On the final morning of what I hope is only my first trip to India, I set out to take a long walk. My new Indian relatives were very worried that I would get lost, but I assured them that I would not.
Among the many people that I met on the street were a group of Muslims, who had a butcher shop, and they invited me in and gave me coffee. Only one, an elder, spoke English, but he translated my words to the others and theirs' to me. They all wanted to come to Alaska. Everytime I emptied my plastic coffee cup, the elder filled it right back up again. Fortunately, coffee cups in India are tiny. Very tiny.
When finally I prepared to leave and move on, the elder grasped my hand warmly, in both of his, and expressed his joy that we had been able to meet, that he had brought me into his butcher shop; that I had enjoyed his coffee.
I continued on my way, past a bus stop guarded by a statue wielding a curved sword and then I just kept going - through residential and commercial districts. Bangalore's population is about the same as New York City, but will likely soon leave New York in the dust. Everywhere, people thronged, all moving, walking, driving cars and motorbikes, riding in cabs, little trucks, buses and tiny, two-stroke auto rickshaws that emitted choking fumes.
So much energy!
As I passed through a noisy, dusty, commercial district, lined with tiny shops with open fronts I suddenly became aware of a faint, pitiful, desperate cry somewhere behind me. I stopped, to listen carefully.
It was the cry of a kitten!
I turned around and searched, and then I spotted it - tiny, tiny, tiny, so terribly, terribly - too tiny to be away from its mother, I was certain - frightened - standing in the doorway to a shop as sandled feet passed by indifferently in front of it.
Two very young men minded the shop. I tried to speak to them, but neither understood nor spoke English. Still, I was able to communicate that I wanted to photograph the kitten. The young man who seemed most in charge, picked it up and placed it on the counter. It immediately turned to face the wrong way, so he put his hand on it and spun it around to face me.
Then he picked it up and it crouched in the palm of his hand and looked at me, terrified. The young man glanced down, and smiled at the kitten. I wanted to know about this kitten. How did it come to be here? Was it a pet of the young man? Had it been here long, or had it just wandered by today, perhaps, alone, separated too early from its mother, and so had he let it take shelter there? Or had he maybe been walking to work, and found it somewhere, lonely and abandoned?
Did he plan to keep it, nurse it back to health and give it a good life? Or, when this day ended, would he return to his home and leave the kitten to fend for itself? Did the kitten have a name?
I had no way to ask these questions, no way to learn the answers. Judging solely from it's appearance, the kitten's future appeared grim. I wanted to buy the kitten from the shopkeeper.
But then what? I would soon board a plane and I would not be allowed to bring this kitten home to the US. As much as Niece Vidya wanted a cat, my new in-laws did not keep pets and it would be very unfair of me to spring this one upon them, in the hope that they might change their mind.
Only one thing gave me any optimism for the future of this kitten - the fact that the young man had smiled at it and that I had caught the glint of affection in that smile.
In my mind, I continued to hear the desperate, frightened, pitiful plea of that throughout my flight home, and even after I arrived home. I wondered about the nature of creation and the God of this earth, that something so beautiful, so filled with the desire to live, would begin life in such a seemingly impossible position, as are so many, of all species, every day, over and over and over again.
A few days after my return to Alaska, I emailed pictures of the kitten to Soundarya.
She emailed me right back, demanding to know just where I had come upon that kitten. Her current landlord did not allow pets of any kind, but she didn't care. She was going to rescue this kitten, and bring it back to her place. I gave her the best directions that I could, and sent her pictures of nearby settings.
Soundarya got on her motorbike, and searched until she found the shop. The kitten was not there, nor were the two young men. Just an older man, and he scolded her when she asked about the kitten.
I was disgusted with myself. I should have known that Soundarya would want to rescue it. I should have offered to buy that kitten, and then had Vidya keep it just long enough for Soundarya to come by pick it up. I should have known, and I beat myself up for this failure. It seemed to me that the odds that the kitten still lived were small.
Why else would the old man scold her, and not tell her what had become of the kitten? And yet, the young man had smiled at it... my only hope.
My reaction to this kitten caused me to wonder about myself, to wonder just what kind of person I am. India is a growing, bustling, vibrant place, yet still multitudes by million suffer poverty and hardship. Many are those who beg in the street, where, although I saw no signs of starvation, people tend to be thin. I saw the bodies of people killed in an accident, lying unattended on the highway.
Yet, as I flew home, and after I got home, it was the cry of the kitten that tore at my soul, not the plight of the humans. Why? What is wrong with me? Why did not the pleas of the people, the little children, and the women holding babies and empty milk bottles (yes, I recognized the bottles as props) with outstretched and open hands, begging for money, reverberate through my head, just as the cry of the kitten did?
Perhaps its because there was too many of them and, while, against the advice that I was given, I did give a dollar here, a few rupees there, it was beyond my ability to do anything substantial to help any of these people. I lacked the resources to do that. I knew they would not starve to death and, one way or another, they would survive after I left, just as they had survived before I came. I did have the resources to completely turn that kitten' life around.
The people who I had seen did have an understanding of the forces around them and the power to do something about - even if that something was to hoist a baby and an empty bottle and to extend an empty hand to a stranger. The kitten had no understanding and no power. Only a great desire to live, muted by terror.
Then again, perhaps, for me, the kitten embodied all the suffering, not only of India, but of all us, of all species, who reside here upon this earth.
Maybe that is why I felt so bad about it.