In the Agra train station, a little boy — no older than seven or eight — approaches us; he holds a plastic shopping bag in one hand and a sick baby in the other. The baby has matted hair, a dirty bare bottom, and her eyes are glued shut with dried pus. The boy holds out his bag. “Shampoo,” he begs, “soap.”
I had taken the travel-sized shampoos from our hotels, so I dig through my purse to give them to him. My friend Sholeh takes a photograph of the two children in the slant of morning light, the juxtaposition of the beautiful making the scene seem all the more tragic. I hand over the shampoo, and the boy scurries it into his bag. A flock of children sees the exchange and surrounds us. Each one dirtier and sadder than the next. They beg for school pens, soap, shampoo, one rupee. They don’t seem to notice each other, their eyes set on the two foreign women. The poor and the tourists — the familiar sights of India.
The day before, we visited the most famous tourist destination in India: the Taj Mahal, a marble miracle, the memorial built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife after she died in childbirth. Artisans spent 22 years building the domed mausoleum and decorating its soaring walls with intricate patterns of semi-precious jewels, so that at night, the Taj glitters in the moonlight, sparkles in the reflecting pools.
But in truth, I remember so little of the Taj Mahal — only the story our guide told us about how the artisans were thanked at the end of the project by having their hands cut off, so they couldn’t betray the king by recreating the elaborate designs. The beauty and the violence so close together that the space between leaves no room even for irony — maybe in the same way a blind boy played a drum just outside the Taj Mahal gates, hoping for spare change, and the crippled man propelled himself along the dusty road with a stick. And in the way our guide had said “Welcome to Agra,” gesturing toward an old woman who was digging through mountains of smoking garbage.
And there is this: the way filtered light drapes across starving children in the Agra train station. And a teenaged boy, holding a small wooden box, catching my eye from the other side of the station. And his stride over to me, passing stray cows and a turbaned man reading from the Koran. And in the purposeful way the boy weaves around a small girl, who has lifted her skirt and is peeing on the concrete platform.
The boy finally reaches me and points to his boxful of blackened rags and shoe polish and then to my sandals.
- “No thank you,” I say.
“You need shoe shine,” he says. “Dirty.”
“Very good polish.”
“It’s not that,” I say, knowing there’s no way to explain.
“I wouldn’t let him do it,” Sholeh says. “Just tell him no.”
“Please?” he begs.
“What could be the harm in it?” I ask.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Sholeh says.
While the boy sets to work on my sandals, I look at Sholeh’s pictures of the Taj Mahal. I feel a tug at my foot and glance away from the camera’s digital screen and down at the boy. He points to a large rip in my sandals, telling me in his limited English that it will cost extra for the repair. “Broken. 10 more rupee for fix.”
I spot the pointed instrument he used to tear the leather; it’s already tucked back into his box. I know he didn’t rip my sandals out of meanness but from desperation, but still I feel violated. He sees me as he would any tourist, a chance to feed his family with a few extra rupees. Who could blame him? And hadn’t the poor Indians started to look all the same to me? Did I look into their eyes and see each one, hungry and desperate, as an individual human being? I hadn’t wanted the hardness to come, didn’t even believe it would, but just like that it does.
Later I will be ashamed that I didn’t just pay the extra money and have the boy sew up the tear in my sandal. But at the moment, I am travel-raw and tired, so I think instead of my own loss in the transaction — my hundred-dollar sandals, ruined. How I don’t want him to trick anyone else, and about what’s right and what’s wrong, which of course is much easier when you have the means to buy yourself a pair of hundred-dollar shoes.
So I say, “I know you did that on purpose. You tore them with that tool. You sew them up right now, or I’ll scream.” The boy quickly stitches up the sandal, and I don’t pay for the “repair.” Later I will realize his family could live for three months off what I paid for those sandals. The mind wanders back to what’s right and what’s wrong and what it is that fills the space in between.
Sholeh doesn’t say I told you so even though I deserve it. And I don’t tell her I should have listened to her because that’s beyond obvious too.
And then there is this: The train arrives, and a middle-aged couple steps off with their guide. The husband tells the guide,
- “I hope we’re staying somewhere nice. My wife likes opulence, you know.”
“Deserves,” the wife corrects him.
“Well then,” the guide says, “she shall have the sky.”