I spent my first 21 years living around one of the oldest Hindu Temple neighborhoods in Chennai in Southeastern India. I remember the quiet weekends and empty streets with the occasional tourist bus parked right in front of my home. Tourist travelers from the world over are attracted to one of Chennai’s most treasured and finest examples of temple architecture. As for me, I was across the street and could simply see the temple sitting on my porch. However, the scenes that changed my view of India and that left a caustic ripple in my memory were the images of young girls begging the tourist travelers.
I remember tourist buses offloading weary jet-lagged world travelers energetically making their way into this historical landmark. The temple dedicated to Hindu God Shiva whose admirers even included colonial rulers stopped by Chennai just to get a glimpse of this imposing piece of one of India’s finest masterpieces. However, amidst the magnanimity of this super-structure and it’s history, I vividly remember incessant streams of poor girls carrying young babies, gathering towards what they see as strange people from another world.
Temple rules prohibit the wearing of footwear inside their premises; it is customary to leave them outside. The poor begging girls, however, wait outside the temple barefooted. For them, the heat of poverty that they endure everyday burns through their precious youth every single moment. They cannot afford buy food let alone footwear to cover their feet. They haven’t eaten in days and their only hope rests among the mercy of the unknown tourist folks from another land. The condition of these girls are quite pathetic—their clothes soiled with dust and dirt, faces covered with heat rash and their feet bruised with the searing heat from the tar road. Their eyes, however, sparkle with innocence and hope. A hope that one day and against all odds they can support their babies and themselves and that one day God Shiva’s boundless mercy will eventually permeate through his jasmine garland, thousands of his worshipers and tourist folks across the world. Meanwhile, as the bus driver gets ready to depart, the travelers hurriedly get back to their 70-degree comfort zone and try to escape from an India they tried to avoid. As the bus prepares to leave, the girls begin their chase behind the speeding vehicle in their last efforts that somebody would throw something outside—maybe a half eaten candy bar or a water packet. But alas, they can’t keep up to the diesel-powered luxury bus. The young girl gives up. She might be tired and disappointed but that doesn’t prevent her from hiding the summer sun’s unrelenting heat on her baby. She prays to God Shiva that one day she will be saved. The power of hope is best appreciated by the poorest of the poor, the helpless and the needy.
In India, the tourist bus carries people and hope for millions of the nation’s poor girls begging on the streets.