Song and Dance
You're not supposed to gleefully dance your way into a brothel full of minors, and mothers shouldn't have to sing to feed their children, but that's exactly what happened in Mumbai, India, today. On my walk today down Falkland Road, one of Mumbai's most well-known brothel-lined streets, an unlikely song and dance caught my eye. A tall, thin man, perhaps in his mid-30's, was dancing on the side of the street with a young girl who looked like she was about 10. They danced to a drum, some clapping, and a trumpet-like instrument. I watched transfixed for a minute, wondering what would lead a middle-aged man to dance exuberantly in the gutter right outside of a line of brothels. A number of other people on the street shared my interest, and soon there were 30 to 40 of us watching as the man completed his jig, accompanied the whole time by the pretty young girl who seemed to dance just a bit too well for her age. Besides the scenes I've seen on TV, this was the first dance that I had seen in India.
Once the dancing stopped, the man got down to the business that had apparently brought him to that joyful moment. He spoke quickly to another young lady at the top of the brothel steps, followed her up the stairway, and just before dipping his head behind the brothel curtain turned back with a triumphant wave and smile for the crowd as if signaling success in his endeavors. He and his chosen lady, a young gal likely in her 20's, then disappeared into the brothel.
Though I have a few theories, the tall man's dance ultimately remains a mystery to me. When I first stumbled onto the joyful scene, my initial thought was that there must be a wedding of some sort taking place. Then I wondered if it wasn't just a spontaneous expression of joy in the street that didn't really need a better explanation – what could be more beautifully human than to dance for the sake of dancing, even if it is on the side of a garbage-strewn, brothel-infested street. But when I came to my more cynical senses and saw the tall man's cocksure entrance into the brothel, I surmised the real meaning behind the scene. A man was sickly celebrating – and being affirmed in his demented joy – what was perhaps his virgin run into a brothel. The tall man's initiation into the perversions of a gutter-side brothel was seen as a cause for joy and singing. What has become of our world when a young girl's ensuing sexual exploitation is occasion not for weeping and anger but for singing and dancing?
A mother's singing on the train today was another opportunity for weeping which revealed to me the hardness of my heart. I was on the train to Bandra to explore Mumbai a bit when a young mother holding her baby boarded the train compartment crowded with about 80 men and began to sing. She had fashioned a pair of homemade castanets out of the soles of wooden baby shoes, and used her instrument to clap a healthy beat as she sang a beautiful, mournful song. Unlike the Falkland Road dance, this scene required no interpretation. I knew that she had devised her performance as a means to ask for spare change, perhaps trying to rise above the indignity of simple begging by at least contributing some entertainment to a dreary train car in order to justify some donations. When she was done singing, she looked right at me, pointed to her baby, and held out her hand, asking for some coins. I looked her in the eye, shook my head, and gave her nothing. Even her baby got into the act, emulating his mother by holding out his hand in request. I feebly offered them some of my bottled water, knowing that they would likely refuse, and that what they could really use was some money. I didn't give them a rupee. The lady then made her way through the train car, gathering a small handful of coins from other, more sympathetic or perhaps guilt-ridden or image-conscious men, and left the train at the next stop. I tried to catch her eye as the train pulled away from the station but she was lost in the crowd, just another of the nameless and faceless poor who – more than any sermon or pastor or Bible study – expose the true condition of my heart as I roam the streets of Mumbai.
I honestly don't know what to do about the many beggars who seem to see a white man as a walking ATM. During my first week in Mumbai, I bought several bunches of bananas every day to give to street children and the poor. That seemed to serve a temporary purpose of at least ensuring that my almsgiving would go to where it was most needed – directly to the stomachs of the poor. A pair of adorable girls followed me for about 15 minutes one night until I could find them some bananas. That had to be my most satisfying fruit purchase ever. I've given away a handful of coins here and there, and consciously gone back to the train stations several times to bring food to crippled beggars whose plight particularly struck me, but I don't really know what to do on an ordinary basis. I can barely communicate with the poor here, know that they eye me only for my money – my access to which is likely beyond their comprehension – and can't tell the difference between the truly needy and those who might be participants in Mumbai's well-documented begging schemes.
I ask the classic question – what would Jesus do? – then get stuck when I realize that Jesus was never a member of the perceived elite, didn't walk around with a bunch of cash on hand, and at least knew the language of the masses who clung to him for the food and miracles that they tried to squeeze out of him. What would a rich, American Jesus do in the era of globalization as he roamed the streets of the developing world? A strange question indeed.
Most people would think that the tall man at the brothel is on the fast track to hell. What could be more despicable than a man exulting in the purchase of a girl who was likely forced into prostitution as a minor and is now held as a sex slave? But people who have read the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter, know that the rich white man on the train today is just as lost as the tall dancing man. With a pocket full of rupees and a mind full of questions, I was exposed today by the singing mother for the cold-hearted man that I often am. Some, like the tall man, use their money and power to rape young girls. Some men, like me, refuse to use their money and power to help a mother in need. How far both the tall man and I are from being like Jesus.
What you dance for and why you celebrate reveal a lot about the condition of your heart. So does the way that you respond to the cries of the poor. Let us long for the day when there will be dancing on Falkland Road because the young girls are freed, and when mothers will sing for joy because their children are healthy and have all that they need. Until that promised day comes, the singing and dancing in our world are often twisted and wrong. So, too often, is my heart.
Troy Anderson is an intern at International Justice Mission – www.ijm.org – and will graduate from UCLA Law School next May, after which he hopes to work on human trafficking issues. Troy documented his summer travels through India at http://speakupforthepoor.org.