I was fourteen and in Bombay for the first time in my life. I was on a four week holiday to meet with relatives.
My entire childhood I had been brought up in the UK. I only spoke English and that with a received English pronunciation and I was at boarding school. Just started that year. To fully understand this you must know I was deeply loved as a child and at fourteen with the world telling me it would be at my feet I was slightly arrogant, in the ‘A’ stream at school, liked, strong and had all the attributes that go with being spoiled.
India itself could change anyone’s opinion of life. There is almost no need to talk to anyone, just observe. But though I saw the poverty and the shanty town it was only after a week there that it really came home to me. I sort of accepted the family taking me out and throwing money at legless men and broken bits of baby and giving it to beggar children outside the house. The money was foreign to me. Meaningless in fact. I had no reference point as to how much anything was really worth.
Then my aunt took me to a market place. A covered market built by the Brits in the centre of the city. A large mass of stalls and we walked around it, me in a bright red shirt and blue jeans (all new and made to measure) and she was buying some fruit and gave me a plum to try.
The woman who touched my shoulder had no name I would ever know. No history I would ever know. No voice I would ever hear. The lightest touch on my right shoulder and I turned and there she stood. In a once colourful sari covered with dust, a lined face with two brown eyes staring into mine and her wrinkled hand cupped before me. A human being asking me for money and I had none on me. Not a coin. All I had in my hand was a half eaten plum and…may you forgive me…with a strange reflex action that seemed to say I had to offer something…I half offered it to her.
I quake at the thought. My eyes still brim with tears. Can you imagine that? I offered a woman old enough to be my mother, asking for my help, a piece of eaten fruit. And she stood there and didn’t move and I stood there until suddenly my aunt pulled my arm and I was gone.
I was gone but that woman stayed there. Never moving in my imagination all these years. And I looked around me more deeply from that moment on. I worked out what this money was, what this thing called poverty was. And I took these thoughts home with me. They fed themselves into what I think about humanity, about politics, about liberty. That careworn woman changed my life. I only wish it had been in my gift to change hers then and there.