November 5, 2009 – Delhi
This story begins on a bench. One hundred yards away, across a long pool of blue water and rectangular patches of freshly cut grass, sits an exquisite marble tomb. I awoke early and rode a rickshaw from my hotel to this massive wonder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sunrise reflecting off the monument’s brilliant white stone. I sat on the bench writing in my journal as I watched the first few thousand visitors file in to gaze up at India’s most breath-taking landmark, the Taj Mahal.
Later in the morning my fellow students and I rode a train from Agra to Delhi, arriving in the early afternoon. We had a few free hours in the capitol before we were to take an overnight train to the site of our next history lesson. Three friends and I used this time to go out onto the Delhi streets. Palmer, Sarah, Ben and I made it only to the curb before another very different icon of India captured our attention.
* * *
We stood at a food stand just outside the train station. Palmer inadvertently bought an odd collection of vegetables presented on a hamburger bun. He had tried to ask the vendor how much the dish cost, and the man responded by slapping it into his hand with a smattering of ketchup. We stood together and watched as he gingerly bit into his newest culinary adventure. I looked behind me for a moment and found an uncommon sight that was by now not surprising. A legless man walked upright on his hands toward the stand where Palmer bought his mystery meal. The man held small stacks of newspapers under his hands to keep from touching the filthy street. He was wearing a grayish plaid shirt and a bag over his shoulder that appeared to be empty. I had seen cripples in several places before, carting themselves around on small wooden wheeled platforms and begging alms, but this man seemed different.
He looked up at me and asked where I was from. “America,” I responded. I noticed immediately that he had a clean-shaven, intelligent, kind face. This was no beggar.
“Oh, America. Great, great place,” he said.
All of a sudden I was stricken, and I could not yet tell what it was about this man that affected me. He made one more comment about America being either the biggest or best country on earth – perhaps a reference to its economic might – and I was unable to continue the conversation, so I turned around and he continued on his way. As I faced my friends, I saw that in this short interaction the legless man had captured their attention as well. In that moment I could tell they all had thoughts and questions running through their minds. We soon found ourselves in a tight circle talking quickly, trying to sort out what we had just seen and why it had so arrested us, oblivious to the throngs stepping around us as they entered and exited the train station.
“Did you see that guy?”
“Yeah what is it about him?”
“He looks so different from most people like him here.”
“Looking at him makes me realize that any of us could be in his position.”
“Should we go bring him to a bench and talk to him or something?”
“Should I give him my burger?”
“He has such dignity.”
“It would mean so much to get down to his level and have a conversation with him.”
“What should we do?”
Finally I saw that we just needed to grab this chance while we had it. An important experience was clearly waiting for us. I left the circle in a hurry and followed the man as he made his way toward the station. I got alongside him, and before I could finish the words “hello sir” he had turned, looked up at me with a big smile and motioned to the side where we would have space to pause and talk. As soon as the four of us crouched around him, a bigger crowd began to form around us (standing). Right away a man who had previously been trying to sell us something began to exchange angry words in Hindi with our new friend. With a firmness impressive for his position, our legless friend called him off. When the angry man quieted down, we began asking questions.
* * *
Kamil Khan is from Calcutta, where his brother and sister and their families now live. He has no family of his own. He lost his legs in an accident on a train track in Bombay 27 years back, exactly half his life ago. His current voyage was supposed to bring him to Delhi and then the Taj Mahal, but while he was sleeping in the Delhi train station his bag and wristwatch were stolen. He was returning to the station today to look for the bag. He explained that he did not care nearly as much about the clothes and money in the bag as he did about the watch, which was a gift given to him by his older brother. His plans now are to get together 600 rupees and then have a small wooden cart built so that he can move more freely. When that’s finished he will try to make his way to Agra. He has no idea how the money will come, but he asserted his trust in God.
As I write this and think about Kamil, I am tempted to feel sorry for him. However, I remember that the ultimate lessons I took from my interaction with him do not allow this sort of nonconstructive thinking.
Our conversation continued for a short while, as we four Americans took turns offering questions. We talked mostly about Kamil and his life, but also about our names, where we were from, and what we were doing in India. With every statement, Kamil smiled at us. During most of the conversation, my friends and I simply sat in awe of this man, soaking up his sense of grace and sincerity, the likes of which I have seen in few people. As our conversation went on, the crowd of spectators standing by gradually also crouched to Kamil’s level and shared our interest. Another classmate came by to remind us that we needed to meet the group to go to our departure platform.
