There are those among us, who have more than what we need, yet we complain that we have no money, or not enough clothes, or even time.
The words, “I’m starving,” so easily spill out of our mouths, because it’s already been 4 hours since our last meal, yet we know not what it means to actually be starving.

We tune into Shivani, in particular, an innocent child, existing in worse conditions than can be defined, who’s “money” comes in the form of simple biscuits.

This tale recounts how two men travel to India for the first time, and experience absolute poverty to the nth degree. The type of poverty which cannot even be fully told by the pictures or films they eventually capture. However, along their journey, Shivani is put on their path, she who shows light through her eyes, and that perhaps it’s WE, with much “stuff,” who live in poverty.

It was almost 2 years ago, back in the winter of 2012, weeks before Christmas, when a couple of tired looking Slovak travellers, showed up in Varanasi, accompanied by Raju and Dada, their gracious guides.

They’d been in “The Holy Land,” India, for two weeks and it was on this particular morning, Richard saw, in his mind’s eye, a mother and a daughter, so the bunch, including Pavol, his right hand, were on a mission to find the perfect pair.

It was along the banks of the Ganges River where they came across bare-foot, six year old “Shivani,” who was like a single stitch of a small quilt, where twenty odd, other tents were sewn together, to make up “Tent Town.”

The plastic tents comprised of what looked like tarpaulin, a heavy duty, water resistant material, typically used for camping, were “home,” and this little quilt of tents sat on a very precarious site. When the tide would come in, all the inhabitants would pack up their tents and move over to the large concrete casings, until the tide went down again.

[Rather peculiar, isn’t it, why they wouldn’t just stay in the concrete casings, avoiding the inconvenience of having to move back and forth..? Though who are we to comment on making life easier for these folks…?]

Our dear Shivani was cast for the photo shoot, but her mother was nowhere to be found, nor would she be, until much later. You see, she was at “work,” like many of her neighbours, asking for money, on the streets.

A replacement was found, from within Tent Town, and upon agreement of the terms- to return the following day for shooting- they departed, but not before delivering a small token of thanks. As Richard, spoke to Shivani, Pavol gestured to him, about the small box of biscuits in his rucksack, that they give them to the child. A quick afterthought that they agreed upon, which seemed no big deal to them, though they would come to learn that up till that point, that may well have been the most precious gift she’s ever received.

The guys returned the next day and Richard captured image after image of Shivani and her “mother,” though he noticed an oddity about the pair…They couldn’t quite act the part of mother and daughter. There was no affection or spark between them, only coldness…

Little had he know, that even if Shivani’s own mother had been in place, likely they would see the very same thing, for despite what “Bollywood,” presents, affection between parents and children (and in particular, daughters), is rare, and not traditionally part of the culture.

In any case, the pictures were captured, everybody was happy, and the job was done.

Richard paid Shivani’s mother, for allowing him to take pictures of her daughter, and also, the “step in” mother.

Something was gravely wrong though, and Richard came to learn, through Raju, that Shivani was upset. She was under the impression that she’d not done a good job, because she didn’t receive any biscuits, though technically, she had been paid, as per a normal photo shoot, but what on earth was money to a child…?

He never thought of it this way, and it touched Richard deeply. It was a humbling lesson for them all, that no amount of money in the world would give that dear child her value or worth, as much as those biscuits had.

With that, Richard had an idea. It’s no coincidence that this had all occurred around on the Day of St. Nicholas, or rather “Svaty Mikulas,” in Slovak. He was said to be a miracle worker whose dharma was to help others, especially the poor and unlucky. He passed away on 06 December, 346AD, the day which he is celebrated, and the date was 05 December!

In Slovakia, as tradition dictates, on the eve of “Svaty Mikulas,” children leave their boots by the front door, to be filled with presents by Mikulas, but only if they’ve been good, and if they’ve been naughty, they only receive a lump of coal!

The following morning, they head back to the tents, and found Shivani, washing dishes in the river. They had a little surprise for her and asked her to get ready, along with her brother also. This would be a “Svaty Mikulas,” like no other, for Richard and Pavol.

Funnily enough, the pair noted rather quickly, that regardless of social conditions, status, age, what have you, a girl will always be a girl! Perhaps thinking it was another photo shoot, Shivani changed outfits several times, tossed her hair this way and that, and finally, after 45 minutes, she was ready!

The fun began for our two Mikulas’, as well as the children, as they went for a joyride into town. If only for a day, Shivani was a princess, and her brother, a prince, whist Richard and Pavol had become their joint St. Nic, or Mikulas.

They started off at a shoe shop and Shivani’s eyes bulged, as she saw all the colours and styles, the shiny this and the sparkly that.

Richard whispered to her that she could pick anything she wanted and for her brother too. Off she went, and he noticed that despite all the different options, she picked the very first pair she laid eyes upon, the white, ballerinas. The dear girl held onto those ballerinas, like they were a newborn child, loving and caressing them.

For the children’s mother, the Sainted pair, bought a couple of blankets, which weren’t easy to acquire as they were being charged ridiculous prices, even though they had Raju and Dadu bartering for them. They hadn’t known that they’d be in this situation, happy as they were to help, so this leaves room for next time. The left the family with the new shoes, blankets and a couple bags of “mathai,” (Indian sweets).

But before parting ways, Richard asked Shivani a few things about herself, and one of the questions was, “what are your dreams?” To which the Little Charmer (one of the meanings of the name “Shivani”), responded, “to stay here and help my mom…”

This is where the story ends for now, though it is a work in progress, and is nowhere closed to finished. 

written by Manj Carthigaser