by Shelley Seale
Lurching along the dirt road, I gazed out the window at rural Orissa in northeastern India as the car bounced over potholes, sending plumes of red dust billowing behind it. The small villages we passed were as familiar to me as if I had been there only last week. The shacks that lined the river, their plastic or tar paper roofs held down with rocks. The smell of curry and incense hanging thick in the air. The tiny shops and vendor stalls selling sarees or pots or candies, the mangy dogs and cows nosing at piles of trash, the rickshaw drivers pedaling through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. People seemed to fill every square inch of space. It was exactly as I left it a year ago.
I glanced at my daughter sitting next to me, trying to gauge her feelings. She was looking out the far window with eager eyes. It wasn’t the street life passing by that had Chandler enthralled; although it was her first trip to India we had been traveling in the country for over a week, and she had grown familiar with the scene outside the window. Like me, she was excited to be on our way to the orphanage, at last. The reason we were here in the first place; the reason I brought my fifteen-year-old child halfway around the world. To spend a week with a hundred children at the Miracle Foundation home who had captured my heart the year before. My desire to bring my own daughter to this place, this experience, had led us to this moment.
I turned my head back toward the passing palm and ashoka trees, and the river glittering in the afternoon sun. Questions ricocheted silently inside me. What would the kids look like? Would they have changed? Would they remember me? What would Chandler’s reaction be? Then we were pulling through the gates into the ashram. The large open space in the middle of the compound was empty, no one there to meet us. I realized they weren’t yet expecting us. We climbed out of the car and started up the little pathway that led between buildings to the interior courtyard.
One by one, they began to spy us; I saw little brown faces peeking out around corners and through bushes. Slowly the ashram came to life. Word of our arrival spread and dozens of grinning, jumping children surrounded us on the path and poured into the courtyard. Within seconds I was engulfed by barefoot children grasping for my hands and clambering over each other to smile up at me. Ten feet away, yet separated by twenty bodies bouncing between us, Chandler also stood with several kids holding each hand and more clinging to her arms, her pale skin and long blonde hair almost lost in the sea of them. She knew many of them on sight, familiar with their stories and the pictures that line the walls of our house. The amazement on her face made her look even younger than her fifteen years.
“Hello,” “Welcome,” “Good Evening,” the children greeted us. Small hands reached for me. There was Santosh! And Daina, Mami, Sumi…I picked up the tiny ones like Salu and searched for other faces I hadn’t seen yet. Children ran up to show me small things I had given them the year before - stickers, crayons, hair clips. They displayed these cherished treasures; such simple possessions, so proudly owned and taken care of. They asked for nothing from me other than being there. In many ways they were just like other children with homes and families of their own - except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging.
They had been imprinted on my soul forever.
* * *
I never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.
It wasn’t the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn’t the warmth of the people, their gentle and inquisitive nature, their open hospitality. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness when I left.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. I had no way of knowing just how much they would change my life.
* * *
From my first day in the country, one year before, I had no doubt I would return. From my first day with the kids I knew I would be back. But in the months following that trip I also thought of taking Chandler and what that would mean - for her, for me, and for my new Indian family in Orissa. At dinner in our safe and cozy house I looked at my daughter, not really a child anymore at fifteen but still in need of a mother, a home. Her long blond hair partially hid her face as her thin shoulders bent over her dinner plate, not noticing my gaze on her. I thought about how it would feel to be unable to feed her, how either of us would bear it if I had to let her go because I lacked the bare necessities required to put a roof over her head and a meal in her stomach.
Then I wondered how she would possibly survive if that were the case and she was five instead of fifteen, left by herself on the streets in India or in our hometown of Austin, anywhere. I simply could not imagine it, but I knew many thousands of children were doing just that at the very moment. Chandler already had a broader sense of the world than I had at her age, and a compassionate nature. Although a typical teenager in many ways, she did carry a certain awareness of politics and social justice.
I yearned to foster that seed in her. I thought, what an incredible blessing it would be for a person to grow into adulthood without the blinders, without the sense that the small corner of the world she knew was the only one there was. From a travel and adventure perspective as well as a personal and cultural one, I knew Chandler would be enriched by the experience - and I also knew it was a gift she would not take lightly. And so I returned to India exactly one year after my first trip, in March 2006, with Chandler in tow.
