The following story is true. While on a film journey encompassing Western China, Tibet, and India, I met a remarkable fellow American who left a lasting impression on me due to his warm heart and gentle spirit. We spent a brief time together discussing the unique, and often unexplainable customs of the Indian people. There is a lesson in this story-- a lesson of compassion, empathy, and kindness. I hope you will be touched by what I’m about to tell you, as much as I was.
Every morning of every working day, a white car picked up Mike Breeslin at his modest flat and drove him along the shore of the blue-green Bay of Bengal to his offices at a huge international electronics manufacturer. Chennai was his first assignment, and at twenty-three he was young enough to be thrilled as the most junior official in charge of the most minor trade matters. Madras, as everyone still called it, was a wonderful city, and at first he went everywhere, to the beach, to the temples in Mylapore, to the ruins at Mahabalipuram fifty kilometers away. Indian friends invited him to their homes or to performances of classical dance-dramas. At one sumptuous show he fell madly in love, briefly, with a dark-haired American ballerina who was learning the ancient art. But the charming girl had soon gone to France, and after a while her replies to his letters came later and later. After a year in Madras, a certain sameness crept into his routine, consisting of official work, official functions, official cultural events, and dinners or tennis with executives and their wives, all marred by the nearly total lack of young American women. Until he noticed the girl on the bench.
He happened to glance at her from the car one morning when the driver turned away from the shore and onto a side street. Mike was actually looking at two restaurants he habitually observed, a vegetarian one with a blue sign and a non-vegetarian with a red one. He watched them with interest because of the white Brahma cow that usually ate breakfast in the vegetarian one and intelligently avoided the other. More often than not, the cow, which was also a creature of habit, went inside just as his car was passing. Sometimes the owner and his staff would embrace her. Once, for the annual Mattu Pongal celebration of cows, they had put a garland of pink flowers around her neck. And they always gave her something to eat, something sweet he suspected, because she left looking as happy and contented as a well-loved pet. If she had been a dog, she would have wagged her tail.
People in Madras love cows. They worship them and allow them to roam wild in the streets, as in all of India. They have stickers on their cars demanding "Don't eat beef," and when he told them about the opposite ones the beef industry put out in the States, their faces fell. Mike had heard there were hospitals and old-age homes for cows. His round-faced friend Yogesh from the passports section had even assured him, deadpan, that some people left their entire fortunes to cows, so that the lucky ones had their own bank accounts, servants, and flats--but that was Yogesh.
Ruminating on these contrasts in cattle, he watched the cow saunter away past the non-vegetarian restaurant, and there on a low bench in a niche set back from the street was the girl. People on the streets of Madras usually bustled in the early morning, but she was sitting quite still. Maybe it was her absence of motion that attracted his attention, the way an injured fish attracts a bigger one. She sat there, looking away somewhere. So many people filled the streets that he couldn't be sure whether he'd seen her before. He certainly didn't remember her.
The next morning she was there again, sitting quietly on the brown bench. This time she too was watching the cow, with a faint smile. She was older than he had thought, probably in her early twenties, but so thin and waiflike that on first glance she had looked much younger. And she was pretty, with her straight, dark hair and sharp features. Then the car rounded another corner and drove on.
Later, as he sat at his desk sorting through stacks of documents, he thought of her again, a thin girl as pretty in her way as the actress Audrey Hepburn, whom the French writer Colette called "that great treasure I found on the beach." A beautiful Indian girl...
He caught himself. His supervisor Hal Thomas, whose wrinkled, sagging face looked like it had seen too much and was beginning to melt with age, had warned him not to get involved with Indian women. It was, Hal told him flatly, simply out of bounds. "Even if you were to marry one, no one would quite know how to handle it. You probably wouldn't yourself."
