This is chapter 4 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ashley has a haunting experience with a young girl.
When the Mughals ruled the Indian subcontinent, Agra was the capital. Our tour guide Samarth said our Taj Mahal experience would be incomplete without a trip to the Red Fort. The Fort is actually more like a palace where the emperor Shah Jahan and his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal spent their days. There's an identical Red Fort in Delhi, too.
Ryan had to spend time at Cafe Coffee Day to catch up on work. Before asking our driver Tapah to drop Aom and me at the fort, he had to run one errand. Ryan stopped at a nearby market and bought 25 kilos of bananas, onions, potatoes, watermelon and tomatoes.
He came back to the car with six thin plastic bags filled to the brim. Aom reached out to grab the potatoes, thinking the bag might rip from its weight.
"Let's drop by the squatter's community we saw yesterday and give them this food," Ryan said, as beads of sweat on his lip curled into a smile. "We can go after you and Aom visit the Red Fort."
When we approached the fort, we were greeted by big groups of Indian families from different regions, all clamouring to enter the massive monument. We weaved through the crowds toward the tall, gated entrance. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I didn't notice, but a small, thin girl stood at my side. She stretched out her hand and spoke a half-Hindi, half-English mantra, repeating “money, money, money,” over and over again.
"Don't talk to them, and don't touch them," Samarth said, ushering us to the front. "Keep walking, come on."
She wore tattered, stained clothes and grime camouflaged her face. An unknown skin condition ate away at her hair and exposed her inflamed, itchy scalp. I wanted to hug her, but I just stood there. I guessed she was about 7 years old.
The girl looked to Aom, who stopped, bent down and gently said, "We'll come back soon after we finish at the fort."
The Red Fort represents the creativity of the Mughal Empire, architecturally influenced by Persian, Timurid and Hindu styles. We explored the corridors of the ancient castle, marveling at the red sandstone structure. The fortress' campus encompasses the chambers of different rulers, family members and slaves. It even houses a small olive grove, which lives today.
The Red Fort and the Taj Mahal are intentionally intertwined. When Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, he made sure to have a view of his true love’s final resting place. He lived for more than 30 years after her death. The construction of the Taj Mahal and its location is a fitting conclusion to a timeless, mysterious love story.
The majority of the fortress was made from strong, authoritative red sandstone, whereas Mumtaz’s quarters were feminine and exquisite. Her wing of the castle was crafted from white marble and adorned with floral embellishments, just like the Taj Mahal.
The open-air rooms, clasps for floating beds and wide spaces mirrored the wealth and comfort of the Mughal lifestyle. But the Red Fort reflects another period of history too. Just like the Taj Mahal, the residual touch of the British military occupation is burned into the walls of the Red Fort.
When British rule was pushed out of India, the soldiers began to loot and pillage the country's wealth. The soldiers set fire to Mumtaz's quarters to melt and steal the gold that had been etched into the walls and ceiling.
I left the Red Fort feeling like I had traveled back in time, but I was quickly pulled back into the present.
As we exited the fort we saw the same young girl. She approached us with two of her friends in tow. Our driver Tapah waited out front. Aom started to lead the girl and her friends to our car, but a nearby policeman started to shout. He quickly walked toward us and lifted his baton, ready to swat the girls like flies.
"No, no, it's okay," I said. "They're with us."
The policeman lowered his baton and walked away. I had no doubt that his main function was to keep the poor away from the country's revenue-generating heritage site.
Aom opened the car door, reached into the backseat and pulled out three bananas, one for each girl. They smiled, frantically, and asked for more."Be careful, don't give them too much," Samarh said. "They will just sell it for drugs."
Aom nodded, but gave each girl two more pieces of fruit. The two friends skipped off, happy with their loot. Aom hopped in the front seat and Samarth jumped in the back.
"Bye bye," Aom said, waving. "Be good girls!"
But the one girl, with the deteriorating scalp, was still unsatisfied. She blocked me from opening the car door, still chanting. I wiggled inside and she stood with her hand pressed to the window, staring blankly.
The car began to pull away, but she still had her hand outstretched. I wondered if she'd ever be able to lay it down.
I couldn't stop thinking about the girl. I couldn't stop thinking about the pain radiating from her balding, inflamed head. Where are her parents? When was the last time she had a bath? What will she become, having to beg in the streets day in and day out? For weeks on end, she appeared in my dreams.On one hand, I was shocked by the way Samarth disregarded the child. Feigned indifference seemed to be a common response. Samarth was a good person and he believed that giving things away might worsen the situation. He told stories of how children were sold to people who purposefully left them filthy so they could earn more as panhandlers. He said that many kids, regardless of their age, are addicted to drugs. He told us that the girls might trade the bananas for huffing glue.
In India, thousands of poor families and children are treated like a blemish on the developing nation. Though the poverty in India is heartbreaking, it seems that there's no clear answer. Even though I thought I understood it, it's difficult to know how to react. Ryan and Aom taught me to always give food when I can, but the most important thing is to treat people like human beings, regardless of their situation.
Moments like this define who we really are.