In the swarm of rush hour traffic, horns honk and cars sway between lanes, as though there were none. The sun wanes, it is late in the day, and the air is hot and sticky. I have my window rolled down on the passenger side.
We pull up to a stoplight, bumper to bumper with other drivers and in the pause of moving cars a flow of humanity begins to surge.
That is when he arrives at my window. The one that is rolled down. A young man in his 20s with thick black hair and deep brown skin. He’s so stealth I barely notice his arrival until his eyes press me gently. For money.
I freeze and find myself staring straight ahead. I can feel fear grip my belly. It flutters and flips somersaults. My throat tightens and my mouth is dry like the desert. My inner compass is out of control.
What should I do?
Maybe he’ll go away.
Do I give him money?
My mind is a tornado of thoughts.
I glance left for a split second. He’s missing part of his arm which he points to and bobs his head.
I feel a stab to my heart.
I wish I hadn’t rolled my window down.
Still looking straight ahead, I hope he might leave, relieving me of the flurried discomfort. But he just keeps on mumbling something gently and pointing to his arm.
“Ok, ok” I think.
Money, that’s what he wants.
That’s what will make this uneasiness abate.
I’m so flustered. Bhati, who’s driving, says nothing.
I begin to open a pouch in my purse where I’ve stuffed some smaller rupee bills. I can feel his anticipation, some surge of energy on my left. He hasn’t budged from his stance. There is no shame, no blame in his tenor. He’s simply doing his job, targeting people like me who spend 1200 rupees on a new shirt, 12,000 rupees on a new bedspread and 3,500 rupees for dinner with a friend.
I hand him a wad of small notes, catch his eye for an instant and look back to the road, my heart racing all the while. As he disappears back into the current of people a wave of sadness grasps me.
I missed the critical piece of the interaction I realize.
I missed acknowledging him as a human being.
I missed seeing him as a person, like myself.
It was all so fast and furious, such a swirl of fear flurries, guilty privilege, desperate discomfort, fumbling for rupees, hot sticky air, wanting it to all go away.
I went numb.
I fell asleep and blundered through the moment trying to stay awake. But inside, I wanted to run back to my safety zone, the luxury of my sumptuous hotel room, with the spinning fan and the cool floors. I just wanted him to go away so I wouldn’t have to feel so awkward, so guilty, so unsure and scared of the pain and suffering that stood right in front of me.
I have the same feelings at home seeing a homeless person on the street in winter, in the rain with a tattered cardboard sign saying “Even a smile helps.” And when the overwhelm is too great for my heart to handle, I want to shout “Heal Yourselves,” like Jesus did in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And then I realize I’m talking to myself.
As we begin to move again with traffic, I sit, stunned, snapped out of my slumber for a moment. I contemplate what it means to help someone.
I know I didn’t “help” him by giving him money. I helped myself. I bought my own peace of mind, paid off a tiny bit of my American, white privilege.
I know the slipperiness of feeling good about “helping” someone. I’ve been the person who has traded “help” for the energetic currency exchange of love. Yes, I’ve traded help so that you will love me, so that you will think I’m a good person, so that you will think I’m strong, capable and dependable. Because I like to feel that way about myself. And let’s face it, if I’m helping you it must mean I have some part of my life together.
But help. It’s slippery. What’s our own motivation for helping? What do WE want out of a situation by helping? And can we really help?
In this nano-second of a moment in Jaipur, I knew I wasn’t helping.
I was paying him to go away.
Funny thing is, he’s been with me ever since.