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Conned in Delhi

Ken Shoop and I had a thirty-hour stay in Delhi on our way home in ’92. We had just finished a short trip to Pakistan to investigate some accusations involving a person supported by Woodmont Hills. The elders had given us sixteen questions for which to find the answers, and we wrote up our report while we were waiting to go home.  We stayed in a low cost lodge on the Connaught Circus in downtown Delhi. That morning we were out walking the circle, looking at the handicrafts displayed on the street, and were being asked to have our shoes shined by all the shoe shine boys and men along the walk. Suddenly we heard a soft voice pleading,  “Shoe shine?”

I ignored him and kept walking, careful not to look interested.

“Shoe shine? Very good price, only two rupees!”

Remembering the two Rupee note I kept in my pocket for beggar change, I handed him the dirty, wrinkled bill and kept walking, never breaking my stride.

“Please sir! I am no beggar. At least let me brush off your shoes.”

His shirt carried one month’s accumulation of filth, greasy at the sleeves and collar, and his plaid pants hid the dirt well. One hand had a crusty sore, and his slender body showed signs of too little food. His shoeshine equipment was stowed in a filthy cloth bag. I walked over to a metal rail and propped my foot up for him to brush.

“Sir, business no good. I don’t have a proper shoebox. I don’t have colors.” (Colors are dye pigments used to mix with clear wax to get different shades of polish)

“How much does a shoe shine box cost?” Ken Shoop asked.

“250 Rupees,” the shoeshine boy responded ($10).

Ken and I looked at each other. This young boy was eager to work for money. He was no free loader. He just needed some good equipment. And we were impressed with his bright responses and good English. We asked him where we could get a shoebox.

“Just nearby. I will show you,” he volunteered.

After a brief consultation, we decided to go with him to buy the box, instead of giving him money. After eleven years visiting India, we were aware of the many con games aimed at tourists, but we did not want to miss the opportunity to help someone in great need. We flagged a three-wheeler and began our journey. The boy introduced himself as Manaj, eleven years old, living with his mother in Delhi while his father remained in Rajasthan. He had never attended school, and learned his English from tourists.

“What do you know about Jesus?” I asked.

Manaj smiled and pointed heavenward, his finger stabbing the top of the auto. “Jesus is Lord,” he said happily. “I pray to Jesus every morning.”

Soon we arrived at a squatter’s camp. Manaj led us boldly up the narrow path between mud huts. Ken and I had expected to be taken to a store that sold shoeshine equipment. Instead we found ourselves immersed in a different world from the Delhi seen by tourists. We were surrounded by a host of strange people, imprisoned in mud and squalor. We walked carefully to avoid the human feces that lined the pathway, deposited by children too young to go to the designated toilet areas. The smell assaulted my nose, and the sights burdened my heart.

Mud huts with debris and rags for roofs stretched out into the distance, separated by   barely ten feet, with a narrow pathway in the middle. The hopelessness of their circumstances showed in the faces of the older people. Although it was late morning, many were sleeping in front of their huts, wrapped in wool blankets against the chill of the record cold winter of Feb 13, 1992. Older children tended to the younger brothers and sisters. Snot ran from most children’s noses, leaving crusty evidence of ill health and poor hygiene.

We followed Manaj doggedly, seeing the human misery unfold before us. At last we came to a mud hut where Manaj stopped. The friendly older man and his two sons invited us inside. Stooping to avoid the low overhang of the tattered roof, we sat down on the rope bed that had been leaning against the wall. Trying to avoid exposure to lice or bed bugs, we sat at the very edge of the bed while two shoeboxes were presented for our inspection. They were made from scraps of boards; very similar to other shoeboxes I had seen in Delhi.

“How much is that one?” I pointed to the smaller of the two boxes, which had six bottles of color, the dry powdered pigment used to blend the proper shade of polish.

“Five hundred Rupees,” the old man said ($20).

“Let’s get out of here! They are trying to rob us,” I whispered loudly to Ken.

We rose and left quickly, hurrying down the path on the slick stones that allowed us to stay out of the sewage that ran between the huts along the pathway. The two sons hurried after us waving the shoeboxes and pleading with us to make an offer. When we finally made it to the waiting three-wheeler, I offered two hundred Rupees. They tried to hand me the shoebox, but the six bottles of color were missing.

“Where are the colors?” I demanded.

We waited while a trip was made to fetch the missing colors, and when they were provided; I counted out two hundred Rupees plus another ten Rupees because they demanded something more for the colors.

We three climbed into the auto and headed back to Manaj’s place of business along the Circus. Manaj was smiling and told us that we were smart to offer a lower price. “I will work hard today and tomorrow, and I will pay back 100 Rupees,” he said.

“You do not need to pay us anything,” Ken replied. “You help some other boy to get a shoe box.”

“Yes! I will help another boy. It makes me feel good to help someone,” Manaj answered with bright eyes.

Ken and I were glowing with that good feeling of lifting up Christ in a dark world. We had done a good work for a helpless young shoeshine boy. When Manaj got down where we had met him, he received with quiet dignity the 50 Rupee note that Ken handed him as a parting gift, telling him to buy some good food for himself and his mother. Then we proceeded to the Hotel Marina to finish our work on a report of our activities of the past week. Both of us were burdened with thoughts of Manaj and what his future might be on the mean streets of Delhi.

