Sharmeen R. Husain
is a biology/premed major at Temple University
I see it again, always. In the middle of a dusty street of a New Delhi market. That old man laying a tattered sheet over a small lump lying in the dirt. I stare at the suspicious mound until my dad's hands move to cover my 8-year-old eyes. I peek through them. The old man lifts the sheet to shake the dust off and a quick image of the fresh, dead body of a young boy is revealed.
I should not have peeked.
The market was surrounded by slums. It was crowded with cows, people, auto-rickshaws, dogs, cars, and motorcycles, like any Indian market would be. My father and uncle had taken me out to get a new pair of shoes because I had lost mine in a lake at a picnic the day before.
Forever after, as I close my eyes at night, I see that one flash of death behind the thick, settling dust. It has been 12 years, but I remember every detail. I see the bloody, spindle-shaped gash along the side of the boy's face, and the layers of dust sticking to it and the rest of his body. I see his patchy skin and pale face. I see a growing puddle of blood surrounding the cadaver. I see his messy, sun-browned hair. I see his broken sandals and brown clothes that one could tell used to be bleach-white. I see his two scrawny legs bent at odd angles and his bony arms carelessly crossed around his chest by the old man.
Moments before, the young boy had been arguing with a shopkeeper about something, both of them screaming at the top of their lungs. The shopkeeper was a fat, mustached man. He stood there with his hands on his hips and his gut sagging over the top of his pants. He looked mean. The little boy had probably stolen something. That's what the street children do when they're starving.
A crowd gathered by the open shop. The little boy was nothing but skin stretched over bone and you could see it even through his baggy clothes. He had a fierce voice for such a little person. But that didn't stop the shopkeeper from beating him to death with a stick. Right in front of a huge crowd. Right in front of my father and me.
After only a few hits, the boy was on the ground, curled up in a ball. Seconds later, he was on his back, his arms sprawled out, dead. The crowd cleared. They were probably scared. The old man, showing a bit of respect, crossed the boy's arms and laid a sheet over his body.
I don't recall crying. My father tells me that I never did. I guess I was just shocked. Or was too young to understand. But, to this day, I feel the wind striking my face and the dust slowly waters my eyes. I begin to quiver. I'm sweating. I'm shaking. I'm breathing hard. I'm restless.
I see the unforgettable corpse on every dollar bill that I collect today for poor children in India. He is there, sprawled out in the dirt, haunting me. I can't sleep until I help, until that extremely vivid, bloody pile of flesh leaves my memory. Even though I know it never will.
Back in the States, I began volunteering with the Aligarh Alumni Association, which raises funds to provide scholarships to needy students in India. My father was a member of the association, and I would be the little girl walking around the events carrying a donation box. It wasn't much, but that's how it all started.
In middle school, I went to India again and I visited a school that my uncle had opened for the poor in Shikohabad. I saw a teacher ripping pages out of a notebook to give to the children that sat at desks in a courtyard with a tin roof over their heads. The idea seemed pathetic to me. Back home, we all had our own spiral notebooks with plenty of pages. Nobody shared anything. I came home and used my meager allowance to buy a couple of spirals and ship them to my uncle's school. I only had enough money to do this once.
Eventually, with the help of school friends, I found myself organizing everything from bake sales to car washes to raise funds to ship school supplies and clothes to my uncle's school. Then, as president of the South Asian Student Association at my high school, and with my uncle's help, we branched to help even more primary schools. The association continues this effort, even though I have graduated.
Now I'm almost out of college, and I go through rolls and rolls of tape sealing up boxes full of towels, clothes, and school supplies to be shipped to India. Every once in a while, friends will help. But no one else is driven. I can't stop. The children lack opportunities. I may just be one person, but I can help give them that.
I went back to India this past summer. To that very street. To where I saw him. The dead body that defines pity and remorse in my mind. I looked over to that same patch of dirt and saw nothing. Either the dust blew him away, or my work back in America cleaned up the mess. As long as I'm unsure, I will continue to do what I am doing.