I stood in a barren courtyard beside the city palace watching the beggar children play with their kites. The only child concentrated on keeping his kite aloft was the youngest boy. The dozen other children were more concentrated on me than their kites. They flew with one eye and kept their other eye on me.
Two boys with their faces dusty and their hair matted ran to me with their arms around each other. If I took a photo of them they’d ask for money so I only smiled and waved my hand to tell them I wasn’t interested.
Their mothers were grouped in bright saris along the wrought iron fence beside the street. As people passed they raised their open hands in hope of a few ruppees landing on their palms. The husbands sat behind them in muted suit jackets on the steps of an abandoned government office.
Standing there, watching the children, there wasn’t a shred of illusion that I was blending in. The parents and children all had an eye on me. The parents watched in hope that I’d give a few rupees to the children. The children offered whatever they could.
“You want to fly?” one boy held the end of a string to me. They were flying downed, tattered kites with only ten or twenty feet of string. The more prosperous kite fliers in the city would have a spool with hundreds of feet.
I turned to see a boy of about ten with an orange cloth draped over his head.
“Yes. Very big. And you’re from here?”
I could feel every child and parent watching the interaction, waiting to see if money would leave my pocket or if there was a piece of information which may help that occur later.
“From a village. My parents come for work, but no work and no money. We sleep here. Very sad.”
I couldn’t think of anything empathetic to say without seeming like I was offering help so I nodded and pouted half-heartedly. Since entering the city I’d heard the same story a hundred times. In nearly every interaction I’d had there was little doubt as to where the conversation was headed. In hotels and restaurants there was an air of modesty because the transaction of money was agreed upon, but on the streets, with vendors, rickshaw drivers and beggars polite conversation with a foreigner was only a tool to extract money.
The boy and I stood in silence for a moment. The small diamond shaped kites in front of us seemed to be fighting a particularly strong wind.
“You have rupees?”
“For chapati.” The boy put fingers to his mouth. Chapati was a flatbread.
“I’m sorry. I have no money.”
“Please.” His eyes pleaded, but were already looking away. His heart wasn’t in it. The veil of an earnest interaction was as thin as cellophane. This exact conversation had been played out with a thousand others. Now the conversation was something the boy clearly felt an obligation to play out.
“I have no money.”
The boy made one last attempt by putting his fingers to his mouth, but when I looked away I saw out of the corner of my eye how cold he became once he knew I wasn’t going to be giving him any money. His pleading eyes turned serious and he walked off.
The kites which a second before seemed to fight a great wind now drifted downward lethargically. The only kite still fighting was that of the youngest boy who was too enraptured to notice the failed extraction of money.
For a while longer I watched the kites. I had to stand in the courtyard defiantly, like a boy standing too far in the ocean.
It wasn’t that I was unwelcome, but the air was filled with the expectation that every interaction required a transaction. Even watching the local children fly their kites meant a few rupees should fall from my hand.
Eventually I snapped a few photos of the children and walked off, feeling no better for holding onto my rupees but knowing that if I’d given the children money I’d feel just the same.
Down the street I passed a chaiwala.
“My friend, come here!”
I turned to see him leaned out of his metal cart where bags of chips hung from the side like curtains. A few men wearing red pagris on their head stood around the cart sipping tiny cups of chai and tossing them to the ground once finished.
“My friend, come here!”
Out of a habit I picked up from Arab countries I tapped my hand to my heart as a polite, ‘thank you but no thank you.’ In other countries I likely would have taken the man up on his offer. But after a month in India I’d become desensitized to such offers. In a way it was a shame. I enjoyed small conversations, but if I stopped to talk with every person who called me I would have gone broke and never left Mumbai.
“My friend, where are you going?”
I turned to my left to see a tuk-tuk driver. He spat a long stream of brown tobacco spittle onto the pavement.
“Just walking. Taking photographs.”
“You need tuk-tuk? Amber Fort? Monkey Palace?”
“No, thank you.” Again I put a hand to my chest.
“My friend, tuk-tuk is very cheap. Where are you going?”
“Just walking.” I swept my hand in front of me.
