As we left Semmandakuppam, the village came to life and the sun emerged with exquisite brilliance. Until India, I’d seen few things that were sublime.
The last portion of the trip was spent in Mumbai. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the hotel was only a few blocks away from Falkland Road (Mumbai’s red-light district), one of the first places that caught my attention when I began researching forced labor and commercial exploitation last spring.
Before leaving the States, I sensed that I would see something in Mumbai from which there would be no turning away. To quote Wilberforce, “We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it…” (source) Of course I didn’t know what it would be, but I felt pretty sure it would concern my calling to speak for the voiceless and defend the rights of the poor and needy.
It didn’t take long.
The first glimpse of Mumbai was enchanting. As late-afternoon traffic wandered along the Queen’s Necklace (the shore named for its sparkling nighttime skyline), I gazed at the Arabian Sea, wonderstruck. Dozens of entwined silhouettes graced the horizon. (This photographer captures the scene beautifully.) Certain avenues were a cross between art-deco London and the Orient of fairy tales.
After dark, the claws came out.
For a first-time visitor to Mumbai, it is near impossible to be vigilant of your surroundings because your eyes are constantly in front of your feet, especially at night. As you walk through a Vanity Fair-like array of vendors, your eyes are so trained on your steps that you aren’t particularly aware of who is awaiting or approaching you …
until a young girl with a malnourished toddler on her hip holds out her hand.
until a mother with a sickly infant hears and calls out your name, as one of us experienced.
until you spot a tiny child sleeping alone in a filthy, shadowy corridor.
until a mangled contortionist, less twisted than the one who mutilated him, gazes up at you.
You cannot give money because it encourages begging, ends up in the pockets of whoever is exploiting the cripple, and never satisfies the need. Give to one and be accosted by the rest, or so I’ve been told.
The next day, we visited several of Mumbai’s landmarks including India’s most well-known Dhobi Ghat, an open-air laundromat. In the middle of the street approaching the site, a handful of half-dressed children ran against traffic with expressions somewhere between glee and menace. They caught sight of the Americans, climbed the iron fence along the curb, and howled. Not even words, just guttural shrieks as we walked by. After we had marveled at the Dhobi Ghat from an overpass, they darted between and around us in a desperate attempt for pity before we and our money were gone.
The girl chased behind me, calling out again and again “One dollar, Aunty! One dollar! Please, one dollar!” Her bare foot landed on the back of my flip-flop, and she ran forward to face me with pleading eyes before I disappeared into a vehicle and she disappeared into a landscape of wild eyes and outstretched hands.
For one whose heart longs to provide for the needy and rescue the forsaken, it feels wretched to be so wealthy and pass by the empty-handed. It is nauseating to think that to them, you are not compassion, nor providence, nor rescue, but a rich Westerner with averted eyes and closed ears.
But my eyes were not averted and my ears were not closed. “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know,” said Wilberforce.
I do not know the names, the abuses, or the souls, but I heard the cry and I tell the story because it must be told. Who else will know unless those who go are faithful to tell what they saw? Who else can speak on behalf of the destitute? Who else can intercede?
Herein lies one of the wonders of the invisible kingdom: that through the resources and prayers of others, I can go and carry back a story so that you, without going, can defend them before the very throne of God. You are part of the story.
I tell these stories with conviction because telling them is the first step of change. This is how we bring identity to those who cannot identify themselves and a voice to those who cannot raise their own. Stories unlock compassion, compassion unlocks action, and action unlocks freedom.
Freedom is a glorious story. The restoration of beauty is a glorious story. Love that leads the way is a glorious story.
One day, there will be glorious stories to tell.