I rolled to a stop at the busy intersection, mere meters away from a young girl clothed in rags. She is striding along the uneven sidewalk ruptured by bulbous tree roots erupting through earth and asphalt. Unwary of these sudden obstacles along their path, several pedestrians stumble gracelessly. Others, like the destitute girl, seem as familiar with the perils of the pavement as people are with furniture in their homes. Instinctively, they maneuver past every fissure and mound without missing a step.
I expect the girl to approach me for alms as I wait impatiently for the traffic light to facilitate my passage. From the corner of my eye — looking at her directly would encourage contact — I take stock of her tousled appearance. Grease and grime cling to her threadbare top and loose pants (folded a few times over at the hem to keep her from tripping over the ill-fitting garment). The long rip down the front of her top is sewn up with black string, sutures to seal a chest cavity. Her auburn hair is a tangled mesh. Chapped lips stretched in a soft smile give her hollow cheeks an illusion of fullness. Clear, glossy chestnut eyes belie the angst of her quotidian struggle.
As seconds seem to stagnate at the unchanging traffic light, I continue to look straight ahead. But I feel her presence. Her benign gaze on my M.A.C-varnished cheek. Why does she look so familiar? How old is she? 10? 12? Her age disguised by malnourishment. Does she have a family? Perhaps she has people she calls her own, the other squatters on the craggy sidewalk. Social discards living their entire lives like victims of an earthquake. I imagine they gather at the end of the day to pool their earnings. Coins, mostly. A few bills, perhaps. The paltry collection buys them a few fistfuls of wheat flour that they knead and cook over a makeshift fire. Never enough bread to satiate the monstrous hunger lurking within their shrunken bellies.
Famished, the girl — too old to pass for a boy, too young to be a woman — washes her hands and face at a community spigot and makes her way to the dark side of town. Perhaps the use of her emaciated body will earn her paper money tonight….
A warm New Delhi wind tunnels between us. In unison, we sweep errant auburn tresses away from our chestnut eyes and tuck them behind our ears. I turn to look directly at the girl.
I see my daughter’s face in hers.
In truth, such an encounter never did take place. I have never seen the girl in the picture. But I have driven past countless children like her.
I believe we who eat much and sleep snug can see them. Perhaps we will continue to drive along and leave them in the dust. Perhaps the empathy in our human hearts — mine and yours — will find a way to heal their scars, and thrive.
Because they are all my children. And yours.