A barefoot boy of about six walks up to me with his hand held out in the Kolkata train station. He brings his hand to his mouth several times, in case the open hand wasn’t clear enough. I’m not looking directly at him, but I can tell from a few quick glances that his clothes and hair are filthy.
The woman sitting next to me—I’m sitting on a piece of newspaper on the floor, like almost everyone who’s seated in the train station—makes a “psshhht!” noise at the boy and waves her hand at him, the way you would shoo off a misbehaving cat.
I’m eating an apple, but I have a couple of those premade samosas that I bought from the Delhi supermarket in my backpack. I pull them out and hand the plastic baggie to the boy.
He looks at it for maybe two seconds. I am surprised to see that he not only fails to look grateful, but he actually looks indifferent or even distressed. He points to the apple and makes a whining sound.
“Are you kidding me right now?” I say to him. “I just gave you food, kid. Come on. I need this.” And I do. I’ve been short in the fresh fruits and vegetables department and I just invested a lot of time in cleaning this apple. “I need the fiber, kid. No way.”
“Apple, apple,” he whines. I shake my head.
The woman next to me says something in Bengali—I think she’s mad I gave him any food at all—and tries to shoo him away even more loudly. But the kid just stands and points at my apple. A small crowd is gathering. “Apple, khana, khana!” the boy whines. It means “food.”
“I just GAVE you khana!” I say, pointing at the baggie. “Khana, there!”
“BAH!” he shouts at me, then sprints off. I shake my head, saying to no one in particular, “How do you say, ‘You ungrateful little shit’ in Hindi?”
At the train station in New Jalpaiguri, the transport hub just south of Darjeeling, I’m just sitting down to eat my dinner when a barefoot boy of about seven walks up to me and holds out his hand.
I’m about to go to Kolkata and an American friend, Anne, has told me about a volunteer opportunity there with Mother Teresa’s motherhouses, homes set up for the destitute, the dying, and the handicapped (both mentally and physically). My Lonely Planet’s paragraph about the motherhouses says that the nuns strongly discourage people from giving to beggars, because it encourages them to continue to beg rather than seek more sustainable help from institutions like theirs.
I’ve been giving away some rupees here and there to beggars, but since I’m about to go to Kolkata, I’m thinking of this bit from the Lonely Planet and I think, Right, don’t encourage him. I unwrap the first part of my dinner, an omelet made fresh at a food stand downstairs. It’s still very hot. It’s been cooked in lots of oil. It’s delicious.
The kid holds out his hand. I ignore him. He stands there, getting jostled as porters and men with briefcases push past. I continue eating my omelet. He pushes his hand closer, so it’s almost in my face. I shake my head. The omelet has chilis. I crunch down on one and pant from the resulting heat.
The kid holds out his hand.
I ignore him.
I finish my omelet and unwrap a samosa. The kid moves on to a teenager standing next to me. The teenager ignores him for a minute, then hands the kid a cookie from a package he’s holding.
The samosa is surprisingly hot. I take a bite. The inside is a beautiful deep brown. It’s richly spiced but not too hot. Excellent for train station food.
The kid walks past me and tries a trio of men leaning on the railing across from me. One doesn’t look up from his cellphone. Another tries his pockets for change, finds nothing, resumes talking to his friend. The teenager finishes the cookies and drops the wrapper on the ground.
The kid disappears down the stairs to the platform for a while. I eat the samosa slowly, reading snippets of an article printed on the newspaper my food was wrapped in. I’m almost finished with the samosa when the kid comes back. He just holds his hand out. I haven’t even looked at him.
“Go to school, kid,” I say to him (to myself). “That will do you much better than this.”
He waits. I finish the samosa and take a long drink of water. He pushes his hand in front of me. I unwrap my ladoo, a sugary orange dessert. I start eating the ladoo. Not terrible.
The kid walks away.
I package all the wrappings from my dinner up into a small plastic bag. I watch the kid disappear down the stairs. I suddenly feel very bad.
I realize I have an apple in my backpack. I pull it out. I’ll give it to the kid if he comes back, I tell myself.
But the kid doesn’t come back. I stand up and look for him. He’s descended to the platform, where he walks onto the train tracks, even though there are overpasses he could easily use to cross them. He kicks at some trash along one of the rails. He scampers up onto the platform on the other side and saunters along it. I can see from here how dirty his clothes are. When he comes to a leaky pipe, he stops beneath it and rinses his hands in the drip for a moment before sauntering on.
I think about calling to him and tossing the apple down, except I would probably miss and then there would just be an exploded apple on the platform. He crosses under my overpass and I look for him on the other side, but I can’t find him.
The disgust I feel when I see Indians (or Americans) ignoring each other’s suffering — that’s the disgust I feel for myself right then.
I sit back down on my backpack and look at the bag of newspaper pieces where my dinner was. The teenager’s cookie wrapper is still on the ground. I think about getting it, but then a train comes and a hundred people hurry past, stepping on it, and then it blows out of reach.
I realize I am crying. It would have been so easy to have given the kid the apple. It would have been so easy.