Wednesday, May 5, 2004

A Letter from India - May 5, 2004

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, it’s my brother, Devin, who’s here now. This still does not mean the whole family has been here: Patrick and Lisa hold good jobs and have no intention of visiting in my final week in India. Yep, this is my final week. It’s unbelievable to me that I’ll be back in the US so soon. India is not a place one just stops being in. Nor is it a place anyone can really see in a lifetime, certainly not in 10 months.

In my last letter I promised to share a bit about the trip to West Bengal that my sister, Christina, and I went on.

Indias spring festival of love, excitement, childhood and cheer is called Holi. Its celebrated by evening fires and daytime color. It happened that Christina and my trip coincided with Holi.

She told me her name was Nayna in the limited English the Sisters taught her. The purse probably communicated my lack of intention to stay, though I didnt want to send such a message. It fell from my shoulder as I attempted to teach her patty cake. Her legs tucked under her, she sat on her bed ladylike with eyes brightly looking up into mine. I wondered if I saw hope in their glow, or if it was just my own need for reassurance. Her toes poked out, round and shiny, beneath her dress. Her bony palms slapped my own, while her fingers, cold and swollen with blue nails, hit my wrists. Shes dainty, enchanting in her smile, four years old and dying. She lives at the Sisters of Charitys Orphanage in Durgapur about 160 kilometers north of Kolkata1.

Naynas room is poorly lit, filled with child-sized hospital beds whose railings raise and lower to ease a caregivers task. Four beds are pushed together in an effort to conserve space. The other three children appeared to be boys, but thats because their heads are shaven. They each lay in a bed, unable to sit up. Christina took interest in one in particular. His arms bent stiffly and collapsed towards his chest accentuating his handicap. Sister told Christina that he has cerebral palsy. His mouth was open in effort and expectation as if about to speak his first words. No word would be spoken. His expression is one of excitement at Christinas attention.

Already, a week before Holi, pink powder had been thrown at Christina and me through a bus window. Knowing it was all in good fun but without color to return the assault we could only duck from the pink dust.

Without really planning it, but lead by our common interests, Christina and I found ourselves on an expedition to organizations and agencies that work to address needs here in India. Christina, who works with the LArche Community (a community of intellectually handicapped people and their caregivers) in Erie, PA, wanted to visit a sister community called Asha Nikitan in Kolkata. My scholarship here in India is through Rotary International, so I was interested to learn of Rotary Projects in the area. Rotary Clubs are all over India. As a Rotary Scholar I have the wonderful luck of being welcomed about anywhere. Amitabha (Amit) Bajpayee is the contact Rotarian I had in the area. Thanks to him we were hosted all along our travels.

The powder is the mildest of the fun. Come Holi Morning, syringe type water shooters and buckets filled with colored water are aimed at every moving target.

Amit belongs to the Rotary Club in Durgapur. He brought us to the Missionaries of Charity Orphanage where Nayna lives. The next day he brought us to the Speech and Hearing Action Society. SAHAS was begun by Mr. and Mrs. Jajodia whose son was born deaf and were told that in India deafness would mean he was also destined to be without speech. The Jajodias were fortunate enough to go to Los Angeles (John Tracey Clinic) where they were trained to teach their child to communicate with the 2% hearing he still had. Today, their son is 16, still deaf, but fluent in both Bengali and English. In addition, through the founding of SAHAS, there are 80+ children whose parents might not have been so fortunate as to go to Los Angeles, but who are learning to communicate in spite their being deaf.

Two little boys, one 4, the other 3, in royal blue shirts and clean faces ran in circles through the doorways that connect the three rooms making up SAHASs building. Our serious conversation of the continuing needs of the Center including a larger building was repeatedly interrupted by happy shrieks from the boys. I wanted a picture, I thought of just their ordinary play. But the boys parents wouldnt let it be. Pictures are too rare to be wasted on candid play. Each boy stood still for a moment, the small cords of the hearing aids tucked under their collars. They looked at the box between our faces then blinked, startled by the flash. The second boy reached for the camera. Timid that it might flash in his eye again, he cautiously turned it around in his hand and then attempted to look through it himself. I turned it away from his face and lightly tapped the button showing how to make the flash. In an instant he made it flash taking an up-close picture of me.

