The Open Arms of India
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.
India was everything I had imagined it would be – only more so. More colors and smells, more noises and people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once. The first time I arrived, in 2005, the cacophony that greeted me was jarring after the peaceful countryside I had gazed down on from the airplane. There seemed no still or quiet space. Instead there were throngs of people everywhere, living and working and sleeping; hundreds of street vendors lined every available inch of sidewalk, while mangy dogs and cows nosed at piles of trash around them.
Rickshaw drivers pedaled through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. The smell of curry and incense hung thick in the air along with soft chanting from nearby temples. The dusty roads peppered with potholes were filled with a constant stream of buses, bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows and rising over it all was the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns. It was the most alive place I had ever been. India is too big to describe adequately, too big perhaps to absorb in a single lifetime. The country simply wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.
There was also what everyone, including myself, expected of India – despair, filth, destitution. All the things that caused some people to question why I would ever want to come; the things that so many visitors to India recoil from. The trash that lined the roads and the beggars that tapped at car windows. The deteriorating buildings, the ragged street hawkers, the shanty village along the river banks. The frantic poverty that would not let me rest.
And even still, there was beauty in the midst of it. The vitality of life teeming all around, the jangling of bangles and ankle bracelets, the colorful saris, the carved temples with swaying trees surrounding it all. The tremendous scale of the monuments, palaces and art from one of the first great civilizations left me stunned, as did the strange way there was a deep-seated peace even in the midst of tumultuous movement and clamor. The wonderful and the abject co-exist side by side. Though the country struggles with the indigence of large numbers of its population, it is far from a poor place.
And in the children this beauty seemed to come alive, almost making me believe it was a living entity I could capture in my hands. I had come to the Miracle Foundation orphanage, that first time, expecting it to be a sad place, an emotionally wrenching experience. But those expectations had been turned on their head. Yes, there were stories behind each of the children – many of them painful and tragic. Stories of death, abandonment, abuse, poverty. They all had a past.
Yet Papa and Caroline and Manjeet, the house mothers and teachers there, had made these kids their own in a community of sharing and acceptance. They were poor in wealth but not in spirit; limited in resources but not in joy and laughter. An interior peace shown from inside them that was unknown – unsought even – by many people rich in resources. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me.
Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give – for nothing more than showing up. The very existence of these children forever altered both the person I was and my view of the world.
In some ways I felt more familiar to myself there, like I was the person I had been brought to India to become. I did not go to India to change anything about it; instead, the country and its people worked a transformational change in me. They had allowed me into the real heart of the place and by doing so spared me from viewing it with the eyes of an outsider.
From that first moment with these children, India was mine – and I had become India’s.