An Encounter in India
The following is an excerpt from a letter written to me by my father while I was serving my mission in 1993. At the time, my father was an officer in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed, along with the rest of my family, on the island of Guam. My father was working as a mishap investigator for the Air Force’s Pacific region and this letter relates some experiences he had during a trip to India leading a team investigating an aircraft accident there.
After this letter, I have included additional letters between my father and other individuals which continue the story he first tells in his letter to me. In the interest of privacy, I have removed all personally identifying information from each of the letters.
6 Aug 93
Andersen Air Force Base
Yigo, Guam 96929
Here it is already the 6th of August and I’m going to try and get a good start on the continuing saga I started with your last letter. I have been incredibly busy since I came back to Guam from India and just don’t have the breaks during the day at work like I used to when I could add a page here or there or start another letter.
When I left off in the story last time I was just getting on the train in New Delhi, India for the two hour train ride to Agra on a day trip to see the Taj Mahal.
Finally, right on time, the doors of the train were closed and we pulled out of the station. … Later, I asked our guide if people were allowed to ride on the top of the trains and he said no, but that it was almost impossible to stop them since the poor couldn’t possibly afford to pay for tickets but they still had to travel about. He also mentioned that there were an awful lot of deaths and injuries from falling off the moving train, and it doesn’t surprise me since the trains were whizzing along at 60+ mph with the people sitting out in the open on the top and being jostled as the train swayed on its tracks.
Eventually, we arrived in the city of Agra.
When we left on this day trip I knew I’d be gone the whole day to Agra and that I wouldn’t be able to get to a bank or anything, so I had changed about $40 into 10 rupee notes and put them into my shirt pocket so that I could reach in and pull out a 10 rupee note whenever a beggar asked or if I saw someone that needed help. As I think I mentioned in my last letter, 10 rupees is only about 30 cents but represents a lot of money in India. It was just as well that I started with so many rupees since there were beggars everywhere and once they saw you hand money to one of them they all pressed to get near you.
Honestly, it couldn’t have been too different for the Savior when he was pressed by crowds. I’m sure the people looked much like these ones and they were all jockeying for position with each other trying to get closer. Still, there was a level of reserve as if the people knew they could only go so far. They could be very insistent, but at the same time, held back a little. It’s very hard to explain.
Once we reached the car and got in and the driver started to move, the crowds died down and I suppose went back to wait for another likely candidate. For the rest of the day we were pretty much left to ourselves and very few people approached us, with a few exceptions that I will explain later.
We drove straight to the Taj Mahal, that was about five miles from the train station, as I recall.
Except for the abject terror occasioned by the chauffeur’s crazed approach to his duties, it was all quite pleasant, as nuts as that might sound. …
At length we arrived at the entrance to the Taj Mahal.
When we finally finished the tour of the Taj Mahal we were met by our driver at the outer gate. How he knew when to come and meet us will remain one of the great mysteries. He drove up just as we appeared from behind the gate and we all got in and proceeded to the next sight. This time we were driven to Agra Fort. A large fort built by the Khans and embellished by the British during the colonial period. Today it is simply a tourist spot. We were dropped off near the entrance gate and proceeded up the walk. A little beggar boy came up to me as I walked along and I gave him 10 rupees. I didn’t look closely at him, but caught his eye and smiled and he smiled back. There was going to be a lot more to do with this boy but that was a little in the future and I didn’t know it at the time.
At the end of the tour of the fort we headed back out the same way we came in and as we walked out the same little beggar boy was there and came over and held out his hand. He was a little taller than my waist and very dark skinned. He was also thin as a bone. I noticed that his little arm was only about as big around as my thumb. My heart went out to him and I gave him another 10 rupees which he gladly accepted with a smile then caught my eye and motioned for me to look at his feet. I was shocked to see that they were both literally the size of footballs. His little toes were also huge, and his feet were so swollen that his toes were attached at odd angles to the rest of his feet and didn’t appear to be functional any longer. He seemed to be able to get around by sort of rocking on his feet. I was so taken aback and it was so unexpected that I just stood there for a minute. I reached into my pocket and took out a 50 rupee note from the back of the roll of bills, then also handed him another 10 rupee note, which he seemed very happy to receive. The car was leaving and they were waiting for me so I said some kind words to him and departed, only by then I was beside myself with a combination of shocked amazement and irritation that no one that knew how to get help in this city was seeing that this boy got it.
