She is maybe seven years old, the little girl who catches my eye, one of the throng crowded around our remarkably pristine 1953 Hindustan Ambassador.
Eight days ago, when we arrived for our holiday, our driver told us a person needs only three things to survive the roads of India: good heart, good brakes, good horn. After watching him drive, stomping and speeding through the crowded streets of Mumbai, several near-death experiences and a newfound existential acceptance that we might all die on this trip, we added ‘good luck’ to the list.
Now we are far from the madness of the city, where tuk-tuks and elephants and camels and trucks and cars cram into four clearly marked, wholly irrelevant lanes on the road, a tangle of vehicles and bicycles and working animals. This backwater town is not a stop most travellers make on a tour of the Golden Triangle. In the last eight days, our trusty Ambassador has taken us to the Taj Mahal, the Pink City of Jaipur, a tiger reserve in Ranthambore, plus more forts than we can remember. We thought our driver was being cynical when he told us, “If you’ve seen one fort in India, you’ve seen them all.” Eight forts and eight thousand identical photos later, we have had to admit, he was sort of right.
Christmas break almost over, we’re on our way back to Mumbai and the airport when the Ambassador begins to knock then clang then smoke, so we pull into the nearest roadside village for immediate repairs. We guess this tiny collection of simple structures sees very few foreign visitors – a horde of men come out to stare, stern-eyed, into the backseat, where my two friends and I sit waiting for our driver to negotiate parts and labour. After a few minutes of heated conversation that we do not understand, the stern village men wander away, glancing warily back over their shoulders.
In the wake of the adults, the first of the children creep towards our car. I have yet to become hardened to the children in this country, only somewhat familiar. At several intersections, railway crossings, lonely roadside stops, they’ve come running. Children with broad smiles on friendly faces, waving as though they are happy – children too young to be out on their own, much less approaching strange foreign people in strange cars on the side of a lonesome road.
Fearless, they all singsong the same chant: “HelloMadameBackseatTenRupees?” The simple sentence, crammed together like one word, translates well enough. “Hello, Madame. I see you are sitting in the backseat. May I have ten rupees?”
It’s a pretty good pitch. Any number of travellers from countries around the world must make this tour of the Golden Triangle, but my blonde hair and blue eyes might look like American TV shows they have seen, so their English (instead of Dutch or Russian) is a reasonable gamble. My clothes and shoes tell them I have come from far away to see this place. The fact that I am sitting in the backseat while their countryman drives for me tells them that, however much money I have, it is more than they have. Surely I can spare ten humble rupees?
The first time we heard this pitch, my friends and I all reached into our pockets, ready to oblige, but our driver glanced in the rear-view mirror and clucked. No.
“You want helping. Is good, is nice. This money is not helping for them. Is someone nearby, is making this children do this. You give ten rupees, that man say ‘this spot good’, maybe make this children standing all day, all night, asking every car. Then that man take all money. This children getting nothing. If they trying, they get beating.”
We have tried to tell ourselves that saying no to the roadside children is the same as saying no to a gas station junkie, saving him from himself, but it is harder to believe. We can’t imagine if any of our tourist dollars ever trickle down to these children, if the money we donate to aid organisations ever makes it all the way out here, if anyone anywhere is looking after these kids. We also don’t want to think about them being beaten and exploited any more than they already are. So we put our money away, wishing we’d thought to bring something else to give them, something their handlers wouldn’t want, something the kids might appreciate. Toys, school supplies.
But the children in the country village don’t ask. We can see our driver negotiating, first with this parts dealer, then another. As he haggles, one child creeps closer to the car, his hand shielding his mouth. His friend runs to join him, then a dozen children swarm the car, fifteen, twenty. We smile and wave as they stare and point, waving and smiling and chatting furiously among themselves. We wonder who they think we are, what they think of us. We think they must live here, far off the beaten track. They seem different to the city kids, though I can’t really put my finger on exactly how.
It’s hot in the backseat and we’ve been waiting a while by now and my lips are dry, so I dig into my droopy handbag, looking for some Chapstick. All I can find is a tube of pale pink lipstick, the only one I brought in case we needed to dress up for going out. I pull out my hand mirror and smooth on the lipstick, rubbing my lips together. Outside, the children at the window squeal with delight, giggle, cheer, clap. One little girl, maybe seven years old, catches my eye, one of the throng crowded around our pristine Ambassador. She ducks her head and smiles, then draws on her own imaginary lipstick with her finger. With dramatic zeal, I turn back to my mirror, smooth on a second layer, rub my lips together, kiss towards my reflection like Marilyn Monroe. More claps, more cheers.
The little girl stands on her tiptoes, nearly nose to nose with the glass. Like the others, she is trying to see what else I have in my giant handbag. Readjusting, I lay the bag open towards the window. Little voices buzz in earnest speculation. Most of my makeup has lain ignored in the bottom of my bag for most of this trip around India. Now I pull out each item in turn. With elaborate, Hollywood effect, I brush on mascara, fluff on powder and blusher, draw on eyeliner (contorting my face to the sounds of laughter). With every addition, more cheers from the children, more claps, more giggles. The sweet little girl smiles, draws on more lipstick.
Too quickly, our driver returns. By now, I have caked on three layers of every beauty item in my bag. The driver starts to wave the children away, but we tell him no. Our pockets are still full of candy left over from a gorgeous Christmas celebration we enjoyed two days ago. We ask the driver if he thinks it would be OK for us to give the candy to the children and he nods. Stepping out of the car, the children all rush back a safe distance. We have given everything to Chris. He reaches slowly into his pockets, pausing for effect, then pulls out the candy and throws it in the air. Candy rains down on the children, who scream and squeal, running to catch the haul.
As they rush to collect the candy, the driver ushers us back into the car and out onto the road. I turn back and wave and an idea occurs to me, too late. Even now, nearly twenty years later, I still wish I had thought in time to give the little girl my lipstick.