A Ragpicker's Birthday

The following is a short story I wrote after a trip I took to India.  It's a true story about two boys I met on the streets there.  If you would like to send me a comment regarding this story, please click on the "contact me" button just below the "Remembering the Poor" book in the column to the right.

The "ragpicking" profession is not considered among the most noble of vocations in India. Although I discovered on a recent trip to India just how noble the ragpickers are. As a part of the "unofficial" caste of untouchables, the ragpickers had more of an impact on me than any of the more socialized populace I encountered in India.

I have to admit, I wasn't entirely sure why I had even gone to India. Though India has always sounded very interesting, it has also sounded sufficiently germ-ridden, air-polluted and jam-packed to put me off wanting to ever pass through there. I knew enough people who had been there to know that a person could enjoy India. It just seemed that there were too many hurdles to finding that sense of enjoyment. Yet there I was, in India, accompanying my senior pastor to visit the leaders of a church with whom our church had an ongoing relationship.

My first impressions of India confirmed every reason I had ever had for hesitating to go there. Yet those initial scenes from the window of a cramped and dusty old taxi did more than that. They broke my heart. All those reasons for not wanting to set foot in India had never put faces on the people who daily lived in the context of my reasons - who were now moving and breathing before my eyes.

Every usable piece of earth seemed claimed by people too poor to build homes with anything but sticks, rags and scraps of metal discarded as useless for any other need. Crooked, narrow lanes of dirt and debris, lined with make-shift homes constructed as tightly together as the planks on a boarded up house created an environment that struck me as being like another planet only an arm's length away. And it seemed unreal that these squalid scenes would even include people! A child, half clad in filthy rags, paddling in a puddle beside a busy highway; a woman, wrapped in dark and dirty fabric, hunched over a tiny, smoky fire to prepare some sort of nourishment in a battered and blackened pot; a man with a vacant stare, sitting idly beside an unsteady looking house of rags stained blackish-grey by the exhaust of a million motorists racing by only ten feet away.  Such scenes were innumerable. I could scarcely take it all in as we zig-zagged down a congested and smog-filled motorway. Little did I realize that I would soon be taking it in from much closer up than I'd ever imagined.

Hyderabad was the city in which we eventually unpacked our bags. Although a large city, even by global standards, Hyderabad is little known by the average Westerner as it gets lost in the shadows of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta and Delhi. It is in central India on a semi-arid plateau and surrounded by rocky non-arable land that in the dry season resembles a moonscape more than an overcrowded subcontinent.

Within a couple of days, I'd met Sandeep, a brother-in-law of the church leaders we had come to visit. He approached me after a class I had just taught in the Bible school he attended, cheerfully exclaiming how much he had appreciated hearing what had been taught. The teaching that day had been on Christ's commands to love both God and our neighbours, and to go and make disciples throughout the world. Sandeep then began to tell me about a passion he had for putting these commands into practice by spending time among a people he referred to as the "ragpickers."

Sandeep is in his late twenties and was saved only a few years ago in the midst of a career as a lead actor in India's enormous film industry. A very warm and humble man in his manner, he is very bold in his desire to see others hear about the same Jesus who turned his life around. Here is a man who was rising in the ranks of one of the world's largest film industries, and now feels called to serve the men and children in the gutters of Hyderabad. Meet him in a social function and he is downright meek in his manner. Find him in a slum among a gathering of ragpickers, and he's as excitable and animated as child in a toy store.

It was exciting hearing about what Sandeep was doing among these people in his spare time. I asked if I could accompany him sometime that week to visit with them. Delighted, he agreed to meet me the next morning at six outside my room.

It was still dark when we pulled out that morning, the two of us squeezed onto the back of a little Honda motorcycle which served as Sandeep's family vehicle. It was not uncommon in India to see families of three, four, even five balanced on the back of a motorcycle weaving through traffic. The two of us fit quite comfortably in comparison.

As we rode into the heart of the city, Sandeep began to tell me more about the ragpickers. They begin their working days about four or five each morning. Wandering the city, they collect scraps of paper in large sacks, which they later sort to separate the recyclables from the disposable garbage. These scraps are then sold to merchants who recycle them. A ragpicker's daily earnings may amount to about fifty cents, which is enough to purchase a pot of a little meat lost in a sauce of potatoes or rice. Food that gives a little energy for an evening, but which provides little sustenance for the following long, hot day of ragpicking.

