A Girl With A Basket
Written by -William C. Douglas
I had left New Delhi for the Himalayas. I was going as far as Bareilly by train and then by car to Ranikhet-an old British army hill station located on a 6,000-foot ridge opposite a 120-mile stretch of snow capped Himalayas. The train was slow; and it stopped at all the way stations. At every stop I swung open the door of my compartment, and walked the platform.
The platforms were packed with people- Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus; soldiers, merchants, priests, porters, beggars, hawkers. Almost everyone was barefoot and dressed in loose white garments. I would ask at least three people before I could find one who spoke English. We would talk world affairs and every major topic the news of the day produced. In this way I was trying to get a feel of the pulse of the nation, checking opinion against official attitudes and reports.
The route lay through one of the richest of India's agricultural areas. This was the plain of the upper Ganga River, a thousand feet above sea level but tropical. The Ganga was brown silt, swollen with flood waters, its overflow inundating thousands of acres of rice. To the north were jungles great expanses of grass higher than a man's head and unbroken except for an occasional clump of trees- the home of tigers, elephants, pythons, and cobras. Everywhere else there was flat land running to the horizon. But dotted here and there by the sacred banyan tree of by rows of pakar trees. Shaped like elms and having thick twisted trunks. Hot humid air was moving in from the south-west. Monkeys- some of them mothers with babies clinging to them and riding underneath -swung off trees at the stations looking for food. The villages we passed had walls made of mud mixed with water and cow-dung. Their peaked roofs were thatched- bundles of grass tied to bamboo poles stretched across the rafters. That day the pumpkin vines that grew over them were in bloom. Trailing streaks of yellow over drab walls.
At one station my routine of talking with the people was interrupted . As soon as I alighted a group of young children gathered around me. they were selling basket- hand- woven, reed baskets with simple designs and patterns. They held the baskets high, shouting words I did not know but conveying unmistakably their desire.
These were refugee children. When partition between India and Pakistan was decreed, hundreds of thousands of people pulled up their roots and changed their residences. Nine million people left Pakistan and came to India, driven by the fear of religious fanaticism. They were poor people to start with; they were poorer as they began their long trek; for all they could carry was a bit of food and a few belongings. Soon they were out of food. A few days after they started, they began to fall by the way-side from the weakness of hunger and died where they fell.
The children selling basket were sons and daughters of these refugees. They or their parents or relatives had gathered in the cities, setting up stalls, manufacturing simple articles, trying to make a living in markets already overcrowded. They lived in cloth and grass sheds that lined the streets. The peasants among these refugees, had been accustomed to little all their lives for the annual income of an agricultural family does not exceed on an average one hundred dollars a year. The average unskilled labourer makes thirty cents a day or less than two dollars a weed. There is one meal a day - an onion, a piece of bread , a bowl of pulse with milk , perhaps a bit of goat cheese. No tea, no coffee, no fat, no sweets, no meat. One hundred dollars a year is not two dollars a week, yet even that small amount is hard to earn by selling baskets to people too poor to buy them. That no doubt is the reason these little children descended on me like locusts. I an American, was doubtless the most promising market they had seen.
I bought one tiny basket for a few annas , another fruit basket for a bit more , a beautiful waste paper basket for a rupee, a lovely sewing basket for a rupee, a few fans for an anna or two a piece. My arms were filled and I had not spent fifty cents. The children passed in, shouting their wares. I was a prisoner completely surrounded, unable to move, The most diligent, aggressive vendor was a beautiful girl of nine right in front of me She had a lovely basket with handle; and she wanted a rupee and a half for it or about thirty cents, She was an earnest pleader, There were tears in her eyes. She pleaded and begged in tones that would wring any heart.
My arms were full. I had no room, let along any need , for another basket. Balancing my baskets and fans on my left arm, I reached into my right coat pocket and got a handful of change- perhaps fifteen cents in all- which I deposited in the basket that the young girl held imploringly before me. I tried to explain that I could not buy the basket but extended the gratuity as a substitute. I realized at once what offence I had given. This child of nine, dressed in rags and on the edge of starvation raised her chin, reached into the basket , and with all the pride and graciousness of a lady handed the money back to me. There was only one thing I could do. I bought the basket . She wiped her eyes, smiled and dashed down the platform, headed for some grass hut that would have at least thirty cents that night.
I told this story to Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I told him it was one reason I had fallen in love with India.
The people I saw in India those in the villages as well as those in high office- have both pride and a lively sense of decency and citizenship They also have a passion for independence. This beautiful child- born in squalor and poverty, uneducated in both grammar and manners had given me a glimpse of the warm soul of India.