"No one dates here," Yogesh had replied, amazed, to one of Mike's innocent questions. Only a little older than Mike but married and with a child on the way, Yogesh had gazed at him thoughtfully, the light of amusement in his fine, dark eyes. "These things have to be arranged by the families and astrologers. Of course the young people have their say-- I certainly did-- but most of us find the idea of a 'love marriage' incomprehensible... marriage for a lifetime based on some momentary physical attraction? Still, if you're interested I can run an ad for you in The Hindu: 'Light-skinned professional seeks suitable bride to travel the world on business assignments and settle in America,' and we can see who turns up. I can guarantee a flood of interesting applicants."
Mike hadn't been interested, just curious. What, he asked himself now, was he thinking of? ...staring at a girl on a bench ...in India.
But the next morning he couldn't help noticing her again. White cow, vegetarian restaurant with a fading blue sign, brown girl on a brown bench in the shadows--everything was in its place. She was a permanent fixture. He began to wonder whether she actually was injured or crippled in some way, consigned to spend her days on the bench, maybe to beg. In spite of the new prosperity in Madras, some hard-pressed families still left their handicapped children alone every day to beg on the floor in the train station.
"It's terrible," Yogesh had told him. "In such poverty everyone is compelled to earn his own keep."
The girl glanced up with a wide-eyed, wistful look. She had noticed him staring at her, and he flushed and looked away. The car pulled forward, and Ravi, the driver, expertly entered the cacophonous flow of autorickshaws, bicycles, and veering traffic, the way a fish enters a school of its darting kin. Soon Mike found himself back at the office, being greeted by Indian guards with bayonets on their rifles. He went to his cubicle and sat at his desk. His parents and friends were on the other side of the globe, oceans away. Several calls came in from Indian acquaintances asking for his help in getting green cards so they could work in America, and he promised to act as a reference, as usual. A man brought him heavily sweetened coffee with milk, the color of the girl's smooth skin.
Her image came back to him--such a thin girl on the bench. She wasn't wearing a sari, but a faded green garment around her hips and over her shoulder, the kind adolescent girls sometimes wore,though she looked older. Underneath it, her yellow blouse was stained and revealed a tiny bare waist. Here and there her hair fell out of place, and her feet were bare, although almost everyone else on the street wore rubber sandals. In a word, she looked destitute. She didn't have a single bangle on her wrists, not even the cheapest plastic kind. She probably lived on that bench, which shouldn't have surprised him. Hundreds of thousands of people lived on the streets all over the world, even in America.
But a pretty girl... Why didn't someone marry her? He laughed wryly at his own thought. Who in India would marry a homeless, ragged girl without even a bangle, let alone respectable family ties and a dowry? He sighed. Where was her family? She didn't look like one of the rag-tag tribal people the locals called "gypsies," who had always slept on the streets and cooked over burning bicycle tires emitting columns of black smoke, but like someone whose fortunes had fallen terribly. What tragedy had occurred to strand her there? And where would she go? What would become of her in a country still so poor?
That evening he had to work very late. Ravi had gone home long before, and Mike caught a taxi. The driver started to take him back by a different, longer route along the sea, but, out of sheer curiosity, Mike managed to explain to him in Tamil to go by the restaurants. In the darkness he could see nothing from inside the taxi, and so on impulse he told the driver to let him out there and wait. It was ten o'clock, and the vegetarian restaurant was just closing. The white cow was gone, but the girl was in her niche, reclining on her bench without a blanket and possibly asleep. Not wanting to be caught staring at her, he went inside and ordered a coffee. The owner served him a cup of lukewarm dregs and watched in astonishment when he downed it in a couple of gulps. But Mike didn't want to be there any longer and hurried back out to the taxi. Glancing at the girl again, he couldn't see any bundle or a single other possession around her. She was absolutely alone and destitute.
That night he couldn't go to sleep because of the wretched coffee he had drunk so late, pressures from work, and of course, the girl. It surprised him that he was so concerned about her, when all over the world multitudes were in the same position, even in America. When he did finally drift off, he dreamed, not of the girl, but of a thin, white mare clattering up and down the broken stairs and corridors of an abandoned hotel, trying desperately to get out.
He awoke sweating, and realized that someone was knocking at the front door. He had slept right through his alarm clock.
"Sir," Ravi's familiar voice called out, and Mike dragged himself out of bed, shaved, threw on his clothes, and hurried off to work.
