I’m taking a photograph of an amazing gnarled tree in the fabulous Victoria Museum gardens. The tree is identified with a name that exits my brain as quickly as it entered. Something catches my eye to my left. A very tall elderly gentleman in a long white beard and turban has stopped walking and is looking at me. He smiles and I immediately smile back. He says something to his wife and a young man that’s accompanying him. We wave and he continues his stroll down the path.
Shortly, we head down the same path. We step off the sidewalk to head towards the exit. I turn to my left and my striking gentleman has stopped and is looking at us – he wants to say something to me so we walk over. When we get close he immediately puts out his hand and says: “I want you to come see me at the Golden Temple. My name is Jaspal Singh. I am from the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. He is even more striking close up, very tall, slim, very distinguished. He looks important.
He then asks about us, what we are doing in India. We tell him about our project and give him a postcard. We shake hands to part, and again he invites us to the Golden Temple. “In Punjab,” he says. I quickly try to remember where Punjab is in relation to Kolkata and surmise that it is not very close. “Oh, so sorry,” I say, “I don’t think we will have time to visit you this trip, too far.” “You call me, you come to the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. Alan & I smile at each other – life is good.
We exit out the front gate. It is filled with people, including beggars. To our left, an old man in a decrepit wheelchair-type contraption comes up next to us. An emaciated, truncated right leg/stump is perched on a small platform. He points to it and says something. I don’t look – no eye contact. He follows us, keeps talking, pointing to the stump, which moves up and down, banging on the pedestal. I keep on not-looking. We walk faster and eventually we leave him behind. My heart sinks, I’m almost in tears. My feeling of well-being a moment ago evaporates into the heavy air. No happiness here. No ‘life is good’ here.
What do I do with a stump? What do I do with the children that come up to the taxi and point to their mouth indicating they want to eat? What do I do with the baby that’s thrust in my face by a pleading mother: “Mama please, mama please?” What do I do with the stick-like old lady with her palm outstretched? No eye contact. I walk on, otherwise the eyes eat me up for hours. There’s no solving the situation.
My mother spent three years in a German concentration camp, and spent the rest of her life telling me about it. Starvation, lice, filth, sickness, beatings, depression, 14-hours of hard labor, no privacy, no respite. But she did have hope that an end will come to this madness. Do these people have hope? Will they ever see an end to this madness? It haunts me at times, angers or depresses me at others. I feel totally powerless, sitting in my comfortable two bedroom flat, while on my street there are three families living, bathing, cooking, eating, sleeping on the side walk, behind plastic tarps. A little boy does his homework squatting on the sidewalk. They have never asked me for money – we are fortunate to live in a neighborhood that does not include beggars. I do make eye contact and smile as I pass and smiles are returned. I wish I could stop and talk to them. Ask them about their life, their feelings, any hope that they’ll get off the street, any hope for their children. I don’t really want to photograph them – I don’t want my motivations to get misinterpreted.
I wish I spoke their language.
Please scroll down or use the ‘Previous’ button to see other posts. If you are reading this via email, that option isn’t available. Trust me, it really looks better on the blog site itself. Click on the blog title to get there.