After traveling throughout India for years, I thought I knew its people well. But in just a few coincidental moments amid the chaos on the streets of Delhi, I witnessed an inspiring example of character by a humble street fellow.
We were sitting on a small wooden bench at a sweet shop in crowded Karol Bagh, one of Delhi, India’s burgeoning commercial districts. My husband, Jay, and I were back in “the big city” after several months at a volunteer project that had immersed us in the rural villages of western Rajasthan. Dipping into a paper cup filled with scrumptious gulab jamun, I feasted on the warm sugary nectar and golden fried milk balls.
Throughout India, it’s easy to find the really good sweet shops; just follow the tantalizing aroma of bubbling oil and sugar; then look for the crowds. This particular shop had expectant patrons packing the open doorway and spilling into the street, despite the scorching sun above.
As we savored the last morsels, we noticed a man squatting by a cardboard trash box a few feet away. The box was overflowing with sticky cups, and I watched as he began sifting through the debris. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a somber face and unruly, shoulder-length black hair. A quick glance at his grimy cotton wrap (dhoti) and bare feet told me that he was one of the countless unfortunate people on the streets of Delhi, obviously hungry enough to dig through the trash. He shifted and I saw that he was missing his left arm from just below the shoulder.
Ignoring the crowd, he carefully moved his right hand through the box. I was still holding my own cup that I had all but licked clean, and I doubted he would find much. I felt a flush of embarrassment – for myself – it seemed gluttonous to have practically inhaled my dessert, while this man searched the trash, right in front of me.
I couldn’t pull my eyes away from him in his solitary focus, and I felt a dull ache in my heart.
Apparently, Jay was feeling something similar, because he stood, then approached and squatted next to the man. We had learned a little Hindi, so he asked quietly “Khanna chayiye?” (Do you want a meal?) The man’s hand stilled and he turned to look at Jay.
He gave a quick nod. Jay motioned with his head and said, “Ajao.” (Come on.)
The man stood, and we walked to a nearby lunch stall where Jay suggested that he select a full meal of whatever he wanted.
The street fellow hesitated, then pointed at two small snack items.
Jay asked, “Bas?” (That’s enough?)… then continued, “Bilkul?” (Are you sure?)
Taking the small bag of savory snacks in his hand he answered “Bas hain.” (It’s enough.) Giving the familiar Indian side-to-side head wobble, he turned and walked away, melting into the shifting crowd.
We watched as he disappeared, and I sighed. “That was good… I guess. But I wish he had taken more. It just breaks my heart to see people like that. Don’t you wonder what his story is? He seemed so kindly, really, not at all like those aggressive street women in Mumbai…”
Jay looked at me quizzically. I continued, “You know, the ones who followed us, pinching you in the side and calling you names… remember?”
“Oh, yeah, I remember them, they were rough…” he said. “I wonder about all of these people. But… this man seemed different.”
And so, as it often occurs when traveling, it was a fleeting interaction, and the details of this man and his life would never to be known to us.
Days later, we were again in the same area on the busy streets of Delhi, our open-air rickshaw stopped in smog-filled traffic. Vendors passed the vehicles selling newspapers or candies; the disadvantaged, bringing hand to mouth, then extending their palm for money.
A man paused at our rickshaw and began to put his hand forward. We leaned out, then smiled as we saw the same fellow we had encountered at the sweet shop.
His eyes flickered as he recognized us. With one graceful motion, he withdrew his arm and lifted his hand, thumb to forehead, his one-armed version of the palms-together Indian gesture of “Namaste.”
The traditional greeting, acknowledged between all Indians regardless of caste, carries the meaning:
“I honor you and humble myself before the light within you.”
Inclining his head slightly, he brought his hand down in front of his heart. This happened within seconds, and before we could say or do anything, he turned, walking to the next vehicle without a backward glance.
“Namaste to you, also.” I said, in response to his gesture. I hoped that he heard.
We didn’t see him again, yet years later, I can still recall his face. It was just a moment in time, but I was reminded in that moment that dignity is not defined or limited by circumstance.
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