Because they were so late that morning, they passed the white cow coming toward them along the street a few blocks away from the restaurant she had surely just left. They stopped for traffic, and the cow stopped before a woman in a red and blue sari, who was selling fruit out of a basket. The woman, who looked nearly destitute herself, smiled with some of her remaining teeth, cut off a piece of a melon with a large knife, and gave it to the beggar cow, which probably knew a whole string of generous and religious vendors along her route. Even if the melon was past its prime, as Mike suspected, the cow downed it in a couple of bites and sauntered away.
The girl was waiting by the restaurants, as usual, but that morning she had left her bench and was talking to an old man with a bedraggled mustache, who was selling white iddlis, steamed rice-and-gram cakes rolled up in banana leaves.
"At least she isn't disabled," Mike thought with relief. But at the same time he felt a surprising disappointment. She wasn't a completely helpless victim. She could stand, walk, and presumably take care of herself. Why wasn't she doing better?
The car stopped for traffic again, and Mike found himself quite close to her. She was terribly thin, but her frame was medium sized and well proportioned. Suddenly she turned her attention from the vendor and looked at Mike full in the face, and her eyes went wide with surprise and embarrassment when she recognized him from the day before--a white man in a white car, staring at her again the way no man in India should. Her gaze faltered, as if she couldn't understand his interest in her of all people, someone lost on the streets. And then, with a wondering smile, she stared at him again as if she had nothing more to lose and everything to gain. It was an ancient look, full of longing for protection when she was in terrible need, for companionship and children, for love and life itself, a vulnerable, hungry look that saw right through him, as if she recognized a similar need in him--and all very wistful.
The old vendor said something to her and handed her an iddli cake. She took it gratefully and did not look back at Mike. "Thank God for small favors," he thought, shaken. People fed her, although one rice cake was nothing. He could eat nine at a sitting himself, though Yogesh stared at him when he did.
As they pulled away, he couldn't take his eyes from her faded clothes and tan skin. It was the same smooth color on her arms and neck and the narrow small of her back. She sat down on her bench to eat, and he watched the thin, proud flare of her jaw as she ate. Her skin was a different color there, he noted, an odd, unhealthy yellow that ran in patches. It didn't look like a bruise or anything else he had seen before. And then it dawned on him--she was starving. This delicate woman full of humor, needs, and a power of her own was literally starving.
For the rest of the day he couldn't stop thinking about her. Hal Thomas noticed his preoccupation when his coffee sat untouched on his desk and his stack of papers didn't shrink.
"Are you ill?" he asked with concern, studying Mike attentively. "Excuse me for saying it, but I hope you aren't coming down with jaundice. You look pale this morning, and your eyes are a little yellow."
Mike felt the blood drain out of his face. He sighed and decided to confide in Hal.
"There's this Indian girl," he said, "a woman really. I... I don't know what to do about her."
Hal sighed in return and settled comfortably into a chair as if he'd heard this a hundred times before.
"Are you in love with her?" he asked nonchalantly.
Mike was so surprised the he had to pause a long time before he could speak.
"I don't even know her. I just saw her on the street."
It took him longer than he would have expected to explain. Hal listened impassively, his chin resting on his fist, until Mike was finished.
"Listen," he said, "this can all be easily arranged. You can help her if you like, though you probably don't want to get directly involved. Go see Yogesh, and get him to help you. He'll know how to handle this. Now in the meantime I want you to call your parents today and talk to them for as long
as you like. You've been down here a long time, and you probably just need to go home for a vacation. Remember that the holidays aren't too far away, and you'll be flying back again. And by the way, Marla and I are having a few friends over this Saturday. Why don't you join us?"
He paused and studied Mike thoughtfully.
"Everybody here feels the way you do sometimes. Sooner or later someone stands out and reminds most of us of the idealism that got us to accept foreign assignments in the first place. Otherwise we'd be nothing but indifferent Americans--dead fish."
