I remember the day vividly. It was hot, so hot. Humidity was bringing sweat to the surface of my body in a way I had never experienced before during other travels of India. I felt somewhat out of sorts walking around Arjuna’s Penance of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), as the day had been such a flurry of rushing in order to reach the beach side community of Tamil Nadu before late afternoon.
Tourists mingled about the stone carvings, I was the only foreign traveler. Indian mothers and fathers walked with their extended family in tow as children of all ages played among the grassy areas. Touts stood nearby in the hopes of making a sale. Postcards were apparently the hot item here. They too were young, somehow squeaking out a living without me as a customer. My mouth was dry, so dry. It seemed I had lost interest in being a tourist, now finding more pleasure in fantasizing how a fresh lime soda would taste as it filled my desert throat.
Sounds of crying brought me from my haze. It was a violent crying, coming from the very core of a person’s soul. It passed through the open expanse of rock and jungle cover with a chill, yet no one, no one, was paying it any attention. I knew it was real and the curiosity to find it overcame me.
And there she was, a small girl sitting against a wall. Just a narrow dusty road separated us. Opposite her was one of the most famous examples of ancient art in India. A herd of elephants marching under an army of angels was carved into a massive rock. Faces now warn away from centuries of weather, the elephants quietly marched in unison as the young girls cries trumpeted from her small frame. I scanned the periphery for a parent, a mother, a father, anyone who laid claim to her. Nothing. No one.
She’d been crying for awhile now. Her face was void of moisture but her eyes showed she had just temporarily run out of tears. Families walked past her. Mothers paid her no mention. Young men, locals, continued toward their destination without a helping hand. Disheveled dark shoulder length hair was wet from tears and sweat. Her exposed legs and feet were covered in sandy soot as were her arms. She wore a blue men’s t-shirt several sizes too big over fitted red pants that cuffed at the bottom. The red and white plaid hem was the only feminine thing about her clothing.
It became clear to me she was either a beggar or an untouchable. Possibly both. Either way, it was not for me to get involved. As an older male it would be frowned upon for me to engage with a young girl, especially if she was in fact, a dalit. My driver, a friendly yet traditional South Indian Tamil, would potentially view this as bringing shame on him and the vehicle he so proudly drove. And the people in the surrounding area, the same people who at that moment were not interested in either me or the young girl, how would they react? Indian beliefs can be so fickle at times. Would I be chastised for intervening? I was afraid to cross the line between tourist and reality. Camera in hand, I snapped her as she sit in the dirt crying out for something. All I could do was hope she found comfort that night.
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