The first day I was worried. She was quiet and withdrawn, overwhelmed by the streets and the noises and the heat, uncomfortable with the staring - especially on our train ride, when the first car we boarded was filled with only men who openly inspected our double blue-eyed blondness with fascination. She recoiled on the railway platform when a dozen taxi and rickshaw drivers besieged us the second we stepped off the train, each hawking their services and pushing and wrestling for our bags. Then she went completely still as two small children, a brother and sister, stood in front of us with their fingers touching their mouths, silently begging. Her eyes grew round and wet, and I was afraid she was going to crumple.
I had tried to prepare her for it - the mass of humanity, the filth and smell of garbage, even the beggars; but it was an impossible task, like describing a painting to a blind person. I remembered well the culture shock of arriving in India for the first time. The complete differentness of it. I was afraid I had made a huge mistake bringing her. That she hated everything about this crazy, chaotic, often maddening country and was wishing she had never come.
But all of that was balanced in equal measure with the splendor of intricately carved temples, the majesty of ancient palaces, the smell of incense and curry that wafted on the warm breezes, carried along by soft chanting and the lyrical sing-song of Hindi conversations. There were the warmth and generosity of the people, like the family we met on the train after clumsily hauling our bags out of the car filled with men and into the next one. Immediately a middle-aged woman made room for us, rearranging her family and belongings so we could sit with them. They offered us blankets and shared their food with us, and soon we had learned all about their family - the son in Los Angeles and the architect daughter, the second home in Goa that they were traveling to.
“You are a visitor in our country,” the matriarch said, “and it is our duty to take care of you.”
That evening in the restaurant where we ate dinner, the fans and night air cooling us, chai and delicious vegetable curry filling our stomachs, Chandler began to perk up. She became talkative again, excitedly recounting our day’s adventures as if she had not walked through them in a state of shock. Just as it had happened to me, India’s spell had grabbed hold of her and refused to let go.
* * *
One week later we finally arrived at the orphanage, where the children poured over us. Ten-year-old Santosh squirmed with embarrassment when I hugged him and kissed his cheek in front of the other boys. Seven-year-old Daina squeezed between others as a chair was pulled up for me, to ensure her place pressed up against my side. She held my hand, her face tilted up to me with her sweet smile.
“Hello, how are you?” I asked as I hugged her against me.
“I am fine, thank you,” she answered politely. “How are you?”
Although she was a little taller, she was wearing the exact same pink dress she’d had on the last time I saw her. Every few moments she picked up my hand and held it to her lips, covering the backs of my fingers in little kisses. Smack, smack, smack against my skin, over and over. Not a day had gone by since the previous March that I hadn’t thought of her, and the other kids; but it wasn’t until I saw them again, felt their presence all around me, that I realized just how much I had missed them.
The initial commotion of our arrival began to subside and chai and cookies were brought. The children circled around and sang for us. When the singing wound down the orphanage director, known to all simply as “Papa,” thanked us for coming. He asked if the children remembered me.
“Yes!” they screamed in unison.
Next he took Chandler’s hand. “Now, Shelley has brought her daughter, just to meet you,” he announced. “She is your sister now.”
Chandler smiled bashfully; she seemed embarrassed at the attention, just like the kids often were. Her chair was surrounded by the groupies she’d already drawn, younger girls like chubby-cheeked sisters Mami and Sumi, who crowded her lap and played with her hair. They pulled it between their fingers and brushed it; braided it over and over, securing it with elastic fasteners before quickly taking them out to refashion the style. The scene made me think of the hairdo Barbie I’d had as a child, the big doll’s head on a plastic tray that came with clips, combs and curlers for styling. Chandler had quickly become these girls’ real-life Barbie head.
Older girls, too, hovered nearby watching, much more interested in this girl their own ages than us adults. But they had outgrown the hand-holding and lap-sitting; by their ages it wasn’t cool to show such enthusiasm and so they stood nonchalantly by, missing nothing.
* * *
We spent the next few days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. As we did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of Chandler when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”
Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the kids wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. When it was time to “put your backside in and shake it all about” they shook for all it was worth and giggled like mad.