The tuk-tuk driver continued his appeals as I walked away.
Noticing a line of homeless mothers and children seated along the curb I cut to the opposite side of the street.
At the end of the road motorcycles, bicycles and tuk-tuks passed through an ornate three story arch of orange sandstone. I paused to consider how I might frame a photo of the arch and an interesting character within it. I sidestepped a few times to change my perspective. When I noticed a man with a cart piled with coconuts on the other side of the street I went over to him.
I moved well behind the vendor to place him at the center of the archway. This way I’d set the vendor within his surroundings. As I snapped his photo he glanced over his shoulder to me. I dropped my camera and smiled to him. Once I’d taken a few more photos I walked over to him and his cart.
“Beautiful,” I said, pointing to the arch, then giving a ‘okay’ sign with my index and thumb touching.
“Yes. You buy coconut?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling I shouldn’t refuse after taking his photo.
I passed the man a few rupees and was handed a coconut in return. I sipped the water and watched a mother and her children who were keeping home under the arcade. The two smallest children were bottomless, another was squatting in the dust to relieve herself. Their small teeshirts didn’t quite cover their privates. The mother was seated on a mat looking over the frayed end of her sari.
“Thank you,” I said.
The coconut vendor nodded and looked off.
I hesitated beside the cart, trying to summon some of the energy that had brought me out here to photograph in the first place. The family under the arcade would make a fantastic image, they were an interesting subject and the afternoon light fell at the perfect angle into the arcade, but it felt somehow voyeuristic to photograph such poverty. If I had an introduction or perhaps a bit more energy it might have been possible, but as it were I couldn’t bring myself to photograph them.
I walked away thinking about the missed opportunity. The best way to photograph was in a rhythm, talking to people and photographing as an extension of those conversations. But once I started thinking about photographing I felt as though my intentions were dishonest. I wasn’t interacting with someone out of curiosity, I was interacting with them to photograph them. It made me feel like every other hustler in the city.
I forced myself to leave the square and walk the streets. I told myself if I captured one decent photo it would be a worthwhile afternoon.
After an hour I found myself in front of the Hawa Mahal, a palace with a towering orange facade with a hundred stain glass windows. A mob of tourists were packed in front of the palace where they posed and reviewed their photos.
I spotted a rooftop café across the street so headed there. It would be filled with tourists, but the vantage provided a better view than the street and it might offer an escape from all the noises of the street.
At the narrow steps of the building I was greeted by someone from the café.
A dozen steps up a man was serving chai from a small cutout in the stone wall. In a smooth and endless motion he poured tea into small cups and made change. A second pot of chai sat on the boil. The stream of locals moving up and down the steps was constant and the masala fragrance lingered in the small stairwell.
“Come, my friend.”
Watching the chaiwala I’d forgotten about the man trying to guide me to the rooftop café.
“One second. I’m watching him.”
I snapped a few photos, but in the cramped stairwell it was difficult to find a good angle of the man and his stove. Undoubtedly, this man’s chai was better than that which I’d find upstairs, but I came for the view and the escape. I followed the man to the rooftop café.
A seat opened at the front and I took it. I had a perfect view of the Hawa Mahal and the street living below. The horns were still abrasive but the edge to their annoyance was dulled by my distance.
Two Western girls sat inside, both wearing the light cotton uniforms of those in search of the ever-elusive wanderlust. They were young, maybe twenty-two, one of the girls had her head shaved and was quite cute. In another mood I would have said something to her, but I remained exhausted due to the noise, requests for money and all the thoughts of missed photographs.
Instead I struck up a conversation with the Indian tourist seated behind me when I noticed him photographing the Hawa Mahal using his camera flash.
“You know, you don’t need to use the flash from here. It’s so far it won’t do anything.”
“Oh.” The man pulled his head back and inspected the camera hung around his neck as though it were a perculiar mark had suddenly appeared on it. “I’ve just left everything on auto.”
“Sure,” I said noncommittally, hoping my suggestion hadn’t come off as conceited.
“What I really want is to photograph people.”
“Then you definitely shouldn’t be using your flash. It has a way of freezing people in place. For me it’s creates an artificial, not very appealing look.”
