We were searching for a local restaurant in Kolkata when I felt light, cool fingers touch my right elbow. I turned. The person who had touched me was clad in a vibrant ocean blue and was wearing a bright yellow scarf. I couldn’t quite tell her gender, but I think she was female. She was slightly hunched, and looked as frail as a feather. There were two scars above the corner of her left eyebrow, the lower one slightly longer than the one above it. I have no idea how old she was. I still wonder what her name is, or how she got those scars, or how she happened to be at that spot at that moment, face to face with me, a random tourist from across the world.
She brought her fingertips to her mouth, then brought her hand down with her fingers slightly spread. She pointed to the restaurant we were thinking about eating at, then repeated the motion. After the first motion, I knew what she was asking. Both Daniel and my mom were lighter than most of the people around us had ever seen, and were a dead giveaway that we had money. I learned later that she had tried asking Daniel first. My dad had the wallet though, and I didn’t have any money to give her. She was not the first nor the last beggar I saw in India, but she was the one that struck me. Up until that point, the poverty and the need in India was another dimension for me, even as I walked right through it. We gave at least a little bit of money every time it was asked for, and often overpaid for items we knew we could have bargained down. I went through the motions.
This was the first time it really hit me though, and just like Yellow Birds it shook me to the core. She kept pressing, even as we drove off in the cab. I tried to get my dad’s attention, and he never said no to a beggar, but we got caught up in trying to find a restaurant we could safely eat at, and she never did get any money. She was the only one. She was one person in a country of billions, in a country where driving down the street you would see more wood-plank houses and dirty, crumbling shops and moldy apartment buildings than there were cars on the sardine can of a road. Why should I feel bad about one beggar missing the equivalent of a dollar fifty when another would immediately take her place? When it was a country of nearly a billion that were in just as much need? Even now her face is faded in my memory, but this is my pathetic attempt at immortalizing her, at immortalizing ephemeral moments and faces that will be meaningless in a century. Before her though, the reality never really struck me. She would have been happy with a dollar fifty for the day. Billions of people could say the same. This isn’t an “Oh I realize how much I have and I should be thankful,” she merely made the magnitude of the desperation and need surrounding me immediate, something I couldn’t ignore. My greatest desire is to help people, but she made me realize that the idea that I could have any effect on the world truly is a butterfly. She did, without intending to, the same thing that Yellow Birds did. She made me doubt the point in chasing butterflies. I could feel the glass crack beneath me.