An Essay on the Loss of Innocence

It's a terrifying thing to lose your innocence. It happened to me in India.

Like most westerners, the beliefs of my life are a patchwork of my culture mixed with an image or two from National Geographic, a few school lessons, a bunch of tales from friends, piles of magazine articles about people like Mother Theresa, and my own confusion about the guilt and pride of my own amassed possessions.

And then there I stood in an Indian train station, or sitting in a car in a traffic jam, or walking down any street swarmed by beggars. Long faced, empty faced, the haunting vacant eyes of
babies perched on a mother's hips as she pleads and points to her lips and the belly of her baby. A herd of children screaming for pens and chocolates, the specter of an old man missing large parts of his body holding out a tin cup.

And then the Bosch nightmare tapestry of the many deformed. A leper with half a face, a 10 year old boy with hips and legs so deformed he could only walk on all fours like a dog, the amputees and blind, the burn victims and dying. India doesn't have a social welfare system like western nations, and it has even less compassion for anyone under your station. It's India's legacy from thousands of years of its cruel caste system.

Oh yea, the caste system. There are four basic castes. On top of the world are the Brahmins, the priests. Below them are Kshatriyas, the warriors and chief administrators. Third in line are the Vaisyas, the working class merchants and artisans. Last in the caste system are the Sudras, the farmers and peasants. Each caste has its own distinct rules of behavior, and if you follow the rules then in your next life you get to move ahead a few steps.

And then there are the "Harijans," renamed by Mahatma Gandhi as the "Children of God," but better known as the "Untouchables." Now these terms have been replaced by "Dalit," which means the "downtrodden." These are the masses of people at the bottom of the food chain. They get the dirty jobs like garbage collection and leather tanning, and through much of human history they were not even allowed to cross their shadow with those of the higher castes, let alone touch or bother someone. And even within their class, there is still one lower, the "Invisibles," Untouchables who are only allowed out of their hovels at night when their shadows can't cross any one elses'.

But India has moved ahead, and although the caste system still exists, its cruel hold on society has waned. Untouchables get jobs and have even been elected to office, and the monstrous Indian bureaucracy has reserved job openings for lower caste folk--a kind of EEO quota system.

But still, India is filled with the abject poor. And it doesn't take long for a traveler, who already stands out in a crowd like a very rich thumb, to become the magnet for their hopes and a target for their craft.

And in our case, it didn't take long before we grew indifferent to their pleas. In fact, on a few occasions I verged on the edge of a cruel colonial master. The young boy who insisted on feigning crying and polishing my shoes while I tried to talk to another man. After repeated "no's" I stopped myself from kicking him away. Or the "dog boy" who walked on all fours and made it a point of running in front of a tourist and stopping, causing you to nearly trip. The first time you feel compassion and embarrassment. But after watching this ruse done all day by the same child, starting at the train station in the morning and then progressing to all of the town's tourist spots, your compassion, your very innocence wears thin.

We grew tough. When dozens of beggars would shove their hands into a taxi window we'd pretend we didn't see. When we stopped at intersections and were surrounded, we'd shout "go to school." When a mother would point to her child and then her mouth, I'd say "no thanks, I don't eat children," and then move on my way.

Coming face to faceless face with true poverty is difficult--not the kind that westerners know which can only be called "bein' po'". All of our safe world of knowledge and assumptions, beliefs and faith are called into question. And the answer, your behavior and response can be a shocking self-revelation.

We now know. We know the issues of third world poverty are not simple, linear problems that can be solved by better agriculture, more equitable distribution of wealth, severe population controls, or "going to school." At least in India, these are problems that are endemic to the very social and cultural fabric, a historical legacy that may take as long to undo as it took to create.

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