Ken and I discussed our impression of Manaj, his brightness, his use of English, his desire to work, and his interest in Jesus.

“What about arranging for him to stay at the children’s home at Bikkavol?” Ken asked. We both had been very favorably impressed with the work at Bikkavol in East Godavari, where M. Samuel Raju operated a preacher training school and orphan care center with the help of Christians in Germany and the USA. Manaj could get a good education there, and learn a skill other than shoe shining, and escape from the degradation of life in the streets of Delhi. We hoped that he might become an evangelist, with his brightness and love for Jesus.

“Tomorrow morning, let’s look up Manaj and talk to him about the possibilities. We would need to talk to his mother and see if she is agreeable,” Ken suggested.  “Also I want to buy him some clothes, since he has only those he is wearing.”

Next morning we walked around Connaught Circus to the location where we had found Manaj. As we approached, we saw Manaj standing near four people who were talking together.

“There he is!” Ken pointed to Manaj who was standing by the iron rail as we approached. Why was he so hesitant about greeting us? He came slowly forward to meet us. The enthusiasm of the previous day had disappeared, and a strange reluctance had taken its place.

“Shoe shine?” he said in a small voice.

“Where is your shoe shine box?” I asked, seeing the same dirty cloth bag clutched in his hand. “How much did you get for it?” I asked, assuming that he had sold it for money.

“Oh, no Sir!” he stammered, “I sent it out for painting.”

Ken and I looked at each other knowingly. We turned and walked away. We never remembered seeing a painted shoebox. They were all made of unpainted wood. Why had Manaj been so hesitant to greet us? Our thoughts went back over the events of the previous day. Who was the young man with Manaj who had offered to go with us to purchase the shoebox? He said he operated the business across from where Manaj was standing. Was he Manaj’s manager? Often shoeshine boys are the ones who solicit illegal money exchange, drugs, and prostitution. We had hoped to rescue Manaj from such a life. Apparently he was already in too deep. We realized we had been conned.

“If you are going to be conned, at least it is a change to be conned by someone who is really good at it,” Ken offered.

“Manaj has no idea what his deception cost him” I mused as we walked back to the Marina Hotel.

Seven years later Ken and I found ourselves in Delhi again with a few hours to spare. We decided to go down to the Connaught Circus and see if we could find Manaj. The story still haunted us after many years, and we wondered what had become of him. We wanted to share our story about what we had planned for him, and what he had missed by his deception, and try again to talk to him about Jesus.

We got a taxi and directed him to the Connaught Circus. Ken upbraided me because we did not bargain with the driver before we got in the cab.

“We will pay him what the fare card shows, according to the meter”, I replied.

We had him drive us around the Circus until we saw a place that looked familiar to us. We asked him to stop. He pulled over against the iron railing in an area where there was no opening from the street to the sidewalk. Actually it was a fence of metal pipes about waist high. We got out and asked what the fare would be.

“Two hundred Rupees!” he replied.

I knew that the short trip should have only been about one hundred Rupees, and I realized that he was robbing us because of our white skin. I offered him one hundred Rupees, and he began to argue with us loudly. A crowd of young men gathered, watching as the confrontation unfolded. Suddenly a young man dressed in fashionable clothes jumped the fence and took our side with the driver. We settled on one hundred fifty Rupees, and the driver went on his way. Our new found friend offered to show us around town.

“We are going to the government handicraft emporium,” I informed him.

“Let me show you the way,” he volunteered.

“We know the way,” I replied.

Persistently he walked along with us, and Ken and I both knew that he was trying to get his hooks into some tourists. We marveled at the operation with the taxi driver. Most tourists would have been reeled in by that clever maneuver. But we had been in India many times and suffered many deceptions. We saw through this one right away.

We began to discuss religion. “What is your religious faith?” I asked.

“All religion is the same,” he responded. “You go to a Muslim, Christian, or Hindu temple, and they are always asking money. Religion is a way for some people to get money from the poor.”

It is true that all famous religious shrines in India have stalls where various items are sold to the visitors. Even the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is no exception. Many people all over the world use religion as a way to get money.

“We follow Jesus Christ,” I responded. “He teaches that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Instead of collecting money from people, we teach them about Jesus and try to help them with their problems.”

“Seven years ago we met a shoe shine boy named Manaj in this area. He would be about eighteen now. Do you know him?” I asked our newfound friend.

“Are you the ones who bought the shoeshine box for him?” he asked.

Ken and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Yes, we are the ones,” I said, “And we would like to see Manaj again.”

“I will tell him you are looking for him,” he replied.

“We will be walking around the Circus and will come back through here after one hour. Tell him we would like to talk to him.”

One hour later, as we were walking through the area, a middle aged, heavily built man dressed in plain clothes approached us an asked us if we were looking for Manaj. Then he told us that it was very dangerous for us to be making such inquiries. He represented himself as a police inspector, but he offered no identification. We left without ever seeing Manaj.

How could we possibly have encountered someone who would ask us if we were the ones who bought a shoeshine box for Manaj seven years before? Did he sell a shoeshine box to every tourist who came through Delhi? Or were we the only ones who were stubborn enough to go and buy the box because we did not want to hand over two hundred fifty Rupees to a con man? Often we have opportunities to reach certain people at critical times in their lives. God is able to arrange such things. But we often do not know what we are doing. It is important to see each person as a potential child of God, and to accept every opportunity to teach about Jesus. God is responsible for the harvest.