I am being mobbed and I'm scared.
A crowd of kids is swarming, pushing the rickshaw with me inside. My driver yells, telling them to back off. Crowd psychology has already kicked in though, and more little arms reach inside to grab me.
It's right about now that I'm regretting having asked the driver to stop so that we could photograph a garbage-filled field being cleared for construction. My travel partner got out just seconds before, and crossed the street to take the photos. But I stayed inside the tuktuk.
Before I can understand what's happening, school children are swarming from all sides. Shouting, grabbing, smiling, reaching in to touch me. I am unprepared for this. The attention is no longer sweet with novelty; like many things in India, it's overwhelming. Clusters of tiny dirty fingers reach out to touch me, to shake my hand. For a moment I marvel at the fact that they find me this fascinating, and wonder how that's possible.
Somehow my mind compares my current situation to what I imagine it must feel like to be a celebrity. I think I understand then the price of fame. But I am just a privileged foreigner traveling in a developing country, I have not earned this attention, nor have I asked for it. I start to panic. I fear that they will grab my camera, my phone, my bags and run away. It would be impossible to stop them.
Just as suddenly as the whole scene begins, things start to spiral.
A few words of English stumble out of one boy's mouth, pen, pen! he shouts. Soon they are all shouting pen, pen, pen!
But I don't have one pen to give, let alone many. I have nothing to give except myself and this seems to upset them. Their expressions change from smiles to anger. Maybe they can feel my fear even though I'm smiling nervously.
Suddenly the engine kicks to life and we begin creeping forward forcing the swarm to part. The driver tries to push them away and my travel partner is suddenly pushing too, trying to clamber inside next to me.
Pen, pen, pen! they are shouting loudly, banging my metal shield.
A handfull of small fingers clutching my arm dig into me hard. I feel the sharpness of nails pierce my skin and draw blood. I jump at the shock of pain and recoil, bewildered. Looking closely into the chaos of dozens of little faces, I try to discern which one just harmed me.
My heart swells with confusion, sadness, pain. In the weeks I've been here I've come to know kindness from the Indian people. I have a hard time processing the fact that this mass of children just turned on me with vicious anger in their small eyes. They are so young, yet they must already know pain.
I wish I could give them more. I wish I could show them that I too understand injustice. But I can't begin to live their struggles, or to even imagine that my interpretation of their hostility is accurate. I can only grow humble with greater understanding and more aware having moved through this part of the world.
I feel a shadow of pain on my arm for a long time afterwards. I feel unsettled and confused by the whole experience for days. And I feel the sting of fear, poverty and injustice almost everywhere else we go in India.