. By now I’d followed the coastline from capital city Panjim north through Nerul, Sinquerim, Candolim and Calangute beaches. In each case the main road – flanked by beachware shops and continental restaurants – branched off to left-hand lanes flanked by yet more beachware shops and continental restaurants. These sandy lanes led directly to the beach, beer and seafood shacks.
The one-speed bike was perfect for surveying it all because I moved slowly enough to take in the sights, but fast enough that the sellers couldn’t tempt me with with their calls of “Hello come look my shop.” After a stop at Calangute’s “Rodrigues” restaurant for breakfast, I slowly pedalled northwards into Baga Beach. It proved to be more of the same, with a few nightclubs and Nepalese craft stalls thrown in, so I kept going and aimed for a creek that marked the beach’s northern boundary.
“Buy one now!”
“Hello!” A girl turned to me on the creek’s bridge. She was dressed a little raggedly and I guessed she must be one of the Lamani transients that the local businesses were complaining about. A large number of poor from India’s northern states migrated down to Goa to sell crafts and snacks, and the local vendors were not pleased with the competition.
“Hello, buy one now.” The girl held up a cone made of newspaper and shaped like a ice cream. I guessed it contained a CHANNA nut snack of some kind.
“No, thank you,” I said kindly and looking into her eyes. I’ve seen tourists either ignore the vendor completely, or screw their face into a snarl or a scowl. Smiles are free, I figure.
“Buy one now!” She insisted. “No,” I repeated evenly, “Thank you.” I was glad I was on my bike and could continue on my way without it turning into a discussion. I’d already paid too much for a shell necklace at a jewellry stall and after I’d made the purchase, all the adjoining stalls joined in with “Look MY shop now, very nice.”
I followed the river bank to where its sweet green water met the salt of the Arabian Sea. I locked my bike at a breezy ocean’s edge cafe, bathed in the warm water and spotted a rocky trail continuing west where the dirt lane had ended.
“Does that path go to Anjuna Beach?” I asked of the cliffside path when I went to pay for my “cold coffee. The waiter nodded, but shook his head when I asked if I could ride it on the bike.
“Not good,” he motioned with his hands, “Very rough and narrow.”
I pulled on my socks and sneakers and started the hike. I followed a couple ahead of me by a few paces, and felt a little reassured that I wouldn’t be on the isolated path on my own. He was Indian and she was a foreign ex-pat, I guessed.
Following the ledge of red rock that slowly brought us high over the crashing waves, we passed a young man with a duffel bag, resting in the shade. A bit further on the couple was about to pass another seated person, a boy, when they stopped.
He was sitting right in the middle of the path and – for a boy of about eight years old – he had an odd look on his face – stoic. Five or six newspaper cones lay scattered on the path at his feet, as if he’d suddenly decided he was sick of selling nuts. He stared out at the ocean while the Indian man spoke to him.
I gingerly stepped past them, then looked back. The man was leaning down and talking to the boy in his own language. He reached toward the boy’s wrists which were held out in front of him, bound by a dirty, yellow nylon rope.
Suddenly, an image flashed into my mind of two dirty white dogs I’d seen on a Ko Samui beach in Thailand. They were back-to-back, yowling and scratching and trying to get away from each other. Their tails were tied together with rough yellow rope. I didn’t understand why and asked the woman at the guest house about it later.
“Someone wants them make babies,” she shrugged.
That boy’s hands were tied like the dogs were tied. He was sitting on that hot ledge as if he was being punished. The man continued talking and untied the rope. The boy dropped his gaze to the ground but remained tearless.
The couple stayed with him and I moved around a curve of the cliff and stopped to stare out at the glimmering ocean. A breeze blew the rock-warmed air around me. I waited. After a couple of minutes, the couple came around the bend. I looked to the Indian.
“Why – why was that boy’s hand’s tied?” I asked stupidly. He shrugged like the woman at the guesthouse. “Somebody beat him and they took his moneys.” He looked at the woman and they continued on the path.
My heart fell against my chest, and my ribs ached with sorrow and ignorance. The pain moved to my gut and I fought tourist tears. I recognized that look on his face: it was resignation. This had happened to him before, and to children like him. This, and worse.
He’s just a boy, my heart cried from the pit of my stomach. Just a little boy selling little cones of chanas.
I wanted to run back and buy all his channas from him, I wanted to give him all the money I had – the money I didn’t spend at the beachware shops, or the continental restaurants. The pennies I’d saved by haggling with beleaguered taxi drivers and banana sellers and necklace vendors. What can I do, I begged of the ocean. What can I do?
Today, the only answer I can come up with seems also the most cowardly. Write. Stare at a laptop and trust that somehow, writing will change something. But at this moment, it doesn’t feel like enough. I hurt for that boy and my hurt doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t do anything.
What do you think?