I find that I have never been able to guess the age of someone from the Narikuravar community. Their skin is a lovely brown and their face remains unblemished, making me think Nature took a break and decided to be kind for a moment, in light of other tragedies that constantly visit these gypsy people. I look elsewhere, because I do not want to glance at the beads they sell and then decline to buy any. I watch them beg at traffic signals and on pavements along the beach, only to ignore them. I turn them away when they offer to reveal the happiness that my future holds for me, because I do not know how much to give them. How much is enough? Is it ever enough? I feel small, and I want to be invisible, without a thought for those who have forever remained hidden in the frayed seams of society’s fabric.
One day, there were no escape routes. As I stood in that vacant manner of one whose thumbs are so used to punching at a smartphone, I saw before me a young woman with a baby hanging from her chest, its bottom straining against the thin cloth she’d wrapped it in. A girl, rather, with breasts so small and a waist that looked fragile, perfect teeth as if her childhood was punctuated by visits to the dentist, short and beautiful. The baby sucked on a piece of plastic, while she wordlessly offered her hand from which were hanging several necklaces of beads. I shook my head. Vendam. She wouldn’t leave. I opened my wallet and noticed I had a two-thousand rupee note, nothing else. She’d seen my wallet, my bag, my water bottle, and I’d refused to buy, refused to give money. I wasn’t willing to part with my two-thousand rupees, and I absolved myself of any guilt instantly. Really now, I couldn’t give her that much, even if she had a baby that was trying to eat plastic, even if she’ll never sell enough beads to make a living.
Maybe I didn’t absolve myself completely. I walked away but I wasn’t able to leave. I went inside a store and bought some snacks. I looked for her and gave her some of the change I received, not a lot, just a little to make myself feel better, all the while thinking that even giving is about myself now. To relieve me of the tightening in my chest, to allow myself to feel better the next time I pretend to be blind. I gave the child a snack. She stared at me and disappeared into the crowd.
I sat on the platform and felt the tears pooling in my eyes, for being a selfish individual, for the privilege I possess, for the suffering that will never end after generations and generations, for the women who always have it worse than the men, and for everything I choose to ignore.
Narikuravar: A nomadic tribe found in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state. Pushed out of the forests they once called home, they now wander the cities trying to make a living from selling beaded ornaments and fortune-telling.