This story is a long one, but it has an exciting finish if you ask me. I’ll tell it in person if you don’t like reading and want funny voice inflections.
Two Saturdays ago Dan (my roommate) and I decided to walk around the streets that surround our neighborhood. We live in a fairly quiet area, but as soon as you reach the street that runs parallel to ours you hit the normal chaos of Pune. There isn’t much to do in our immediate neighborhood but there’s a lot to look at. You can find a shop for almost any vocation; there’s a tailor, an ironer, a butcher. So we were walking around looking at these shops when we stumbled on a nearby neighborhood that's separate from ours. The houses were all one story and they were packed close together. A lot of people were standing outside and talking with one another. Dan and I guessed that this was a lower middle-class neighborhood. The houses certainly weren’t lavish, but they looked like they could fit a small family somewhat comfortably.
|Taken from the top of Parvati hill. Extreme wealth & poverty live uncomfortably close to each other in Pune... this is a good example of a common sight here.|
When we reached the end of the street we ran into a large arch with huge concrete steps that led down to the bank of the Mula River. We looked down into the grassy area and saw various women who were washing and drying their clothes by the river. We also spotted some children playing with a kite right along the riverbank. It was clearly a public area so Dan and I walked down the steps hoping to talk with some of the kids. The kids were no more than 10 years old and they were really excited to see some foreigners coming down to play with them. A girl ran up to me and practiced what little English she knew (she was about 7). Unfortunately, my Marathi (the ‘mother tongue’ in Pune) is terrible so we couldn’t hold much of a conversation. Once we used up all of the simple English and Marathi phrases we knew, she left and I walked over to join Dan, who was flying a kite with a group of boys. Although the kite was made from plastic food wrappers and held together by a coat hanger, it flew really well! When we got tired of the kite we walked over to the river and skipped rocks. I consider myself a pretty good rock-skipper, but these kids were professionals. As we skipped rocks a herd of cows walked by on the other side of the river and I thought about how this was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.
After about 10 minutes of rock skipping, the boys wanted to play Cricket. I’ve never played before, but I can hit a ball with a paddle so I was excited to test my skills. The kids briefly showed me how to bat and I managed to lob a few balls here and there. Unfortunately, I landed the final pitch straight into the Mula River. I. Felt. Terrible.
The kids brushed it off and told me it was okay, but they couldn’t have done anything to appease my guilt. Clearly they didn’t have a lot of money, and here I just threw their only Cricket ball into the river. We went back to skipping rocks for another 10 minutes, but eventually I was ready to head back home for lunch. I decided I would give the kids 10 rupees before I left so they could buy a new ball.
|Steps leading to the Chaturshrungi Temple|
I wanted to be clear about why I was giving them money, so I had Dan say “For the ball” in Marathi a few times. Then I pulled out a 10-rupee coin, which was quickly snatched up by one of the kids. I repeated a few more times that this was “For the ball” so that they didn’t think I was just throwing money around. It didn’t do much help, though, because the kids immediately swarmed in closer to me and demanded 20 rupees. I laughed and said, “I don’t have 20 rupees, but I have to go home now.” Unfortunately, the kids didn’t move. They simultaneously reached out their hands and grabbed at me as they shouted “20 rupees! 20 rupees!” I continued to tell them I didn’t have the money as I slowly waded through the swarm of kids. As I moved forward they became much more aggressive. I realized that I couldn’t do anything to calm the situation so I walked ahead and tried to pretend like nothing was happening. The kids continued to beg and grab at me until one of the kids took a swipe at a small shopping bag I had in my hand. I kept my hand on one side of the bag while he stared and kept his hand on the other end. I quickly snatched the bag back from him, but his grip managed to rip the bag at the bottom. He smiled at his small victory and then reached down to pick up a handful of pebbles. As I walked away he began throwing fistfuls of pebbles at me, and soon the other kids joined him. I turned to look at the main instigator and saw that he now had a large rock in his hand. As soon as I saw what he was holding I looked him straight in the eyes and shouted, “STOP!” I turned to walk away and all of the kids immediately stopped throwing their pebbles.
|Aga Khan Palace, where Gandhi, his wife, and his secretary were imprisoned in 1942. It was worse than it looks.|
For a few days this incident really bothered me. I truly felt like I had made a connection with these kids and I was so happy to see them accept Dan and I into their community. Unfortunately, as soon as money was introduced everyone’s demeanor changed. Looking back I realize that it was incredibly stupid of me to try and pay them back for the ball. Admitting that I had any sort of money was clearly a step in the wrong direction. Dan commented that this incident somewhat reflects our experience with India in general: everyone here can be incredibly warm and generous, but money often poisons certain situations. I think that’s why I have such a bad relationship with rickshaw drivers… Either way, I can’t blame the kids for their actions; they were young and saw a clear opportunity to make some money. I’m still glad we got a chance to play with them, and I learned that I should keep my rupees to myself next time.
|A picture of an actual rainbow at the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial. Too cheesy not to post.|
|A marker to commemorate where some of Gandhi's ashes were spread.|