The white dog

February 06, 2007 at 3:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Which ones will you always remember?  Of the thousands of poor, sick, overworked people you pass on your journey, and the hundreds of lame, caged, dying animals you see, which ones will remind you, long after you've returned home, of the astonishing blessings of your own life?
          Two children squat in front of their tattered cloth tent -- their home -- high up on an outcropping of rock in a Delhi slum. Although they are out of reach of your taxi, which flies by with its window open, letting in a stench of urine and burning rubber that the children must breathe every day, you can see that the children have no posessions, none. All around, hundreds of similar tents sit side-by-side on the rock, some of them tended by bent and bow-legged old women who assiduously sweep their front stoops with straw brooms -- as if a tattered cloth tent could have a front stoop. Younger women, with scowls on their faces and squinting in the sun, sit in front of small baskets of withering fruit, waiting all day for a sale. Men drink brown water from trickling spigots.
          Strangely, it is not these people's lack of posessions or their unsanitary living conditions that strike you the most, but that inside that slum are hundreds of potential doctors, musicians, artists and scientists who will never reach their full potential. You think about your own education, your own freedom.
          Standing on the platform of the Jhansi train station at 9 p.m., before your first overnight train ride, you peer down at the family crouching in front of you, waiting for a train. Between the mother, father and two toddlers, they have one duffel bag between them. The parents wear cheap, worn-out sandals, while the children go barefoot. You watch as the mother removes the cloth diaper from one of her children, washes it in a small bucket and wrings it out over the tracks. While she does this, her other child pees on the platform and waddles in her own urine as it trickles towards the tracks. Her parents take no notice. You think of the children of your friends, bathed every night and tucked into clean beds, and give thanks.
          Exhausted, you enter the Nagpur train station in the early morning and there on Platform 1 is a white dog, a stray who looks like all the other street dogs of India until you see the pink spots covering his body, places where his fur used to be. The fur has been scratched off, bitten off, burned, it's not clear, and his backside is covered in fleas. All around him, people hurry and push and hassle, yet he is calm. You want to touch and heal this dog, but instead you look away from his pink flesh and his dignified demeanor because if you do not hold yourself together you will not get to your platform in time. After you do, and have a spare moment, you find a spot on the crowded platform and sit down and weep, because you cannot hold anything in any longer. It is the only time you have wept openly during your journey.

          It's evening, and you're trying to make your way down a sidewalk in Mumbai that is jammed with trinket stands and hawkers. To get through the crowd you have to jostle past the tourists and the men calling "Madam, madam, look my shop!"  Eventually you make it to an empty spot on the sidewalk and turn towards the fast food joint that's on your left. There, you see him standing, his long arm outstretched -- a man of about 50 in a pink button-down shirt and brown pants. He is rocking, forward and back, forward and back on his sandaled feet, holding a stick, blind. Amidst the chaos, he is blind, utterly ignored. What is his world like? You keep walking.
          Halfway down the block, you turn back. There are times when we break our own rules and turn back. You reach into your wallet and take out 20 rupees -- the only time you have given money to a beggar here. But because he is blind, you make sure he grasps the money by putting your other hand on his, so that he does not drop it. Your hand and his hand momentarily touch, and it's then that you feel the warmth of his skin, so warm it's as if he has a fever in his hand. You know at that moment you will never forget the warmth of this hand. But in an instant you let go and turn around and keep walking, looking back to see him place the money in his pocket. You think of your own ability to see, and look up at the stars. 
          Everyone responds to suffering in their own way. Perhaps the way we respond says more about us as individuals than it does about the objects of our compassion. The people and animals that I will remember after I have left India may not be the same people and animals you would remember. But by recalling at least a few, we are able to move beyond statistics, toward an intimate relationship with poverty that can teach us about dignity in the midst of suffering -- for the old women, the family, the dog and the blind man all posessed extraordinary dignity -- and can remind us of the often-forgotten potential of our own, squandered lives.