Mike did call his parents, and after a long, rambling conversation that they seemed to understand, he felt much better, though he didn't mention the girl. On impulse he dialed up an old girlfriend in the States too. She was surprised to hear from him completely out of the blue and at one o'clock at night, but was not unsympathetic. Unfortunately she was getting married in a week, and he didn't bring up the girl with her either. Immediately after hanging up, he went to find Yogesh.
"Are you in love with her?" Yogesh asked, vastly amused, before Mike had fully explained. "It's too much. Love at first sight, just like in an American movie! And with a street girl. I hope you'll be very happy. Now you'll really have to learn Tamil, and quite a lot more besides."
Mike felt the back of his neck grow tense. "I didn't say that. I'm worried about her, that's all."
But Yogesh wasn't ready to be serious. "You romantic. You gypsy," he said. "I hope you aren't ready to run off to the streets with her yourself, to the 'open road,' as Kerouac wrote. Do you know what you can catch on the street? Can you imagine the microbes she's probably carrying? Man, there's still plague in India."
"There's plague in California," Mike said testily. "Now I'm trying to tell you I just want to help. I don't want to get involved, just to help her, somehow."
"Mike, you're already involved," Yogesh said, suddenly sympathetic. "I hope you know what you're letting yourself in for--trouble. Tell me what you want me to do."
Now that Mike had Yogesh's attention, it didn't take him long to explain. Yogesh not only understood but even seemed touched by the story, and as Hal had predicted, he knew just what to do. Mike went off to his Indian bank and, after not too long a delay, returned with an envelope containing what was really only a small sum of rupees--enough to feed a young woman for a month, as a start.
Yogesh got on the phone and started calling friends and relatives to find some kind of position for the girl, for her room and board at least. It would take time, he said, but he was confident that he would eventually find something for her. At the end of the day, he would have Ravi drive him to the restaurant, and arrange to have the girl fed there three times a day, on condition that her benefactors remain anonymous. Then he was going to go home to his wife and say prayers about the whole strange business.
Mike caught a taxi and had it take him home the long way, entirely by the sea. For the first time in two days, he felt as calm as its placid waters. A few fishermen were returning on tiny catamarans with their pitiful catches, enough to feed their families, he hoped. A few devout men and women were performing their devotions on the shore, as they did every day at sunrise, noon, and sunset. He felt calm and expectant and quite unsure where his small good deed would lead.
At his flat he fixed himself a solitary meal, but when he sat down to eat, he felt so lonely that he lost his appetite. Restless and moody, he abandoned the dishes on the table and went out to pace the streets. Life was bustling in the early evening. At the corner, two girls in their teens with garlands of jasmine in their hair were lighting the oil lamps at a small temple beside an old banyan tree. He had passed them before, and they smiled again at his white face and foreignness. A serious-looking man went by in a creaking bullock cart. A brown cow walked leisurely home. At that moment, the girl--the woman--on the bench would be eating a hearty meal, not too much at first, he hoped. He thought about her a long time and walked until he was exhausted.
The next day he awoke before his alarm went off, feeling rested and well although he had only slept a few hours. He was already waiting at the curb when Ravi arrived, and they sped away. Ravi reported in broken English that he and Yogesh had been delayed by terrible traffic the night before, but that Yogesh had made the arrangements successfully. The girl had been sleeping, but would learn of her "very good fortune" that morning.
For some time Mike considered having him take the long route, to let his own building excitement subside and because if he turned up so inquisitively that morning she would surely know that he was responsible. What would she think he wanted from her? He wasn't sure himself. How many "Audrey Hepburns" are there in this world, even if they're homeless outcasts on the street? His curiosity got the better of him, and he kept his silence, determined not to stare so obtrusively that she would notice. They would pass by. He would keep his face pointed straight ahead, but he would notice. And that would be enough. All he had to do was avoid her unexpectedly formidable gaze and afterwards avoid her entirely. The rational side of him knew that he had to resist looking her full in the face that morning in particular, but another side of him knew just as surely that he had to see.