The rest of the day I sort of drifted along, thinking of the boy whenever my attention wasn’t being drawn to something else, and wondering what I could do, but frankly not being able to think of a single thing beyond what I had done by giving him the one thing I did have, and that was money.
After lunch we were picked up again and taken on a tour of local craft shops. Actually, it’s all designed to coax you to buy stuff from the various merchants, which I generally resisted with one or two exceptions. Throughout it all, every time I had a quiet moment, my mind went back to the little beggar boy, and each time I would feel a renewed sense of helplessness.
The last activity of the day was a drive out to the “Abandoned City of… (something or other)”. Again, it was sort of a fort thing, and interesting enough as forts go, but then, not a whole lot different than other forts. Again, we had all the briefings on why this was so interesting, which was just as well, since I don’t think I could have figured it out on my own.
Again, we were surrounded by beggars; in this case mostly children. I handed out my rupees which caused even more to appear. Ultimately there must have been about 25, and some army type individual must have thought they were bothering me since he came running over with a long heavy stick to whack some of them and they all scattered. There was one little beggar girl that especially caught my eye. She was trying to coax me to take her picture then pay her for the privilege. I had given her 10 rupees and she followed along behind me smiling broadly at me whenever I caught her eye and smiled at her. She was filthy dirty from top to bottom and covered in dust, but seemed very bright and was very active as she ran back and forth from where she had been tending a water jug and cup. All in all she seemed quite healthy and I thought she must have a remarkable constitution to remain so healthy and alert in such circumstances.
She, and the other beggar children were apparently not allowed inside the fort since they didn’t follow when we entered, but there was another group of beggar children inside when we arrived. I gave one little boy 10 rupees where upon he apparently adopted me as his patron, and kept trying to shoo the other children away when they approached.
The other mishap board members said they didn’t think it was a good idea to be giving the money to the beggar children but I told them what King Benjamin said and they didn’t really have a comeback. One of them thought about what I said and told me later he thought I was right and that he wished he had brought more bank notes with him. Actually, I was getting a little concerned that I was going to run out of rupees before I ran out of little beggars, but so far I was holding out.
When we came out of the fort all the kids were waiting for us patiently as was the little girl (who looked about 10 or so). I gave her another 10 rupees and gave most of the other kids something too and then made my way to the car. I was the first one back to the car, and once inside the adult street vendors came and knocked on the windows with trinkets to sell. They were all things that you would never use, but I didn’t want to turn them away. This was a dilemma. I didn’t know whether to just offer them some money as a gift, since I thought it might offend them. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pay 100 rupees for something not worth 10 rupees. Ultimately, I tried to just give them each 10 rupees, and I thought one of them looked like I had hurt his feelings. I tried to explain that I really couldn’t use anything they had to offer but that I wanted to give them something, but some of them could barely understand English, so I ultimately gave up, and tried to just chat with the chauffeur while we waited for the others to come back to the car. Of course, the trinket salesmen kept knocking on the car windows and pointing at all their wares, and I kept smiling back and nodding approval, being careful not to make eye contact since it seemed to encourage them even more. I had given them what I could and as I mentioned I was getting low on rupees and I knew I still had to go back through the train station to get back to New Delhi and would need some rupees for that.
As I mentioned, the chauffeur seemed to be between 19 and 20 years of age. I asked him if he enjoyed driving and he said no, that the owners of the tourist guide company abused him and he was hoping to be able to do something else one day. I asked him where he lived and he said nowhere. He said he slept in the car when it wasn’t being used at night and the rest of the time he found a spot to sleep wherever he could. He said everything he had in the world he was either wearing or had with him. Not much of a life I thought, but actually better than the majority of those I saw.
This was the close of the day’s activities and we set off for the train station and the trip home. It took about 40 minutes to get back to the train station and as we drove along I reflected on the little beggar boy with the swollen feet for the hundredth time. I couldn’t think of anything I could have really done but I wished there had been.
