I rolled up to the traffic light and stopped. The engine rumbled quietly as it idled. By the side of the road a beggar girl was waiting: a small, thin waif, perhaps four or five years of age – exactly the same age as my own daughter whom I had just dropped off at school. My daughter was probably playing in the garden by now, or inside learning the alphabet, or singing songs, or painting, while this little soul was standing bereft by the side of the road. She, and hundreds of girls and boys like her, spends her days tapping on car windows in the hope of receiving a few rupees which they can take back to their parents, or to the avaricious gang leaders who run begging cartels like some ghastly business of destitution and deceit.
She saw my car and came walking over. I rooted around the floor of the car. As a rule we try to avoid giving money to these kids since it goes straight into the hands of the gang bosses who organise beggars. Instead, we try to keep a stock of food items inside the car to hand out – packets of milk, juice boxes, individual packets of biscuits, that kind of thing. The rule seems to be that money goes to their bosses but anything else can be kept – and it is both heartening and soul-destroying to see how a five rupee pack of biscuits can make the faces of these precious kids light up. A packet of biscuits or a small juice box is really a drop in the ocean, quenching their thirst or sating their hunger for a couple of minutes, but what else can we do? We have six jobs between us as it is and simply cannot do anything more for them except hand over a bit of food and a few kind words.
But not this time. We were out of food: no milk, no biscuits, no juice boxes, nothing. Not even any small banknotes; anything larger than 50 rupees would be noticed by someone else and it would be taken from her. I looked at her with sorrow in my eyes. Then, suddenly, I noticed something on the floor of the car: a cheap plastic toy from a Happy Meal that one of my kids had enjoyed the previous day. I picked it up and handed it to her.
Her eyes lit up and a smile creased her face in two. She looked at it with joy and then back at me, before tucking it into a fold of her clothing. It occurred to me that this tiny, cheap plastic trinket, toyed with for a few seconds and then lazily dismissed by my own kids, was probably the first toy she had ever owned in her life.
Then the light turned green, the car behind me beeped irritably, and the beggar girl receded into my rear view mirror.