Ravi turned off onto the side street as usual, and they arrived at the restaurant a little early. A few customers sat inside, but the cow hadn't arrived. And the young woman was nowhere to be seen. Past the old iddli vendor, her bench was empty. Mike craned his neck as they went by, but she wasn't in the vegetarian restaurant or in the other one either.
"Ravi," he said, "let's stop."
They parked on the side of the road. Mike peered inside the vegetarian restaurant, and the owner noticed him, the white car, and Ravi, and stood at his counter watching them for a long time. Mike got out of the car, but the owner held up his hand for him to wait, wiped his face nervously with a towel, and came forward with a packet in his hands. Mike saw that it was the envelope he had brought from the bank, and his mouth went dry. The owner talked to Ravi in Tamil for a while and handed him the envelope. Everyone on the street was staring at them strangely. Ravi turned back to Mike with a worried expression and great pools of sadness in his dark eyes.
"Sir, she is dead."
Mike felt the blood pounding so hard in his temples that he couldn't think. "Dead?" he asked stupidly. "How is it possible? I saw her yesterday. She was eating... she..."
"Please, sir. When he went to tell her, she is dead. They have already taken her." He held his hand on his white shirt over his heart. "They say it stopped maybe--from no food for a long time. He is very sorry, sir. Very sorry."
Mike stood still while they all watched him. He felt dizzy. He thought of her delicate features, her wistful look, but he did not allow himself to look at the bench. The white cow ambled toward them on her morning errands and poked her head into the restaurant. The owner bowed apologetically to Mike, said something more in Tamil, and went back inside. Mike didn't move, and Ravi didn't say anything. The owner gave the cow something, and she sauntered back out and down the street. His mind an utter blank, Mike followed her, far away from the empty bench.
"Sir?" Ravi called after him. "They will be expecting you at the office. And all this money... Sir?"
But he was beyond speech. He followed the cow for several blocks. She turned back to look at him, sniffed the air, and shook her head like a horse before resuming her pace. When she stopped by the woman selling melons, Mike kept walking. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Ravi had turned the car around and was following him at a close distance, but he didn't care. He simply could not think. His footsteps took him on a crazy trajectory like a racquetball careening off a series of walls, though a maze of alleys and then a respectable neighborhood, until he realized he was headed for the sea. He walked a mile or more to get there, right across a highway of busy traffic where drivers honked at him as if he had gone mad from the sun. Ravi was calling to him urgently from somewhere far behind, "Sir, sir," in a panting voice.
But Mike couldn't bear to speak. He pressed on furiously across the beach, flushed with an internal, stupefying heat, until he came at last to the water's edge. A bare-chested man was sitting there in an act of worship as old as India, molding wet sand into a lingam of Shiva, god of... everything, all creation and destruction. No sooner had he completed it, than a gentle surge from the sea swept in and dissolved it. The water soaked the thin white towels he had wrapped around his waist, Mike's leather shoes, and Ravi's brown, bare feet and white pants. The man reached into the ebbing sand and made another lingam, as if he had been making them down through time, as many as the waves in the ocean or the sands on the beach, or countless girls on countless benches.
The worshipping man looked up at him with dark, penetrating eyes, utterly calm and unsurprised to see a crazed-looking Westerner standing beside him with his shoes in the surf, and Mike felt himself relax, so that hot tears of grief surged loose inside him at last. He stood there and shook without embarrassment until all the traces of the latest lingam had washed away. Then, breathing in the cool salt air, he watched the ebb of the waters sweep back through the waves and off to a handful of fishermen in tiny catamarans, just setting forth on the blue-green sea.
Click to watch video: India Travels
There is a mystic borderland that lies
Just past the limits of our workday world,
And it is peopled with friends we met
And loved a year, a month, a week or day,
And parted from with aching hearts, yet knew
That through the distance we must loose the hold
Of hand with hand, and only clasp the thread
Of memory. But still so close we feel this land,
So sure we are that these same hearts are true,
That when in waking dreams there comes a call
That sets the thread of memory aglow,
We know that just by stretching out the hand
In written word of love, or card, or photograph,
The waiting hand will clasp our own once more
Across the distance, in the same old way.