|Photo used with permission from Antonio Ysursa|
She peered from the headdress and bowed stance to gaze at the occupants packed with her into the rickety, creaking auto bus. There were young girls in plaid school uniforms, old men reading crumpled day-old papers, women coming from market with bamboo encapsulated chickens and ducks. It was a cacophony of sounds and menagerie of color; bright saris and drapes, the crisp white of the men's tunics, all against the exotic mochas and deep chocolates of shiny brown skin.
No one looked twice at her, despite her towering height of five foot nine. She was just another traveler on this dusty road, bumping along, grabbing for any purchase as the driver slung the top heavy bus around narrow corners and swerved to miss oncoming traffic. She was nothing to them. She was an outsider, a European, a White.
She sighed as she returned her gaze to her lap. The fringe on the edge of her wrap had drug on the ground as she had run for the teetering bus and it now lay caked in mud from the gutter. She picked at the small dried clods with her fingers and reached into her bag for a bottle of water. Using a few precious drops, she cleaned the bright pink and red silk. She turned back to replace the bottle to safety and that was when she saw her.
She was the only person on the bus who didn't seem to ignore her, with her giant stance, her pale skin and her auburn hair. It took just a moment to recognize that the child's skin was freckled, pale like hers and her eyes were blue, glinting steely from the slate blue head covering. Her heart stopped and she was reticent to draw breath. Where was the child from? The woman sitting next to her had nodded off, being elderly with her craggy brown face bobbing about as they swayed and dipped along the road. Her mind whirred with mystery and she looked up and down the crowded aisle of the bus, searching for anyone who might lay claim to this porcelain skinned youngster. The girl just continued to stare, unblinking, unbending… Unnerving.
She tried a smile but those eyes bore into her; accusatory, excavating her insecurities and exposing her fears. Those eyes were not youthful eyes, but weary with mistrust and brimming with hatred. The gaze of a child so filled with contempt was startling to her, but the look itself - it was familiar.
It was a stare that she had become so acquainted with, matched with cat calls because she was white. Of course she would be a whore, she had been counseled before her trip: she was American, her hair was red, she was labeled with all of her un-Indian-ness a devil. She had no business being there, despite the humanitarian organization she worked for, she would never, ever fit in. While this had been drummed into her, she had naively pressed on in her insistence that she was perfect for the work, that her heart would overcome, that surely it couldn't be that bad.
Despite the open antagonistic nature of the people among whom she lived and ultimately served, the mission statement of the organization held her fast. The compassion she had for Hindu women and the deep longing she held for rescuing those ensnared in the sex trade quelled her desire to leave. She could take the stares and the vile propositions launched at her in broken English. What she couldn't take was the horribly calloused way she had seen Indian women, women of their own hue, beaten, raped, slashed and tossed away like garbage. It was heartbreaking.
The bus hissed and screeched slowly to a stop at a small town, dusty and rural. The old woman, opened her eyes as if by clockwork and grabbed roughly at the child's hand, dragging her toward the exit, pushing slowly through the close press of bodies. As the girl reached her seat she whispered in Hindi, her eyes mean slits in that angelic face, "Go back. You don't belong. We hate you!"
She sucked in breath at the vehemence of the statement. Even as the old woman tugged at her hand, those eyes accused her, looking back, staring through her to some unseen threat, coated in loathing and contempt. She lowered her gaze as the tears began to sting her eyes. It was a confirmation of all things she had taken for granted, the simplest act of friendship slapped away in a hail of racist abhorrence. She realized then that just because she looked the same, because their skin was the color of milk and not coffee, she was still recognized as outside the norm. It ran deeper.
Racism ran chasms into any culture, no matter the origin, and here… Well, here she stood out like a beacon ablaze with enticing neon light. But could she quit? That was the question that kept at her. That was the meat of the matter, as her grandmother would say. If she did quit, what did that say about her convictions? What did it say about her heart and her determination? It was always going to be hard. It was always going to have someone telling her she couldn't do it, she wouldn't fit, she would fail. Failure meant so many would go without, some would perish, many would starve disfigured and alone, and why? Because her feelings got hurt? Because some nasty little man asked her to perform fellatio in the streets of Mumbai? So what.
She took another breath and waited as the bus refilled with faces that didn't match hers, with women who tsked and whispered and pointed, with men who leered. She adjusted her wrap and sat a little straighter in her seat. No one had said it would be easy. In fact, most had told her she would fail, she would be home inside a month. Well, she had been here a year. She was by no means a super star, but what she was doing, what she awoke each morning to accomplish, it was her dream. It was a terrifyingly difficult task and she may never see success, but what would she see if she quit? Nothing. And if only one woman was saved, if only one girl was plucked from the sex trade, still intact and unscarred, then maybe she could say it was worth it. It would be so worth it...