New Delhi was like nowhere I’d been before. Prior to this my only understanding of life in India had come from Slum Dog Millionaire. I was a naive girl on a business trip. I thought poverty would be hidden down back alleys or limited to slum neighborhoods. I was wrong.
Poverty coated the city and oozed out of its edges. From my bus seat I watched as it filled the streets, enclosed strangers, and struggled for life. I saw children fighting for territory, a boy punching a girl no more than 5 years old. She was tiny and frail and broken. The sadness in her eyes and the nonexistent smile on her face shattered my heart.
Walking the streets I became fully engulfed by the poverty. It tugged on my arm, begged at my feet, and shot dagger eyes when I had nothing to give. Mothers with babies followed close behind, chanting rhythms I could not understand. I would duck into extravagant shops. Inside I could try on exquisite saris, indulge in proper tea, and forget what was beyond the walls.
Our guide would rush us back onto the bus after exiting the shops. Children always waited for us outside, their petite hands displayed trinkets they wanted us to buy. From inside the bus our guide would play mediator and exchange our money for the goods. Usually we were pressed for time and not allowed to purchase items, but this time I managed to exchange a bill for a handful of elephant key chains.
I sat in my seat and closed my eyes when I heard a knocking on my window. I had heard the knock earlier that day and recognized the sound of a child. I knew when I looked I would see sorrow in their eyes, but I looked anyway. Small elephant key chains dangled from a boy’s fingers. Since the guide did our purchasing, the boy did not know I already bought a handful from him. I picked up one of my key chains and shook it in front of the window. A smile spread across his face and the sorrow was momentarily replaced with gratitude, then he turned and ran away.