As soon as we said goodbye to Kamil I turned to Ben and said, “Alright, can we give him money now?” “Yeah,” he responded immediately, “how much?” Between the four of us we gave him 1500 rupees (about $32.50), an amount we thought would more than get him started on his next journey, but would also be easy for him to manage (to put this in perspective, in India one can easily eat a meal for under one US dollar). We handed our money to Ben and walked away as he waited for a private moment to give Kamil our gift. After a minute, I realized I really wanted to see Kamil’s face when he received the money, so I turned around. When I spotted where Ben was crouched next to Kamil again, I noticed two other men standing near them. One was a security guard, the other a young civilian with a bag over his shoulder. The security guard was trying to intervene in the conversation and shoo Kamil away, as if the meek little man were a nuisance. Ben told the uniformed officer that everything was okay, but he did not immediately leave them alone. I put a hand on each man’s chest, gave a slight nudge, and told them to move along. When I knelt down next to Kamil again, I noticed the bills poking out of his breast pocket. Ben was telling him that we hoped this would help him build his cart and get to Agra. Before we turned to leave for good, I patted his pocket, told him to take care of the money, and asked him to keep on smiling. As we walked away, Ben told me that the second man had been hanging around out of friendly curiosity. In my frustrated defense of Kamil, I had seen no difference between the innocent observer and the security guard. Ben also told me that Kamil didn’t thank him for the money, he just smiled in his characteristic genuine manner.
A few minutes later, Palmer still felt like he needed to do more for Kamil, even though he had contributed to our pool of money. He realized he had a pair of gloves that might be useful to the man who could only walk on his hands. He pulled the gloves out of his luggage and waded through the crowd in search of Kamil. After a minute Palmer found him. On receiving the gift, Kamil asked him seriously, “you have no need?” “I have no need,” Palmer assured him. When he talks about that incident, Palmer laughs off Kamil’s question and shakes his head at the notion that he could have had any real need for those gloves.
* * *
I’ve thought about Kamil a lot since that night. He gave me a new perspective on human suffering and poverty. Some people argue that we are products of our experience. According to this view our environment consists of external factors that shape our lives. In such a world an impoverished standard of living inevitably leads to an impoverished spirit. Kamil’s very character disputes this claim. Not only did this man lose his legs – and with them his mobility, his independence, his career, and his hope of having a family – but he then had to live as a legless man in India, of all places. Cripples and beggars occupy most major roads in this nation of 1.1 billion people. Those more fortunate walk by them every day, giving them no heed, much less aid. Unlike Kamil, by remaining in the streets and begging, these “untouchables” attempt to exploit their material disadvantage for meager monetary gains and in the process sacrifice their dignity. And how can I, an American, of all things, blame them? However, as understandable as a beggar’s downtrodden mentality may be, Kamil sets a more inspired example. Kamil has spent the last 27 years looking up at people who have so much more materially than he has, if nothing more than the ability to walk, skip, and run. For 27 years he has walked through crowds of towering bipeds, most of which offer him no recognition, not to mention respect or esteem. And these people were once his peers. Yet he smiles freely. He has not allowed his physical condition to hinder his happiness. Furthermore, when a common thief took advantage of his handicap, Kamil seems not to have faltered for a moment. His outlook remains positive, his faith complete, and his mission – were you to listen to him speak – virtually unhindered. He will see the Taj Mahal, and when he gets there thousands of foreign tourists, should they lower their gaze for a moment, will learn the lesson that my friends and I learned today.
Every day, Kamil proves by his example that we all have the opportunity to express joy. Every one of us has some measure of control over his or her demeanor and attitude. If it is important enough to us and we are willing to rise to the challenge, we have the power to live joyfully. When Kamil walks along the streets of India with only a newspaper between his hands and the squalid concrete – beaming – what excuse have we, who have so much?
Meeting Kamil has helped to guide my interactions with other poor and disadvantaged people. I now know that instead of ignoring them, I can look them in the eye and let this acknowledgement make a radical claim: they have access to a sense of grace, happiness, and dignity that cannot be contained within and therefore cannot be limited by their material condition. You can dignify a person simply by looking him or her in the eye and smiling, and Kamil did this for us as much as we did for him.