When we are young we understand only part of what travel is about: we think the point is to learn about other places. Only when we’re older do we understand that travel offers us the chance to learn important things about ourselves. And sometimes it doesn’t just give us the chance at such lessons– it forces them upon us. This is the story of such a moment.
|inside the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri – Chris Henke|
The city’s administrative and palatial grounds (which include a huge Pachisi court and a once-gorgeous pool) are impressive in ways that mark so much of India’s architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries. And though our guide on the tour bus had alerted us upon our arrival to what he called “the problem of the pickpocket,” there was no sense, walking around the lovely grounds and snapping photos of friends in goofy poses, that this would be anything other than a wonderful encounter with the glory of India’s past.
The Jama Masjid, however, was another thing entirely. Approaching the entrance, we were met by a steady stream of people eager to sell us the relatively useless tchotchkes that would legitimate the transfer of money from our hands to theirs. I ignored them, as we had all been told to do, but most were not so easily put off. A charming young man spoke to me for five minutes, insisting that he needed to practice his English, and only after we had established a rapport did he spend another five minutes convincing me to buy a miniature chess set that I knew would end up sitting unused on a bookshelf in my house back in the States. (I caved.) After him, a somewhat older man attached himself at my side as I approached the mosque, patiently and insistently repeating his request that I buy some postcards from him. My repeated refusals seemed only to spur his motivation, and his sales pitch began to take on the air of desperate incantation.
I remember seeing the entrance to the mosque as something like a cordon sanitaire. Surely, I thought, once I enter the sacred space of the mosque these vendors will have to either leave me or at least cease their entreaties. Disconcerting, then, to find my imperturbable companion simply walking along with me straight into the mosque, his pitch continuing without the slightest pause as I began to traverse the more than a hundred yards from one side of the mosque to the other. At some point, after having walked next to me for perhaps another 50 yards, he fell away. Thank goodness, I thought; a moment of peace to enjoy this amazing place.
Soon, though, something worse: a finger jabbing my thigh, a small voice asking me to buy a pen, a boy no more than six years old. Trying to ignore him, I marched as purposefully as I could the remaining distance to the other side of the mosque, the boy’s needling finger steadily working my leg the whole time. Reaching the other side of the courtyard I saw more and more children, who seemed connected to this boy in a way I could not understand. They too approached me with urgency –children of six, seven, eight – and implored me to buy their particular trinkets.
Now I should say here that I consider myself a man of adequate internal strength. It came as a great surprise, then, to realize at that moment that I had reached some point of breakdown. I suddenly could bear no more – the chess vendor, the postcard man, the needling boy, the urgent kids – so I wheeled upon the closest to hand, the boy at my side, and addressed him in the sharpest and loudest tone I could muster: “I told you I have no money for you! I told you to get away from me! Okay? SO JUST GET AWAY FROM ME!” I felt like my words were slapping him in the face, and the boy sensed it. He left me quickly.
From then on every moment in the mosque was miserable. I could not get past what I had done to that boy, the alarming recognition of the surge of anger I had felt in the moment. After that I was poison to any other peddlers. The grown men who approached me in particular I felt I’d as soon punch as look at. It was a completely disorienting combination of emotions: the anger was still there, I can’t deny that, now covering over a more profound shame at what I had shown I could do to that boy; compassion for the boy, who had received something he should never have received; and, of course, awareness of the many others who would not be helped.
What prevented my utter dissolution then and there was only the kindness of a friend, who saw me crying and thereafter made a point to stand as a shield between me and the other vendors who kept approaching me and somehow could not sense the emotions inside me, which at any moment were threatening to erupt in what would have looked like simple rage. Other friends helped me make it through the rest of my time there broadly in one piece, as I searched for some equanimity that might replace the disturbing emotions I had felt. We exited the mosque through an archway, above which swarmed an impossible number of bees. Hundreds more lay dead on the ground. In our socks we tried to avoid stepping on them, disgusted by their gummy carcasses and fearful their lifeless stingers might somehow find us.
I was left to wonder what kind of horrible cycle I had just participated in. A young boy, no more responsible for his own actions than any six year-old the world over, had asked me to help him. But how could I help him and not all the others? And I couldn’t help all the others. Why couldn’t he see that? (Why couldn’t this little boy see my point of view? Right.) The sadness and helplessness were too much to bear. So I escaped the sadness, sloughed off the helplessness, by generating as much venom as I could muster and then putting it right on the source of those bad feelings. This at least gave me some distance from those feelings.
And so I learned first-hand the appeal of indifference. Confronting the seriously unfortunate, those who have it so much worse than we do, is, I had learned, a genuinely difficult experience. Once we let the fact of their lives inside us, it is very difficult to go on as we had before. So much easier, then, to keep them outside. And in my case anyway, so much easier to preserve my sense of myself as a basically good and caring person without having to deal with those many other people who might need something from me. This dynamic seems to me an extraordinarily important one to resist. But recognizing that fact, I realize, doesn’t mean we’ll be successful in our efforts.