Pam Loses It.

by Pam

Adorable. Unstoppable. We are pretty much powerless.
I yelled at a child today.

She was a beautiful beggar child of about seven, with a baby on her hip. She had followed us down the street for blocks and blocks, as we dodged traffic and stepped over cow dung, climbed over rubble and leapt across open sewers, and all the while she chanted, over and over and over again:

“No mama, no daddy, food, baby…”

I’d been turning as we walked, and saying things like:

“Neh, neh,” or, “No money, I have no money.”

While Phil had been saying:

“Come on, give her a little something. Just look how cute she is.”

This is a game Phil likes to play. He keeps hoping to replicate that moment in a Rajasthani village where, after handing out rupees and candy, I was swarmed by a prehensile knot of rabid nine-year old schoolgirls, pulling at my handbag and scratching at my arms while crying theatrically that one girl had gotten something that another didn’t. Phil witnessed all this from the safe distance of a camel’s hump, and still doesn’t believe I was actually scared.

Right now, Phil and I are in NOIDA decompressing from our own busy weeks, and waiting for our flight back to Bangalore. We have left the hotel, because there are only so many odd movies from the ’90s that one can watch, and unable to choke down more spicy vegetable mush, we are hunting the urban landscape for a KFC.

We come here once every few months for Phil to work at the local Adobe office. NOIDA is a stinking high-tech suburb of Delhi; a mean and ugly place that has only gotten meaner and uglier since a big outsourcing spaceship crashed into it a few years back. The word NOIDA isn’t even a name, but an acronym that stands for “New Okhla Industrial Development Authority.” The city is divided into sectors, numbered for the order in which they were built, rather than the logical order that one might move through them. This neighborhood is a filthy rabbit warren of crime, poverty and sewer gas; this boat hasn’t risen with the new tide of Indian prosperity. Which, I’m starting to suspect, is pure myth.

“No mama, no daddy. No mama, no daddy. Food. Baby.

“Neh. Neh. No money.”

So far, NOIDA is the only area of India where I have felt unsafe: as we weave through the streets the men look at me like I’m an exotic fruit they want to squeeze or take a bite of. Their gawking is only slightly tempered by Phil’s presence, even though Indians regularly mistake him for a WWF wrestler known as The Undertaker. On our last visit here we had to leave a market in a hurry because a mob was forming around us, but not before someone managed to grab my ass, though Phil was standing right next to me. Why, we both wonder, in this culture of propriety and repression, is it okay to unabashedly leer at another man’s wife? Or do white girls have such a bad reputation over here that they assume the tall guy is my pimp?

And then there are the women. Wait… what women? There are no women here. Nothing but men, massive amounts of men in bell-bottom pants that are too tight and pulled up too high, and the embroidery… oh, God, the embroidery! The fact that women are rarely seen here tells me the area is old school Hindu conservative, a place where women are kept home “for their own protection.” To be female in this country is to be someone’s property. A white female walking down a street in India is porn to men, and to beggar children, a mark.

“No mama, no daddy. No mama, no daddy. Food. Baby.”

“Neh. Neh. No money.”

I am lying. I have money. Small bills in fact, convenient for handing out in situations such as these, but today I am not doing it. If I thought for a minute that she could possibly understand, or that her English vocabulary extended beyond “No mama, no daddy, food, baby,” I would try to explain it to her. I want to tell her that I know it isn’t her fault and that I love children and that the fact that this is her childhood breaks my heart. I want to explain that I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire and I know that she is doing someone else’s bidding.

In these past four months we’ve approached this beggar-child issue in a number of ways, and pretty much all of them have been disastrous. When we’ve given money to one of the grimy little cherubs we’ve been mobbed, surrounded by ten more, their parents and grandparents, all with hands outstretched asking for more, more, more. I’ve given them food off my plate and bracelets off my arms. We laughed when they stole Phil’s Coca-Cola and drank it on the other side of the street. We’ve let them walk us to the market and bought them bags of dhal and rice and oil, only to find they later took it back to the store and got cash. I’ve been scratched and clawed and tormented by their sad chanting.

“No mama, no daddy, food, baby.”

Phil walks slightly faster, and I try to calm myself by pretending I’m a Buddhist. I struggle to exercise compassion, but then… then, she starts mimicking me:

“Please, stop following me !”

“Please stop following me !”

Phil giggles. The big brother in him can’t help it.

“I am not giving you money. Go away !”

“I am not giving you money. Go away !”

The girl giggles, because Phil giggled.

“And you stop laughing !”

“And you stop laughing !”

We run across the street and step into a shop, trying to shake her. She sticks to my heels, and I get angrier and angrier. I know she is just a child, doing only what she has been taught to do. I know that her life is hopelessly brutal and all roads for her are, and will continue to be, blocked. And underneath her skilled, though infuriating behavior, she is a child, an innocent, a human who deserves a clean place to sleep, and food to eat. She deserves an education. And a bath.

“No mama, no daddy. Food. Baby.”

“Leave me the hell alone !” I shout.

“Leave me the hell alone !” she shouts back, then giggles, again.

I am furious with her parents, or whoever has put her up to this. I am appalled that the government of this vast country, that claims to be stepping into the role of international business leader, allows this to go on. It is not this child that I am mad at. I am furious at both the utter hopelessness of India, and my helplessness in the face of it.

Over these past four months my heartstrings have been stretched out from abuse and right now I am tired – I’ve been sick with a wicked cold and food poisoning and I am exhausted from three all-night bus rides in one week. I’ve peed in the middle of the highway in the middle of the night. I’ve listened to people vomiting all around me on a hair-raising fifteen-hour bus journey. Rarely in these past four months have I looked out a window and not seen a man with his willie in hand, peeing. I’m tried of watching people crap in open fields and on roadsides in plain sight. And I am tired of being played by beggar children and I worry about what I’ll become after eight more months of this.

