“For India’s Children, Philanthropy Isn’t Enough.” The article in The Times caught my eye, and dozens of memories leapt to mind, each a vivid snapshot from one of five visits to that faraway land.
The article described the crushing poverty that still afflicts many Indians, and the “endemic corruption, from the very top down to the ground level,” that will prolong it, perhaps forever.
It sounds like a disclaimer now, a rote recitation. “There are so many wonderful things about India,” I’ll begin. “It’s endlessly fascinating, and I have met many wonderful, beautiful people there.”
And you know what? India really is endlessly fascinating. There really are wonderful, beautiful people there. It is the birthplace of Buddha, yoga, meditation, so much ancient wisdom, and, not least, Krishna, the blue-skinned godchild and Supreme Being of the Hindu faith.
But on the material plane, India is a disaster. And the corruption, as religiously practiced as it is deeply entrenched at every single layer of society — and there are many — is absolutely maddening.
Indira Gandhi International, June, midnight. The smell hits first, as the glass doors slide apart and I step into the arrivals hall, but the heat is close behind. Something is burning. Hints of incense, garbage, and particularly nasty soot envelop me. It is 97 degrees.
The auto-rickshaw careens past mountains of garbage, belching soot into the filthy air as it snakes through a free-for-all of cars, buses, trucks, ox-drawn carts, scooters, cows, bicycles, pedestrians, dogs. Any time the vehicle comes to a stop, the beggars are upon it, young mothers with infants, children of all ages, hands outstretched, reaching inside, pawing me.
In Mumbai, the auto-rickshaw driver overcharges me by 500 percent. A bystander sees what is happening, commands the driver to refund my rupees, and then demands twice the sum for rescuing me.
I walk across the small park at Connaught Place and am accosted by a teenage boy insisting that he shine my shoes — sneakers, actually. I decline, and he points to my footwear, suddenly covered with cow dung. Back in the auto-rickshaw, I remove my soiled sneakers. When the vehicle comes to a stop, a feral child walks up and casually grabs them.
In Jaipur, my self-appointed tour guide insists on taking me to a “guru” who can “read my aura.” As it happens, this guru doubles as the proprietor of a jewelry shop, but promises that his gift is freely given. My crown chakra is blocked, but I am in luck: by purchasing this stone, placed in this setting, and purified in the ceremony that only he can perform, balance will be restored. For this, he wants $750.
If Lord Sri Krishna knew what was going on, I daresay he’d be very blue indeed.
Christopher Walsh is a reporter for The Star. If he ever finishes his first book, this will be the title and subject of his second.