Lost in Translation

Women and children picking through trash isn’t an unusual sight in India.  Delhi doesn’t have city trash trucks that regularly collect garbage.  Instead, neighborhoods sell their trash to rag-pickers, who sift through the waste and resell the recyclables.   It’s an exceptionally efficient and green segment of the local, “unorganized” economy – jobs born of necessity and not regulated by the state.    However, rag-picking is still a dirty job,  and it’s reserved for  “dalits” or members of the lowest caste, formerly called the “untouchables”.

I barely noticed three rag pickers outside of the building where I work the other day – until the security guard yelled at them.

The women were picking through bags of trash lined along the driveway.  The bags contained a mixture of refuse:  bits of plaster, wood, paper cups, newspapers, food wrappers and other yucky garbage.   The women each grabbed a bag and walked away.  That’s when the security guard yelled at them in Hindi.  He didn’t want the women stealing the trash, which was probably promised to another collector.

I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but one didn’t need to speak Hindi to know that he was mad, that he was bullying the women, and that this wasn’t going to end well.

I protectively stood by the women and shooed them down the driveway with their bags – and they seemed relieved by my effort.

However as they walked away, the security guard lunged at one of the women, pushed her forward , grabbed her arm and yanked her around.  Then he grabbed her trash bag and dumped it upside down, emptying the contents all over the driveway.

I was livid.

I yelled at him, and did whatever it is I do when I’m mad.  Situations like this are too heated and too fast to remember in detail.

I was dramatic enough for my driver to notice as he was pulling away after dropping me off.  He quickly came to protect me.

I didn’t need protecting, but I did need him to translate for me.  I wanted my histrionics clearly understood by the little man who saw no wrong in roughing-up women.  Poor women.  Women driven by poverty to pick through trash.

Sadly, there’s more than language that bars us from understanding each other.

The guard believes that he was doing his job – protecting the trash and the property.

I saw abuse.

I saw an economy that normalizes trash picking.

I saw a security guard who believes people are only worthy of the life they inherit.

Later that day I told Jim about the incident and as he so often does, he smiled knowingly at yet another story of my hot-headedness.  He, too, was appalled by the guard’s aggression.  But he’s the thinker in the family and he tried to put the incident into perspective  by giving me a sweet lesson on the “economy of scarcity”  in India.

Intellectually I know, I know, I know that India is rising – growing through layers of complicated history and culture.

But my heart won’t let my feet walk away when I see that kind of violence.

Some things are too awful to ignore.


We don’t see much of Maya now that we have moved.  Sadly, the last time I saw her, she showed me a festering wound behind her ear.  It looked as though someone had burned her – though I could be wrong.  The wound was bad enough for me to return to her street corner with a tube of antibiotic ointment.   It was a Sunday and I took the kids.  Maybe I shouldn’t have.  We’ve always had a car door between us and our beggar friends.

We sat on a curb and I cleaned her wound and dabbed it with bacitracin.  It wasn’t long before a crowd surrounded us.  The kids didn’t like the attention.

Sitting next to Maya, I could her see her filth.  Dirt I hadn’t noticed from my car.   Her situation seemed sadder, more depressing.  It was all disheartening, really.

But again, some things are too awful to ignore.


Anyone care to apply?  (Bahrisons is one of the better book stores in town….)

Jim introducing Thomas Friedman and Nandan Nilekani at the kickoff of India Ink, the Nyt’s new India blog:

And me hosting a speaker at work:

They fight in the morning, they fight at noon, they fight at night, they fight getting out of the taxi:

This is the third (and sadly last) year the three of us have posed together at the school’s annual Halloween fest:

Lala in the school play:

This is a story I took my students to cover.  The people in the background are protesting the government’s flawed efforts to distribute subsidized food to India’s needy.  I couldn’t resist this woman, sitting on her haunches, seemingly oblivious to the activity:

Every day this tricycle hauls away my garbage.  The collector didn’t want me to photograph him.

7 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. i can’t help but think of what important lessons your children are learning from you when they see you stand up for the powerless. This is what they will remember. Also, have tried many times, unsuccessfully, to watch the video in your last post. Can you send me another link by email perhaps? Did anyone else mention having trouble viewing it? hope you had a nice thanksgiving…

  2. i haven’t heard from anyone else about not being able to view… but i will put it on youtube – it’s too big to send by email. happy thanksgiving to you, too dear friend. i should be in new york in february for jim’s book release. will keep you posted. hope all is well. x t

  3. Theo, you have many great traits but what I really admire is that you’re never afraid to walk right up to a bully and hit him in the nose. We could use more of that!

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