The ragpickers are considered untouchables in Indian society. Not only will no one touch them, but people avoid them or even cover their mouth and nose as they walk past them because ragpickers are considered so unclean. Many of the ragpickers are children who are orphans or who have been abandoned by their parents. They sleep on sidewalks, take shelter under tree branches and live on the edges of highways, and are always on the move from fear of being cast off from wherever they settle.

As Sandeep and I rode into the city, I stayed on the lookout for ragpickers. The light of morning gradually unveiled the many activities already underway and the cool air changed to warm as it pressed against my face. My understanding was that we would buy some fresh fruit to give the ragpickers, and that Sandeep was now looking for an open fruitstand. Suddenly Sandeep pulled over toward a couple of people alongside the road. Nervousness gripped me. This sudden encounter seemed the largest cultural boundary I had ever crossed and I desperately scrambled in my mind for how we could possibly engage these people.

What would we give them? Why would they want to waste time with us when we had nothing to give them? What reason would these people have to give us a second glance? Back home my ministry involved people who were poor and socially stressed, and who often required that trust be earned after years of hurts and disappointments. Why would these two people trust us?

As Sandeep pulled to a stop he called out to them. The man and woman looked Sandeep and I over warily. The woman appeared weak but not elderly, her weakness probably more from a scorching sun and an empty stomach than from years. The clothes hanging loosely off her frail frame were the colour of the smoke of a hundred meal-fires. The man appeared younger, but equally dusty and grubby in his attire. Both carried large, bulky, exhaust-stained nylon-weave sacks which bounced lightly on their shoulders as they walked over to us questioningly.

Sandeep launched into a long and cheerful introduction of who we were and why we had stopped. He spoke in their language of Telagu, and I have no doubt that he gave the full message of the Gospel as a part of his introduction. Sandeep never missed an opportunity to tell people about Jesus. As he talked, their expressions gradually relaxed, and what had looked at first like suspicion steadily changed to an air of enjoyment and appreciation. Sandeep spoke with a ready grin, and occasionally the ragpickers would smile and reply to him cheerfully. Then suddenly Sandeep turned to me and asked me to pray for them.

What?! Me pray? Pray what? Why would these people want my prayers? My mind was still finding it difficult to understand what relevance I could have to these people when I was just an empty-handed stranger. But keeping these thoughts to myself, I reached out, placed my hands on their shoulders, and prayed an untranslated blessing on them, their work and their days. When I opened my eyes to look into theirs, I saw a new expression in them - one of awe and excitement. They had received something and they knew it. Sandeep also knew what had just transacted. He was smiling with appreciation that God had just come and gently touched two desperately needy people with his love. Sandeep said good bye, and we were back on the bike and gone.

As we rode away, Sandeep turned his head back toward me and said, "You've made them very happy today, Ken!" I wondered at that. He explained that nobody ever stops to speak to a ragpicker, let alone touch or pray for them! And on top of that, a white man! I realized as we rode on, that these people were not looking for handouts, and that my being relevant to them wasn't connected to material things. A simple blessing - a simple touch - was what was relevant to these ragpickers. They worked hard on their own behalf and weren't looking for a free lunch.  Their hunger was for more fundamental matters. Love. Acceptance. Affection. A simple prayer and a hand on their shoulder from someone outside their social group were likely more than they'd "eaten" in years. Or even a lifetime.

We met and prayed for many ragpickers that morning, and it always seemed the same: a simple touch and a simple prayer seemed to make a profound impact. God, though, was saving what would impact me the most until last. As Sandeep and I made our way back home, we stopped to speak with two young boys along the busy roadside. As we pulled up, they were sorting through the rags and scraps they had already collected that morning. One looked about ten years old, and the other about fifteen. As Sandeep spoke to them, I found it difficult to take my eyes off the younger boy. Amidst the filthy rags he wore and the unknown days of dust and dirt that covered his face was a quick and handsome grin and bright, cheerful eyes. He lived in squalor without all of what I considered necessary in order to grow up balanced and keen to go on living. Yet his eyes showed no trace of his life's misfortune, nor of a mistrust of these strangers who had approached him. He was eager, responsive and quick to confidently engage Sandeep in conversation.