After dinner one night the older girls grabbed our hands and led us into their dorm. It was a room of about twenty by twenty feet, with bunk beds lining the walls. Foot lockers were stowed under the bottom beds and shirts hung from rows of pegs. Posters of Ganesh and Shiva covered the walls, along with artwork the girls had created. Haripriya hovered over Chandlers’s arms with a henna tube while Sukru, a quiet older teenager who held her hands in front of her mouth when she smiled, began an intricate design on my left hand. Powders and lipstick and jeweled bindi dots were produced as they went to work on us.
She and the other girls who crowded around asked me curious questions - how many brothers and sisters did I have, how old was I, was I married? Someone turned on a radio and a few girls sprang up to dance, performing MTV-like moves in unison to the Hindi pop music. The teenagers led the pack and formed three chorus-line style rows, performing complex and completely synchronized Bollywood dances. They shook their hips and twirled around, bent down toward the floor and then jumped up with their hands snaking together above their heads in time to the music.
Ultra-shy Mami and Sumi clung tightly to Chandler, occasionally hopping up to mimic the moves from the sidelines. The second they caught one of us looking they giggled and ran off to hide. Tiny Salu stood off to the side, trying to follow the big girls’ movements and dance steps. It was just like a slumber party, with a couple of dozen girls laughing, dancing and playing with makeup.
Soon the boys burst in to see what was going on. A few of the braver ones jumped right in with frenetic energy, glancing over every few minutes to make sure we were watching them. Chandler and I laughed and clapped for the performers, pushing their energy to an even more dynamic pace.
Soon it was like a mosh pit in the room, the middle of the floor between the bunks packed with bodies, laughter and screaming and music drowning out everything else. All we were missing was a strobe light. In the middle of all this, I caught sight of a house mother walking in at the far end of the room. She stood for a moment watching the disruption we had encouraged, lips pressed together and her brow knotted in consternation. Then she shook her head and just turned and walked back out without a word. Much as she disapproved, she would still rather pretend she didn’t see anything than break up the fun.
* * *
By the end of the week the daily prayer time was held outside due to the heat; the prayer room had become a stifling oven. On our last night I looked around at the clear, innocent faces and memorized them, already feeling the absence of these children who had taken up permanent residence in my heart. Whatever I might be leaving behind seemed such a small thing, almost selfish, because the return I had gotten was far greater. Here I was always awash in an outpouring of the innocent, true, powerful love they gave so easily and unconditionally, for nothing more than showing up. They broke my heart and made it whole again all at the same time.
The last song faded into the night sky and a silence descended. At Papa’s prompting, one by one each child stood up to say “thank you,” before running off. I watched each of them in turn, preparing myself to miss them again. The row of exiting children arrived at Salu, as Mami jumped up from her place in front of Salu.
“Thank you!” Mami giggled and darted off. But Salu didn’t stand up. She had fallen asleep, sitting there cross-legged on the rug, during prayer. The girl behind Salu nudged her and with half-closed eyes she pushed herself up, groggily stumbling away.
At the car, taking our leave for the last time, the children were all over us. I worked my way through the crush to Papa to bid him goodbye also. Some of the most reserved kids, those who had been reluctant to demand our attention, for the first time threw their arms around us and kissed our cheeks, told us they loved us. I squeezed Santosh and Daina in tight hugs, reminding them to study hard. I promised them once again that I would be back.
Salu, one of Chandler’s most devoted fans, stood silently in front of her. Offering up a bouquet of flowers tightly in her small fist Salu’s eyes were cast downward, her always impish smile a flat line, too sad to look up at Chandler. Salu’s dejection was too much for my daughter, who started to cry. I hurried to get her and myself to the vehicle before the send-off became too unbearable. I shuttled Chandler into the car and we sat in the back seat, not looking at each other as she clutched Salu’s flowers.
Throughout the following hours of travel Chandler wept intermittently. “I don’t want to go home,” she sobbed that night in the hotel. In the security line at the Delhi airport the next day tears slowly leaked from her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She cried silently on the plane as it lifted off Indian soil and left it behind, carrying us back home again. India had become hers, and she India’s.