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I confess. I am guilty of the same careless rhetoric that has marked many conversations post an India vacation. “Clogged roads, smoggy skies, packed malls and dirty, filthy streets,” I could be heard postulating. “Nothing’s changed and nothing ever will,” I continued, in an attempt to further amplify the differences in my past and present. Nods of assent immediately followed my assessment.

In the days since my return, however, I’ve been considering what I had, maybe unconsciously, left out of these explanations. There is no doubt that what I had expounded was the truth. But it wasn’t the only truth. The bridge between one truth and the other occurred on a hot sweltering day in Delhi.

We decide to visit a local market to pick up trinkets for friends and family back home. After a robust round of haggling, pleased with our purchases we make our way back and spy a group of women sitting on a ledge peddling mehendi (henna) applications. After a quick series of negotiations, allowing myself to be cajoled into parting with more money than is seemly, my eighteen-year old twins and I sit down on the ledge.

A few minutes later, a young boy, barely 10 years old, arrives with a shoeshine kit. He is barefoot, his face is grimy and his clothes are threadbare, but he sports an unmistakeable twinkle in his eyes. I am struck. He approaches us and demands to polish our moccasins, sandals and flip-flops. We laugh at his gall. Encouraged he does a jig and then proceeds to enumerate all the English words he knows: “No, yes, come, go, cheap …” he says. The mehendi ladies scold him and tell him to be off. He imitates them and then he stares at the deft way they use their cone applicator before proceeding to give them advice. One woman swats at him, and he moves back pretending to fall.  It’s all an act, I tell myself, but I cannot help be charmed.

Once we finish, I pull out some money and hand it to him. He takes it with an impish grin.

We have just started walking away, when he comes running and stops us. Now what? I think. He kneels down and proceeds to tie my daughter’s laces.

As he stands up I meet his ink black eyes and in that moment, I see the paradox that is India.

A land where it is possible for a shoeshine boy to make money despite the fact that none of his customers are wearing polishable shoes.

It is not the conditions of India that define the country. It is its people.

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....