They're everywhere, the abject poor, the professional beggars, the deformed and mutilated and pathetic and sorrowful. They're women with empty eyed children on their hips, they're war veterans, industrial workers and the diseased with lopped off parts, they're the many on the short end of the genetic mix, the educational spectrum, the economic reality. And in India, they're everywhere.

You learn from the locals to not give to them, guide books tell you the same. And you steel yourself to their constant approach, their pleas. You move on your way trying to feign indifference, and soon the indifference turns to apathy, then anger.

I gave on a few occasions, times I thought were right, to people I thought were deserving--as if I could make these kinds of judgments.

But there was one time I didn't give. And it haunts me, will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.

We were on a local bus careening through Rajasthan. The bus was already filled, every seat taken and much of the aisle space packed. Yet we continued to stop in villages to take on more people. At one stop, somewhere in the barren western deserts, a couple in their 60s climbed on and squeezed into the crowded aisle.

The woman had that unique Indian female beauty, sharp eyes, honey skin and fine features. She was covered in brightly colored diaphanous scarves. But it was clear she was sick with something internal, deep, dark and mysterious. She held on to the seat in front of me with both her frail hands, yet refused my offer to take my seat. Despite this, every few minutes she would cough and double over, sometimes squatting in the aisle clearly in great but silent pain.

Her husband, a tall and noble man of the earth stood beside her and helped her as much as he could. He was dressed in thin and worn cotton sheets, yet his turban was tied around his graying hair with pride and precision. His white mustache framed kind but sad eyes. He was worried about her.

I tried to not look at them, but the monotonous countryside and my curiosity kept me glancing at them and wondering about their story. The only thing I could imagine was that they'd left their tiny farm to go to a doctor or hospital in Jaisalmer.

We bumped along that decrepit road for a while when the bus conductor started down the packed aisle collecting money. When he got to this couple the man reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a crushed and tired match box. Carefully, almost reverently he slid it open and pulled out a folded rupee note which he handed over.

The conductor looked at this bill and barked something in Hindi. Clearly it wasn't enough money. The man suddenly looked tired, and he pulled another folded and dirty rupee note from the match box and handed this over. Words were exchanged, apparently this was just enough to make their trip and the conductor moved on down the aisle while the man tucked the match box back in his vest.

A few minutes elapsed, the woman once again getting crushed by another wave of pain. When it was over her husband pulled out the match box and quietly opened it. I tried not to watch, but I couldn't help it. He pulled out two coins, two rupees or less than ten cents, and the box was empty. He looked at these coins with a sadness that said this was it, this was all they had.

He fingered the coins as if they might magically expand. He showed his wife what was left with a kind of tired fatalism. She only looked resigned, and then another bout of pain left her twisting. He put the coins back and looked out the window, out across the flat, burned, lifeless desert.

And I rode along, clutching my camera and things, trying to understand what karma lets me go on this journey and he on his, and trying to decide if I should offer them a gift of money. But he never once looked at me, never eyed my expensive coat or foreigner's possessions. He never made eye contact with me. And I rationalized that pulling out my wallet and giving money on a crowded bus like this was an invitation to disaster.

So I did nothing. And now I'm haunted.

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