Bystanding

Maya Gillett

bystand

FXB, also known as the Center for Railway Children, Jaipur, India. On the second floor of what feels like an abandoned row of buildings. Inside the entrance, glass and dust and dirt cover the floor. The main office: swampy, tiny. File cabinets, a fan that blows moist warm air over us. Someone brings chai in six tiny glasses, the way we’re learning to expect.

  There’s a woman behind the desk, whom we believe to be in charge; we don’t yet know that we’ll speak with her this morning and then never see her here again. She speaks kindly. These are children who need a place to come. We give them food. We let them sleep during the day. The man—her assistant? her deputy?— stands against the wall. He has a soft look about him: the curve in his belly, the roundness of his cheeks. He is quiet. When we eventually leave this place, two weeks later, we still will not know quite what to make of him.

My parents, both teachers, are happy to be talking to this woman. It’s so good what you’re doing, they say; they say, kids need a place to just be kids. At sixteen, I can see that they are so eager to help and so ready and that the woman across the desk is nodding along, humoring them, being kind, indulging this feeling. My parents—good people, thinking people—do not understand; I do not understand. None of us will ever understand.

Here is what we will never understand, here is the situation: kids hopping around on moving trains. All day long in the hot sun. Looking for plastic: bottles, caps, wrappers, containers. Hanging off the trains. Accidents happening. They are so small, limbs thin as the branches of a young tree, and just as fragile. The Railway Police, we never really find out whether this is an actual branch of law enforcement, or simply what the children at FXB call the people who harass them, hunt for them, playing a game of cat and mouse. Sometimes the mouse ends up in the train station holding cell; if the mouse’s friends know the right person to call, they might be bailed out. If not, the mouse spends the night. The mouse might be sixteen, or twelve, perhaps ten. In a cell, overnight.

They use rags, the woman behind the desk tells us, they soak the rags with gasoline or correction fluid. We tell the stores around here not to sell the fluids to the children, but they don’t listen. We nod as if this is something we can comprehend: ten and twelve year-olds, huffing glue to get high. We nod even harder when the man explains, not allowed here. Here, no drugs.

Instead we offer them colored pencils. Construction paper. Dot-to-dots hand-carried from Seattle to this desert city. We offer them a ukulele, miniature-sized, the subject of much concern and interest from every TSA agent we’ve encountered in the last two months. We offer them songs, like Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes, and When A Cow Gets Up in the Morning. Our gifts say, children, don’t huff inhalants to forget about the fact you have no place to sleep tonight, or that you haven’t eaten today, or that you don’t know where your parents are, or that a middle man has once again cheated you out of a fair price for your plastic bottles. Sing songs instead, and you will feel better.

Our twisting guts tell us how stupid this really is. But we sing right through it.

Mafiya, age unknown, smaller than many of the others here but seeming wiser, is learning to play the ukulele. She strums wildly, imitating my father; in the frame of my camera she laughs so beautifully. In these moments, my family, we look at each other, we think, we are doing good. We are helping these children.

On the fifth day, my sister’s fourteenth birthday, there is a pat-down, a drug bust. A reckoning. It’s the afternoon, and we are sitting in a small room (it’s the biggest room), as we always do around this time, with the paint chipping off the floor and the mural of the caterpillar decorating the wall. Each segment of its cheerful body is numbered. One through ten. We are coloring, we are taking pictures, we are playing games—business as usual.

Then the man, the man we met the first day, sees something we do not. A scrap of cloth, a subtle gesture, a wandering into a hidden corner. The four of us, my parents and my sister, still don’t know what to think of him. He rarely speaks, he never smiles, he exudes quiet disapproval and we are all slightly, I think, afraid of him.  Today he is in action.

He suddenly seems to fill the space. Get up, against the wall, he says in Hindi. Who has rags? Give me the rags. The children are no longer smiling as they line up, twisting bodies, heads hanging.

He pats them down, feeling for rags. He is firm but gentle, he does not hurt them, he does not yell, he only talks in a quiet forceful voice. Several of the older boys have rags, which he pulls from their pockets. We four stand against the wall too, unsure of what to do or where to look. Torn between wanting to help this man, and wanting to reach out, grab his arms, pull him away from these children, stop him from making them feel ashamed. In then end I do nothing. I feel immensely guilty.

So does the rest of my family. We confess this to each other over dinner that night, my sister’s birthday meal. We all do our best to turn the evening festive, venturing out on the town to try a recommended restaurant with a view of the city. The lights of the sprawling downtown glimmer in the velvety blackness of the night. We gift her tiny cherry earrings from Japan, a silk robe from Vietnam, a brand-new moonstone pendant purchased that very afternoon in downtown Jaipur. But none of it—the gifts, the food, the view— takes the bitterness of being helpless out of our mouths. We finally understand that we will never understand.

Maya Gillett is a college student, a lover of food and cooking, a traveler, a goofy dancer, a watcher, an asker of questions. She aspires to be an educator, a writer, a more thoughtful and ethical traveler, and maybe a better dancer. She lives in Seattle, WA.