Sandeep then asked me if I wanted to ask them anything or share anything with them. I didn't know what Sandeep had already been talking about, so I simply began by asking the younger boy how old he was. Sandeep translated the question into Telagu and the boy appeared uneasy as he replied. Then Sandeep turned to me and said awkwardly, "He doesn't know, Ken." 

I was astounded and asked Sandeep, "He has no idea how old he might be?"

"No Ken, he has no idea at all." was Sandeep's simple reply. I was stunned. We all chatted a bit longer about other things: how much they earn a day, how early they start. Then we prayed and left. Before leaving, Sandeep asked if they'd like to meet us here at the same place with any of their friends the next day at 4:00 pm. They agreed.

That night, I thought about how incredible it was for a boy to have no idea of his age - to have no parents to tell him, no home in which to post a calendar, no knowledge of a birthday when he could celebrate his place in this world with friends. Life for this boy revolved around surviving from one day to the next, with no notice of when his days turned into a year and then into another. No one counted years because they just didn't matter. Then I believe God said something to me about those boys. I remembered a story Tony Campolo told of the time he celebrated a prostitute's birthday in the middle of the night in a coffee shop and I thought, why don't we celebrate the boys' birthdays tomorrow? I may not know exactly when they were born, but God does, and I think He'd want us to celebrate their lives!

The next day, on our way to meet the boys, Sandeep and I stopped at a bakery and bought a brightly decorated cake. We had the baker cut it into four pieces. When we got to the boys, we found just the two of them with none of the friends we'd encouraged them to invite. But when they saw we'd brought something to eat in a mysterious white box, the younger boy insisted on running off to find some of his friends. He returned with two others and I then explained, with Sandeep translating, what we'd brought them. I spoke mostly to the younger boy, but also to the others, that I had been surprised to learn that this boy didn't know how old he was. I told him that as I'd thought about that, I'd felt Jesus urge me to buy a birthday cake for them. I explained that Jesus knew when they were born, was happy that they had been born, and that Jesus loved them so much that He wanted us to celebrate their births and their lives today. That's why we had come back to see them, and why Sandeep would visit them again in later days.

By the time I finished talking, that young boy's eyes were wide with amazement! If he looked bright eyed yesterday, he was now glowing! He was so excited. Before we ate, he even insisted on running across the street to wash his hands and face at a public tap. Amidst the dust and the pain and the filth of his life, he still desired to maintain the dignity of cleanliness in a moment of joyous honour. He came back across the street shining-wet and grinning, eager for what was almost surely the first birthday cake of his life. We prayed and handed out the cake to the four of them. The first moments after we handed out the cake seemed strangely constrained. The boys watched Sandeep and I with eager eyes, cradling their cake in their hands, while we stood and enjoyed their excitement. Sandeep quickly recognized, though, that they would not eat while we had no cake for ourselves, and we soon said good-bye.

The impression I was left with was that the younger boy was more interested in us than in the cake in his palm. He had watched us happily and intently as we explained a little more about Jesus' love for them. I will never forget him. He was a boy without a mum or dad that Jesus gave me the opportunity to love. He was a boy very much like my own children - energetic, cheerful, and eager to live. But he lived on streets rather than in a home. And he knew only day from night; not one year from another.

He and the others I'd met on the streets in India had taught me how precious a simple gesture of genuine love can be. As I'm involved in co-ordinating a ministry to low-income families in the neighbourhood in which I live, I'm grateful to be reminded of this. It can become frustrating, week after week, wondering if you're making a difference in peoples' lives. The ragpickers had shown me that I needn't feel irrelevant, or worse, feel paralysed, because my small acts of love are not enough to solve a person's problems. Celebrating the lives of the people I meet, however simply that may be expressed, is more than anyone expects as they plod through life in this busy world. One act of love, however small, is never wasted, and I must never feel that any great ministry or program would be more important than that simple hand of compassion on a stooped and lonely shoulder.

© 1998 by Ken Peters