I know there must be an explanation for the pathetic state of this country, but I’m too new here to know whom or what to blame it on; this whole place seems broken eight hundred ways from Tuesday. Still, there is a part of me that loves it here, and when I find a way that I can help, I will; but I could empty out my bank account right now and give to every beggar I see and it wouldn’t make the least dent in any of their lives.

“Please, leave me alone, I can’t help you,” I say.

“Please, leave me alone, I…”

I snap. I turn on my heel and bend down and look her in the eyes, and start raving, a crazy screeching white lady:

“Go away! Leave me alone! Go! Stop following me! LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE !!”

A cascade of unprintable swearwords streams from my mouth and swirls around this dirty little girl like litter. I can’t stop screaming. I fear a mob is going to gather, tear me limb from limb, and I fear that I deserve it. I’m thankful that the girl has no idea what I’m saying, but a local man passing us on the street clearly does, and he whispers something to the girl, something magic in Hindi, that finally makes her go away.

Tears well in my eyes and I am unhinged in a way that only India can do to me.

Even big brother no longer thinks this is funny; Phil grabs my hand and pulls me away.

“Come on, crazy white lady. There’s a KFC right up here.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 Responses to “Pam Loses It.”

  1. Trip ODell says:

    I understand how you feel. The last time Adobe sent me to India, I got chased through Connaught place by a pack of pregnant women. Knowing better, I had given one a 500R note – its was on after that. They chased me through a market before I lost them in a gated tourist emporium. It was like an Indiana Jones movie except it was a big fat dude instead of Harrison Ford and a mob of undernourished women and children instead of Nazis.

    I had the same thing happen in Noida on my first visit. (I’m a slow learner) I tried to go for a walk and made it about 500 feet from the Raddison before I was so mobbed by children that I had to turn back. That little walk cost me 15 bucks just to get back to the gate.

    I’m a soft touch, I’ve spent years giving back where I can, but India is on an entirely different scale of human suffering. I often wondered if that was in part do to the cultural legacy of Karma and castes. If the notion that massive swaths of people are born to loose, suffer and die hungry in the streets is broadly accepted in a society – then it leads you to wonder what that society looks like after a couple of millennia.

    Regardless, great post. Give Phil a kick in the shin. PS – if you’re looking for straight up American junk food. There’s actually a Papa John’s Pizza in NOIDA! I got them to deliver to the hotel (much to the management’s disgust) on my last night there. I felt like a philistine, but damn it tasted good.

  2. Phil says:

    Hey Trip!

    Noted – Papa John’s :)

    Yes the “giving” impulse gets purged pretty quick here eh? My first experience with that was also in Delhi, with Jamie, at the Dilli Haat market. Two little waifs, a boy and a girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old, followed us all night, begging and being cute. As we were leaving the market, my resolve began to crack. “Don’t do it,” Jaimie told me, but like an idiot I ignored her. I pulled the first bill I could find out of my pocket – might have been five, might have been five hundred – and handed it to the girl, who was standing nearer to me than the boy.

    I got into the car quickly, and as we pulled away, I saw the boy punch the girl hard in the stomach; she doubled over on the ground and lay there screaming; the boy grabbed the cash from her hand and ran away.

    Gut wrenching enough, but later someone more schooled than I said that even this may have been an elaborate stage play: many people, seeing that scene, would have gotten back out of the car and given more money to the girl. So perhaps a scam, perhaps not. In either case, the images are burned into my brain and have not yet gone away.

    Phil :)

    ps I agree about caste culture, I am thinking the same kinds of things as you mention… makes more sense than anything else I have come up with…

  3. Melanie says:

    I read your blog all the time. Since I shared your first day with you, I feel like I have a vested interest in your experience so I love to read your entries and hear about your latest adventures. Usually your writing make me laugh but this one made me cry. Hang in there Pam! You are loved just as much as you clearly love others. The fact that you care so deeply is further evidence of your profound humanity.

  4. Ellen says:

    thanks, Pam. thanks for sharing that.

  5. Kate says:

    Like I emailed to Phil yesterday, after discovering this website for the first time .. I think I’m falling in love with you : ) You just may be the coolest woman I have ever ‘met’ : )

  6. John Feld says:

    Wonderful writing, tragic situation.
    I guess there is no answer, can’t deny poverty, charity on a personal level is never a cure. but it hurts none the less.

  7. Pam says:

    Thanks for your comments all. Writing these is so much more fun when I know people are reading the posts. And Kate, you are right…I am the coolest woman you have never met ; ) Drop on by sometime, I know a good KFC.


  8. Deewane says:

    I could state statistics, recount personal experiences, or just plain read and move on. I can’t offer advice, wouldn’t know what to tell you. Do I tell you to look the other way, or encourage you to go on distributing your money as you go along. Should you forget about it all as soon as you step off the plane and breathe in the clean, healthy air of your home continent or may be “learn”(hate the word)something from it. Should you let it be just that, a year of your life or build it up to wow some year of your life. I don’t know what to tell you.

    (And the point of this long ass comment again?!? :P)

  9. Steve Peters says:

    Did I mention what a beautiful post this is? It really is. Compassion has its way with us.

  10. Pam says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone. Much appreciated.


  11. womannextdoor says:

    I am so stunned by this tale. I have never witnessed anything like this in all my life here. It feels awful that this is what visitors to this country have to face. have you noticed that there is never a policeman in sight? I feel you should not feel bad as the child needed to be yelled at and taught some manners which her parents are incapable of giving her. May be she would think twice before harassing another person.