Discover more from Whatsoever Thoughts
The Barefoot Mile
A Lyric Essay
Being constantly confronted with poverty is difficult, especially if there is a system in place to keep people in poverty. If you’ve ever seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire you will know that there are groups in India who create and traffic beggars. They collect whatever a beggar earns in exchange for a sure (though meager) supply of food.
I once saw a woman with a disabled child in her lap, begging on the side of the road in Delhi. Later that same day, I saw a man in a suit shamelessly collecting the money from the woman.
It can be easy for a person to get jaded when they see things like that. It can become so emotionally intense to empathize with people that your brain just stops caring. Like how your skin gets numb when exposed to low temperatures for too long.
While in India, I wrote the following piece, entitled The Barefoot Mile. It’s a bit out-there-creative for a book, so it didn’t find a home in Hidden Song of the Himalayas. But I thought I’d share it with you today as part of my focus on behind-the-scenes content.
This piece is a “lyric essay,” or an essay with some elements of poetry, about overcoming jadedness and learning to see people as people again from two kids I briefly met in Delhi. The title and ending are a nod to the famous saying, “You can't really understand another person's experience until you've walked a mile in their shoes.”
I hope you enjoy The Barefoot Mile.
The Barefoot Mile
I remember. We were in an auto rickshaw. In traffic, in Delhi, in India, on Earth.
Stopped. The traffic stacked up. And she watched it all from my lap, my baby, blonde hair wet against her head.
Then came the street kid and his sister to the crack in traffic, plastic hula-hoops in hand. They were a perfect act, and our trained eyes unglued from not looking, not seeing them, to watch. The hoop spun on arm, then whirled on neck. Naked feet kicked into a cartwheel. Ashi smiled. I smiled.
Normally I don’t. I won’t. I can’t. Not since the dusty girl in salwar and dreadlocks begged from me. I gave her fifty rupees while waiting for a bus. I gave because of the crisp white paper that she held, and the piteous stare. I gave because I didn’t know any better.
“We are all orphans. We cannot see or hear. Our parents have died. Please help us.” It was printed in 5 languages, and I thought of my child that way, without me and helpless. Or of me that way, unable to sleep at night for the hunger and the loneliness.
So I gave her what I had, before she disappeared, before I wondered who the printer was, before I saw a handler in his suit collecting cash from a woman in a sari sitting on the dirt in Chandni Chowk. Maybe that was her mother. Maybe the deformed boy in her lap was her brother.
So, normally I don’t.
Don’t smile. Don’t look. Don’t see the street kid, don’t ask the name; don’t give bread, for he’ll take it to the dukhan to exchange it for pesa to give to the John of his poverty in exchange for enough rice
to keep him performing.
But I did look at the faces with the greasepaint mustaches. I saw the backflip. I saw the cartwheel. I saw the skeletal arms, the thin layer of muscle wrapped tight in skin, perfectly trained to bring the cha-ching to the man. We made eye contact, and then, it seems, they saw a person.
A baby. My baby.
Character broke. Their act reached an intermission. They uncupped the hands that begged and came, and skipped, to see her.
Did they touch her skin and leave a mark? The mark of street-dust and grease paint? Did they kiss her hands and touch the down-for-hair of her head? I don’t remember.
I only remember the sticky stuckness of 115 degrees without a breeze. And the spray bottle my husband used to cool our child.
She gasped. She laughed.
Then, it seems, my husband saw two children.
Normally I don’t. I won’t. I can’t. I don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is permission.
Eye contact says, “Yes, sell me that cheap squeaking dog on a leash, or the overpriced photograph of someone I will never meet. Sell me on your need, then use my money to keep yourself begging. Feed the system, and drag me in, too, because neither of us know any better.” I look straight ahead, for straight-ahead is what says, “No. Go away. Don’t mob me. Don’t rob me. I won’t give you my money. I won’t give you my feelings.” I look ahead, because now I know.
Do they seem to stare straight into my soul?
They’re just looking past it.
“Chahiye?” The Husband asked. “You want?” The street children did not reply. Not with words. They
only lifted their chins and closed their eyes, and he
sent mist drifting like a morning cloud onto their faces. They breathed some in. White teeth peeked out from underneath the smeared mustaches. Did that moment last forever as they waited, eyes closed, for the last droplet to vanish?
I don’t remember.
But I know they didn’t beg from us a single coin, they just
stepped back as traffic (still packed) began to push and shove towards the intersection, they just
waved to my daughter, a child
It’s something unforgettable, you know; when you can give something to one oppressed that no one else can give or take away. But I wondered as we bumped and veered, avoided a bus, dodged a cow, saw another homeless child pawning something
I wondered: What must it feel like out there, to stand with bare feet on lava-hot asphalt?
I wondered: What, exactly, was the gift? And who, exactly, gave it?
Dedicated to the two nameless little ones who saw us as people, and in doing so helped me to see them as people, too.
If you’d like to read more about keeping your heart open when jadedness threatens, check out my recent essay on A Life Overseas: Boy Without a Name.