“I think I know what you’re saying, but I photograph landscapes mostly. Landscapes are much easier. It’s easier to control them. There’s no controlling people. You never know how they are going to move.”
“And this is an especially difficult city to photograph,” I commiserated.
“Perhaps I need to go to the country and photograph the farmers from a mountaintop. That way it’s just like photographing a landscape but with the tiny black dots of farmers in it. It may satisfy my want to photograph people.” He laughed at his joke.
“That could be nice. Get some sheep in the photograph and you’ll have white dots in there too.”
“Yes! Yes!” The man laughed wildly, making me a bit uncomfortable that I couldn’t match his enthusiasm. Still, I was pleased to be around someone so warm who wasn’t asking for anything.
“And you? Do you photograph people?”
“I’m trying to.”
“Oh, sometimes. I guess I need to be easier on myself. I want every shot to be great and that’s just not the way it works. A lot of photography is left to chance. You do your best to put yourself in the right setting and grab opportunities when they appear, but in the end we’re only human.”
A waiter sat a miniscule clay cup of chai before me.
The Indian tourist held his empty cup to the waiter to be taken away.
“I must meet a friend, but it was nice meeting you.”
We shook hands. “Good luck with the photographs.”
I sat on the roof a bit longer, but no one stayed for more than ten minutes and the longer I lingered the more I felt it was improper.
By the time night fell I was still on the street and had collected a handful of decent photos. The brief conversation I’d had with the Indian tourist was doing the heavy lifting of trying to keep my spirit from sinking. The streets were an endless game of finding new ways to turn people down. Hardly a minute would pass between one ‘No, thank you’ and the next. Each interaction was like a chisel taken to any positivity I’d built up.
At some point I found myself back by the palace where the square provided a mild buffer from the noise and smells. The homeless which had lined the curbs earlier were now filling the arcade around the square, settling themselves on their mats for the night.
I stood on the sidewalk, looking at nothing in particular and trying to decide what to do. I thought if I wandered the streets a bit longer without putting any pressure on myself to take photos that I might be able to relax. I also knew for however much I wanted to return to the quiet of my Airbnb, that once I did I’d have nothing to do but sit in bed.
In front of me passed man with no legs. He used his arms to swing down the street a few inches at a time.
“Are you going somewhere?” I asked. “Do you want me to?” I tried to gesture carrying him on my back, but the gesture and my English failed.
He said something to me in the local language.
“Do you want a tuk-tuk?” I asked.
I’m not sure why my generosity was suddenly sparked. Perhaps because we were the only two around and I knew others wouldn’t come running if I gave him some money. Perhaps it was because while so many had asked me for money, this man was living such an obviously challenging existence and hadn’t even held out his hand to me.
The man tugged at his canvas shaw to loosen it near his neck. Then he pointed down the street.
“Do you want a tuk-tuk?”
He wagged a finger.
“Okay. Um. Here.” I handed him a hundred rupees – about a dollar thirty.
He put his hands together in thanks then tucked the money inside his shaw. I walked ahead of him and turned back to see him hugging the side of the archway as cars and motorcycles blared past inches from his hand. For him even a few feet of movement required an enormous deal of effort, but over and over again he planted his hands on the pavement and swung his torso forward, gradually making it out of the archway. Two men seated on a stone greeted him as he made his way to the public bathroom.
I found a stone to sit on as well and pressed my palms against my eyelids. It felt as though a knife was lodged up under my ribs and into my throat. Perhaps it was selfish to turn away from it, but I needed to escape the city. I couldn’t take another day seeing children defecating in the open or people asleep on the sidewalk.
Such poverty was doubly painful. It hurt once because I imagined myself in the same state, it hurt again because it reveals how powerless I am. The pain stares me in the eye. It has a child’s face. It asks me for money. It begs for something small, for anything. But shame upon shame I bury my empathy. I was generous before and only came away cold and terrified. One child runs off and twelve more appear. The generosity revealed I stood at the edge of an abyss. And inside the abyss whatever meager light I provided was immediately subsumed by an incredible darkness.