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Lessons from a Rag Picker

Journal Entry Feb. 13, 2006 9:58am

by Sunita Fernandes

She sat on the footpath, her feet firmly placed on the road leading to the Shivajinagar Bus Station and her big, heavy rag sack placed next to her. Her short hair was dirty brown and matted from not having washed it for a long time, but hung in loose curls down to her shoulders. She wore pants and a shirt that came all the way up to her knees, four sizes too big, hanging off her frail, small shoulders. Once light colored clothes were now black as soot and brown as chocolate. Her toes peeked out of holes in her rubber shoes. From across the street, I saw her; poor, destitute, dirty and disheveled. Pity swelled inside me and I crossed the road to the other side, determined to help.

I gave her a 100 rupee note. She looked at my out-stretched hand and her eyes flew to my face in incredulity. The very next moment, she had thrown her head back and was laughing at the sky. Completely taken aback, I asked her what she was laughing for. "Because you are giving me 100 rupees," she said in Hindi. "Don't you want it?" I asked her. "No," she said bluntly.

I was flummoxed. It completely took me by surprise that a rag picker, who was obviously homeless, will not want one hundred rupees.

"Why don't you want it? You can buy some good food for a few days with this money."

"Food? Oh, I get enough food everyday. I don't need money for food. I eat 3 times a day."

"3 times a day? What do you eat?" I asked her, not believing. In my own small mind, to me it was unimaginable that a homeless rag-picker could afford 3 meals a day.

"I eat a banana in the morning, 2 idlis for lunch and a banana at night. I am never hungry."

"Oh," I said, a little confused at this conversation, and not knowing what to say next. "Take it, anyways. You can use it for anything you want."

"No, I don't want it", she was laughing at me again. She wasn't teasing me; she was just genuinely amused and her big eyes danced happily. By now, a small curious crowd had gathered around us. Curious to see what an obviously well-dressed lady was doing, talking to a rag picker.

"Use it for ANYTHING", I persisted, embarrassed by her laughing and by the crowd's curious eyes. "You can buy something, anything."

"Anything? Can it buy me a home?" she demanded. "A family? Husband? What about love? Can it buy me love?"

Sheepishly, I said, "No, it won't."

"It's so much money and yet it can't buy me what I need. It can only buy me what I don't need. If I have 100 rupees today, I will want 200 rupees tomorrow. That's why I don't want it."

With another happy laugh, she picked up her big rag sack, threw it over her small shoulders and ran across the street to the other side. She walked into a small shop, bought a banana, sat on the footpath, peeled it and ate it. It was her dinner time.

As I stood there watching her with tears quickly flooding my eyes, one of the curious bystanders said contemptuously, "Don't bother with such people. Why did you give her 100 rupees? Just a few coins would have been enough. That's all you should give these people. They don't understand the value of money."

I walked away, not able to stand there any longer. The tears were now flowing down my cheeks. "Lord", I said, "thank you for teaching me. She is truly your child. A child that I can never hope to be."

That image of her throwing her head back and laughing at the sky is imprinted on my mind. I doubt that it will ever fade away.

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Copyright © 2006 by Sunita Fernandes. All rights reserved.