Entering the train station was the reverse process of exiting it. A giant mass of humanity and crowds of people outside. We gave a tip to the guide and driver then entered the station and found the right platform where we stood waiting for the train to arrive. We were about 15 minutes early for the train and I was just standing thinking about the day’s experiences when I turned and who was standing there but the little boy with the swollen feet. I smiled at him and he smiled at me and I went over and gave him another 50 rupees and tried to talk to him. He could only speak a few words of English. I was delighted to see him and he was a little shy and when I bent over to talk to him he looked off to the side as if he were looking at something behind me in a shy sort of way. I asked him how old he was and he answered, ten. I asked him if his feet hurt and he said uh huh, however he said uh huh to everything I said and I could tell he only understood a little English. Now there was only about 10 minutes until the train was due in and I didn’t have a plan to help him since I didn’t really expect to see him again. I asked him if his mother was there to which he replied “mother”. There was a beggar lady there watching every move I made with him and smiling at us both. I asked if she was his mother and she smiled and said no, and I gave her 10 rupees. I thought if I could find some responsible person we could organize some help for this little boy.
I have to say that the little boy was in good spirits. He was quite cheerful and hobbled along beside me as I tried to find someone that knew anything about him. One of the other members of the mishap board told me later that a higher class Indian woman standing next to him was watching everything the little boy and I did and looked very disapproving at first, but gradually, the look on her face changed to something more pleasant as I tried to find someone to help. About this time the boy saw someone drinking one of those boxed fruit juice drinks with a straw and the little boy pointed at the drink then at the counter where they were sold. I took him over with me to the counter and bought him one and he seemed thrilled. I noticed that he had quite a few bills stuffed in his pocket and I learned later that he was probably “owned” by some boss who took him back and forth to the best begging spots, and only let the little boy keep a part of what he made.
Finally, I could see that the train was about to come and I hadn’t had any success finding someone that knew anything about the boy or could help. I stooped down and took hold of his little thin arm and in the midst of the pressing crowd on the busy platform gave him a silent priesthood blessing and asked Heavenly Father to bless him and ease his suffering and to watch over him. Then the train arrived and I had to get on. As I turned to get on the train the little boy held out his tiny hand to say goodbye. I looked in his eyes as we shook hands, had one more chance to look at his clothes, which were sewn on to him and hadn’t been off for as long as his feet had been swollen at least, then turned to get on the train. I stopped to wave goodbye and we were off.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and now I can think of a number of different things I might have done, but at the time I felt largely helpless. One of the mishap board members mentioned “…that you can’t help them all”, to which I replied, “No I can’t, but I can help one, and will if I can think of a way.”
We arrived at the New Delhi train station at about 10 pm. Since a lot of people have no homes, the train station stays busy all day and all night. There were masses of people everywhere and we waded through them as we exited the train station. We weren’t sure whether there was going to be someone there to meet us as part of the tour or not, when suddenly an Indian approached, called out to us authoritatively to follow, then turned and started to walk away. …
We finally reached what served as his car. It was a dreadfully dilapidated affair that looked like it had been rescued from the car compactor a few seconds after compaction cycle had begun. Still, we were all tired and the driver said he would take us to the hotel for a good price, so we threw good judgment to the wind and all hopped in.
Unlike some of the other drivers who have held us prisoner as they toyed with our lives on free-for-all stock car race tracks that pass for highways in India, this one was positively peaceful. But then he had to be since his taxi gave every evidence of pending disintegration each time we hit a bump the size of a pea on the road. Furthermore, his steering was so worn he had to constantly turn it almost from lock to lock just to keep us more or less within 20 or so feet of highway centerline. Still, the fact that you’re reading this now is evidence that we ultimately arrived, although the look of disbelief on the face of the doorman at the 5-star hotel when we rolled up to the grand hotel entrance in a powered dustbin almost made the entire experience worthwhile.
Well I really want to get this in the mail so I’ll end here and revise my next letter to pick up at this point.
Take care of yourself and be extra safe and careful wherever you go. And try to have enough courage to bear your testimony every time the spirit prompts you to. Even if the people don’t seem receptive you never know what is really in their hearts, but Heavenly Father does and will seal your testimony in their hearts if He can.
Don’t forget that we pray for you every day to be honorable, safe, and the best servant you can be. We love you and miss you dreadfully but know that you are on the Lord’s errand, learning lessons you can’t learn any other way.
Love from Dad
[The following pages contain letters by my father to various individuals and agencies, and their responses to him, to continue his efforts to find help for this little beggar boy. These letters also provide additional information about the boy, his condition and the results of my father’s efforts.]