I’m thinking about making my fourth trip to India, a place that, (in my mind), is the most interesting land of all lands.
I first visited India when I was 12 years old. On that trip, the rigidness of the caste system deeply impacted me. Here’s a short story about one defining moment on that trip in 1996.
The train to Agra
When I was 12 years old, I stepped down off the train in Agra and locked eyes with the first person to come forward and greet me. He was a boy with elephantiasis.
His feet were swollen the size of balloons. His toes jutted out around the perimeters. He waddled towards me, his deep brown eyes latched onto mine. His hand was cupped. He stretched it towards me.
Before I could respond, my Aunt Lynn, a doppelgänger for Princess Diana, bent down and whispered into my ear, “Don’t stare.” She swept me away, hushing the boy with a harsh “chale jao” which in Hindi means “Go away.”
Every fiber in me wanted to turn back and look at him. I wanted to understand who he was, what had happened to him, and why he was begging. I knew my obsession with this stranger, a boy close to my age, was shameful in some way. At the same time I was so fixated on him I didn’t care. I had to understand. What had just happened?
A few yards further on, as we pushed our way through the crowd, my aunt’s servants grabbed our bags and hoisted us into the backseat of a Mercedes Benz. From the other side of the glass I peered out at the chaos of India, searching for the boy. Our car sped off, forcefully clearing a path towards our hotel.
In the quiet of the car I sat in the back seat and looked at my two Aunts, Lynn and Debi. Lynn rode in the front seat next to the driver. I asked her the only question that came to mind.
“Why did we have to shoo him away?”
Lynn, who had moved to India a few years earlier, turned to answer me.
“Oh, Erica.” she said sympathetically. “He’s part of a larger system, working for a slum lord. Every move he makes is being watched and any handout he gets will go to his boss. He’s a cash cow. With elephantiasis, he won’t live more than a few years. But until then, he’ll make the lord a killing.”
I was perplexed and retreated back into myself, thinking about what she had just said. Barely 13, I was pleased that my aunt had given me a straightforward answer. Still, I couldn’t comprehend what she had just told me about the boy. I was deeply conflicted. I gazed out the window, frustrated and confused. “Why him,” I wondered.
“Why him and not me?”
A few days later, we were back in my aunt’s New Delhi estate, having taken the return train from Agra. The servants had washed and pressed my clothes, cooked my dinner, and turned down my bed. I revelled in the luxury and yet felt guilty about the stark reality of the caste system, to which, even as a visitor, I was assigned a side.
The night was late and I couldn’t sleep. Quietly, so as not to wake up my cousin Shea, I tip toed out of our bedroom and down the hall. I knocked on my Aunt Debi’s door.
“Debi,” I said with uncertainty, as she opened the door. “Are my feet getting bigger?”