I failed a homeless girl on the coast of India. No one knows. Not even the girl.
I first see her as she strolls barefoot over blistering black sand. The girl lowers her head and smiles, unfurling a handful of yellow and red and blue bracelets towards the women in purple and green and pink saris. No glance, no break in conversation. The girl steps closer, hesitates, weighing the women’s patience perhaps. She lowers her arm and turns her back on the surf, wandering through wild flowers to the string of café patios. She sees us, two of the few foreigners in Varkala.
We rest, inhaling the salty air, empty cups and breakfast plates pushed from us. Forty-five minutes of jungle howls and dusty roads separate Anne and me from the hot chaos of Trivandrum. We are researchers. Policy reviews. Interviews. Analysis. Leprosy and babies for sale. Starving mothers. Indentured fathers. And in the quietest moments, I swat away the relentless distraction buzzing in my ear: is it even possible for people to rise from hell?
The girl weaves through the tables, smiling, eyes lowered, weighing our patience perhaps.
“Hello,” said Anne, smiling at the girl.
The girl’s irises shine like obsidian and her thousand-watt smile reminds me of a Times Square billboard. Fresh-faced. Kaleidoscopic beauty.
“I have some very beautiful jewelry for you,” she smiles and she places a handful of bracelets on the table and her bag of jewelry atop her bare feet.
Anne slides her fingers around the woven jewelry, holds up each one, asks a question about it, asks the girl about Varkala, and about the girl herself.
The girl is thirteen; a year younger than me when I made money scrubbing urinals and selling coffee and crullers to taxi drivers working the late shift. I’d study the floor as wrinkled supervisors chastised me for not being enough, and sometimes a taxi driver slipped me cash out of pity.
This girl is alone. Nine hundred miles divide her from her mother who told her not to come home until she sells all the jewelry.
She smiles as she drapes varied colors over Anne’s wrist. “Beautiful. This one looks very pretty on your skin.” As she hunches over her bag to pick out more bracelets, her face is quiet and I catch a view of a child, a meekling.
* * *
The next evening, I stare into the ocean shimmering like mercury. The Arabian Sea’s rhythm is as though the world still rests in the womb. I marvel at the peach horizon fanning into lavender clouds strung across the sky. I imagine this soft face of India as all that exists.
On my way back to the patio, I wander down the middle of the wide path guarded by columns of soaring palm trees. I find 1580 rupees at my feet.
The girl sits with Anne at the patio.
I weave through the tables filled with the smell of warm bread and French fries. Indian couples and foreigners laugh and talk with Saturday night cocktails in front of them. My hand presses the money under my tunic.
Eyes burn into me, branding me, as I sit down. I lower my eyes and study the ground.
Anne buys the girl a Coke as they chat, sifts through more bracelets.
The money equals $25. Two martinis in Times Square. Thirty rum and cokes in India. Three month’s salary for Indian fishermen.
I should slip the cash to the girl, even if out of pity. The money equals five hundred sales for her, perhaps a train ticket, a reprieve, her mother, a meal, a safe place to sleep until she is pushed out again.
I drink Coke and rum. “And another, please,” I signal to the waiter. I do nothing but drink and justify why the money belongs in my pocket. Because it won’t change her life; because I want to know frivolity; because no one else knows.
The girl rises with her bag, our eyes meet, and she smiles at me. She wanders to the next table, her eyes lowered.
The next morning before we leave Varkala, I stand on the bluff encircled by thousands of swooping dragonflies glittering like sequins in the sun. The hum of their wings is welcome, a distraction from a mounting panic, an epiphany. I am not the compassionate taxi driver. I am not the chastising wrinkled supervisor. I am worse. I am corrupt. I am an imperialist.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/hash milhan