Holi is a festival to pretend we dont know any better. Children assault their elders with pink water then tackle their wet hair with yellow dust. Wives take the opportunity to pour purple water over their husbands and husbands smear pasty undiluted die in their hands and rub it all over their wives faces. No person, car, dog or even cow gets away without color.

Of the projects wed come to Durgapur to see, I was most interested in learning about a school that the Rotary Club of Durgapur was running themselves. I had read a bit about it, learning that it rested in an area on the boarder of two districts, each of which believed the village belonged to the other. For this reason neither district took on running the school. Before the Durgapur Rotary built a school, the local people wanted their children to receive an education. They were holding school in the shade of a tree in the hopes of bringing it to the governments attention.

On our day to visit the school the classes were extended into the late afternoon in order for the children to meet us. The homes around were thatched but the school was brick with four classrooms and three walled pits outback serving as toilets. The school was very poor, cracked blackboards hung on each room wall and insect infested bamboo served as beams. Damage from last years monsoon caused the roof of heavy tiles to sag. The children were shy, not accustomed to visitors. Their eyes raised inquisitively while their chins obediently cast themselves down. A few had been taught English rhymes, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They proudly recited their rhyme and sat as quickly as they had stood.

Once the children were dismissed, a strong thin father carrying his even thinner four or five year old son arrived. The school building was converted into a simple health clinic. Once a week, a doctor comes from the city to address the health needs of the families in the village. The boy had cerebral palsy, we were told. The doctor explained to us in English the simple (and economical) uses of homeopathic medicines. In the dusty heat, the child clung to his father, trusting his loving efforts would carry him to what good there is to be done.

In Kolkata, the Asha Niketan house had a huge terraced roof, perfect for Holi celebration. There was great excitement in the air as everyone donned their oldest outfit expecting its colorful retirement. We climbed the stairs, some more capable then others. A few bounded up taking the steps two at a time. Others held back, apprehensive to see what the day held. The youngest of the community, Bidhan2, only 10 years old, had the most severe physical disabilities. He could walk only short distances; his legs bent weakly attempting to balance his upper body which was a perpetually in moving "S" shape. Now he clung to the railing, pulling himself up in jolted movement. Christina, who is more instinctively generous than I, quickly knew to lift him slightly, taking some of the weight off his legs allowing him to lift one to the next step. The intimacy and trust was immediate.

Once all of us were on the roof the colors came out. Buckets of purple water were poured on one another. Then yellow and pink dust was smeared on one anothers face, hair and clothes. A puddle of purple formed on the cement rooftop. We cupped the water from the puddle in our hands and threw it at each other again. A short wrestling match took place in the puddle. Bidhan, clinging to the rail of the porch, smiled in the sunlight, unable to throw water himself but covered with color all the same. After the wrestlers relaxed, with the help of others, Bidhan made his way to the purple pool on the ground. Lying on his stomach, he allowed his hands and arms to swim in the water, the air and happiness. Theres bliss.

I fly back to the US on 12 May. Devin will say a couple more weeks and visit Pakistan. Incidentally, when Devin went to the Pakistan Conciliate here in India there were at least three times the number of people applying for visas then there were eight months ago when I stood in that line. The India/Pakistan relations have been improving daily since the ceasefire on Eid, last November.

I look forward to seeing so many of you again. Thank you so very much for all the support you’ve shown in the past 10 months (and before too!). I thank God every time I think of having come here. I wouldn’t have taken the risk of it weren’t for family and friends who supported, believed in and prayed for me. Thank you.

There is no fitting way to stop living in India, nor is there a fitting way to stop writing about it. I don’t say it lives on in me, but that it simply lives on, to be watched, participated in, worried about, born to, threatened by and loved. To have had moments of my life lived here has been an honor and, I hope, an act of peace.

peace and love,


* The Speech and Hearing Action Society is looking for information, diagnostic equipment, hearing aids and other needs for children born deaf. Any connection of techniques or technology would be used well in Durgapur. Please contact me if you have any information that could help children born deaf in India.

1 Calcuttas name was changed to Kolkata in 2000

2 Name changed for reasons of …Molly’s forgetfulness about names