One morning in Delhi, April, Dai and I walked in the direction of the metro station a few miles from our hotel where we would later meet most of the group. We were walking on the gravel just off the paving of a fairly busy two lane light commercial road. Just ahead of me and only a few meters to the left, a toddler in a short mustard-colored sweater, a boy not more than eighteen-months-old was squatting on the gravel pooping. (I thought about using the word “defecating” but it seemed to erase the feeling of affection for this child that I wanted to convey); he looked to me like a brown version of our son, Ben at that age, and I was flooded with identification, a memory of the feel of baby skin and the joy of a beloved body doing its maintenance work.
Farther to the left was a blue camping tarp held up by six or eight irregular poles, tree branches a couple inches in diameter and about five feet tall. Next to the plastic-rooved but wall-less room was a small woman in a very beautiful turquoise sari, who appeared to be whisking something in a large metal bowl. There was a man behind her who was calling to the toddler. I felt like a voyeur and averted my eyes, but then caught the bed under the tarp. A pile of familiar looking comforters was folded back, revealing white sheets; this bed could have been my own; I experienced that cold-morning-in-Hamilton pull of the warm bed.
The cost of my hotel room could have fed this family for weeks, I thought. What right did I have to be here with my significant carbon footprint, my ignorance of the language, my invasion of a family’s privacy first thing in the morning? These thoughts did not erase the sense memory of that child’s skin, the pull of the bed, the brilliance of the turquoise sari.
I am not a naïve person, and I am well aware of my unearned privilege. I am sixty years old, I have worked in shelters and taught in poor rural and urban areas of the US, lived in a village in Montenegro, and traveled in Central America and Palestine. But this memory of the family on the gravel in Delhi has not left me for more than a few hours since we returned from India. I can’t say what I am doing with it, only that I continue to experience the silent encounter as a gift, even as I make no new sense of the cruel contrast of our circumstances.