These are the words that one woman spoke at me at dusk as I rushed by her. As the to-do list for that evening streamed in my mind, I searched for and flagged down an auto rickshaw to take me 5 kilometers from work to home. I was hungry. I was tired. So what is Ka? No, "Ka" doesn't mean "Hello," and it doesn't mean "Help me, could you spare a few rupees." Ka was the way that this woman said my name, Katherine.
Flash back to one month prior. As always, the sun was shining in Bangalore, but there was an extra level of magic as light danced along the temple walls and in between the leaves. I was weaving through obstacle course of small trash piles, cows, and construction materials. I looked up and found that very nurturing but fiery eyes had caught my gaze. Before she spoke, I asked her and her friend, "Neevu hesaru yenu (What is your (pr.) name)?" "Nimma hesaru Katherine (My name is Katherine)" --- Ka? --- "Howdu! Ka sari (Yes! Ka is okay)." "Oota aita (Have you had your food?)" -- No. -- "Yenu oota beku (What food do you want?)" She and her friend pointed to a street cart, and I motioned that we should walk to the cart. They led me to their lunch spot, and I asked them to order whatever they would like. They offered me a stool, but I sat with them on the curb. They seemed embarrassed about me or for me that I wanted to sit next to them on the ground, but I assured them that I was really happy at that spot. They ate the 45 cent meals, I paid and gave them some extra rupees, and I left.
There are very few times in India when I felt happier than those moments of existing with the two women. It is true, it is better to give than to receive. However, what happened between that time and one month later? In reflection, I can not explain why, later, I was so mechanical, numb, or selfish. Or why I thought my needs of rest, food, and home surpassed this woman's needs. Did I feel superior to her? Did I want to avoid discomfort of talking with a woman who doesn't know English? Did I have limited rupees and wanted to avoid giving this beggar money because visiting an ATM would be an inconvenient, inevitable stop on the way home. Was I not giving her money based on some capitalist principle, or that the few rupees wouldn't actual solve any problems but would continue this woman's dependence on begging? I don't know.
During my time in India, I had a difficult time with the street beggars. It was likely that I would meet one, if not several, per day. My dad gave me the idea to carry food on me at all times to give in that situation -- apples, granola bars, small bananas. If they were begging for food, they would take the food. I knew that I didn't want to give money, because I didn't want to be vulnerable and openly handle my wallet on the street.
Poverty is common in India and does not escape anyone's day-to-day life. 75% of households live on 5000 rupees ($78 USD) or less per month. 23.6% (World Bank est. 2011) of people in India live below the poverty line. People of different classes (or castes, the cast system has a strong presence in the country) interact throughout each day, whether someone of a lower class sells you your vegetables and fruits from their stall at the end of your road or a maid comes to clean your home. Therefore, I didn't become either apathetic or hyper-emotional to these daily interactions. Rather, I observed how other people interacted with others: how positively my host families interacted with their cook or maids (alternatively, domestic worker abuse is a very real and very difficult social problem in India, and my roommate spent time working with a lawyer on this systemic problem) and how people often would give some rupees to a beggar who put out their hand in the stopped traffic.
Since leaving India, I have had fewer interactions with beggars and homeless people. The first interaction was not directly with homeless people, but instead through Andres Serrano's exhibition in Brussels: The Denizens of Brussels. He beautifully and provocatively captured the portraits of many homeless people. Serrano said that he sees a lot of homeless everywhere, and it's a very sad condition of the times. He sees that the people in Brussels are almost more extreme, more dramatic and theatrical as they will shake, on their knees, or hold their children. Serrano said that holding children and begging is subways is not allowed in New York, which is based on US court and supreme court ruling of the 1980s and 90s.
As a final outlook on supporting people who are currently in difficult situations, I hope that other parts of the world accept Syrian refugees as kindly and efficiently as Justin Trudeau and the Canadian people. I can imagine it to be a difficult thing to implement based on the structure or financial status of some countries...but think how intensely difficult it must be to live in fear for your life to the point that you would leave your home and country. That is what refugees face. Here's a satirical but very helpful short clip from The Daily Show that outlines Canadians' perspectives on Syrian refugees:
Thanks for reading.