I see her hallowed cheeks, eyes bulging from the sockets. Death of life within her bones. Her frame fragile and knobby. Skin the color of the Amritsar dirt.
We locked the doors. The heat quickly festering. She’s at my window, staring at me. No words, but those eyes speak. I have the urge to take her picture.
A shudra. An untouchable. And even less to her fellow Indians, now nothing but a beggar. The girls role down the window and give her at least fifteen rupees, but she doesn’t budge. Those eyes, coma ridden, where has she gone?
I didn’t see it at first, the cloth sling across her chest, fraying at the edges, seams bound to burst. And the small mound peeking through, the crown of an infant’s head, so still is that sling, that child, unmoved. I forget to swallow the lump in my throat. I can only stare. I think, no, I know, that baby must be dead. The Amritsar heat is over one hundred degrees, streets of dirt, dry earth dehydrated, thirsty for the monsoon rains that won’t come. Her baby is dead. Doesn’t she know? And she’s at my window, staring at me. I want to cry, but I can’t even muster a no, I have to force myself to look away. But even the hazy figure I see out of the corner of my eye chills me. Why won’t she leave us? Go get her baby some milk. It is enough, more than enough. But perhaps she knows what I do, the infant in the sling is dead, no use in buying milk.
She haunts me. This woman of no name. Her eyes. That stare. So vivid in this memory of mine. I wonder if the others recall her like I. Does she still make them tremble after two years? After her, I could never say no to another with child.
The day before leaving Dharamsala to return to Delhi, I went to the Mcleodganj bazaar one last time. As I waited for taxis to return at the edge of the bazaar, there she was. And a baby that could sit upright while held, undead. I tried to ignore her, but I couldn’t. The beggar from Amritsar is all my mind remembered, manifesting itself in this new figure. I tried to walk away, but then she started crying the Hindi word for milk. She only wanted money for milk, for the baby, nothing more. I stopped, turned to look at her, that face, same hallowed cheeks and large eyes, pupils dark as coal.
The men around were looking. Rarely did they tell beggars to stop unless they got too close. But she hadn’t left me alone for several minutes. Walking beside me, feeling her breath upon my shoulder, as I walked past vendors, choosing Buddhist prayer beads and earrings. The vendors would shoo her away, but she remained nonetheless. That one word, repeating it in my ear, milk.
Finally, I nodded. Pointing to a small shop ten feet away, I said yes. The owner was not happy. This beggar woman in his store. He scowled, he told her to stay by the entrance. He didn’t want her near his goods. But I needed her to pick the milk. And she spoke words in Hindi I didn’t know until finally the shopkeep told me what she was saying. As I paid, he leaned down, whispered to me, “You know she will only go sell this. Give money to someone else.” I said what she does beyond this isn’t my business. He didn’t understand. No ghost from Amritsar was haunting him.
I handed her the milk. She asked for five rupees. I said no. And the angry shopkeep began yelling at her with words I never learned, flinging his arms, she turned and walked away. In the taxi, the bumpy path down the mountain, I hoped that she would prove that man wrong. That her child would go without knowing hunger that night.
And still, I see her so clearly. Standing before the car, one arm outreached, palm open. Bones prying through the skin. So vivid, so ripe an image. Dark skin brushed with the Amritsar dirt, clothes dirty and unthreading, and the small sling. No breath of movement, no wail from that child. It sleeps. I knew it then, but did nothing. It sleeps. And I think, what if only I had given her some milk?