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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 the moment I arrived to volunteer at a Miracle Foundation orphanage, I found India to be everything I had imagined – only more so. More colors and smells, more noises and people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once. 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.
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. They are what bring me back to India over and over – to volunteer at the orphanage that was home to over a hundred kids. When I arrived for the first time in 2005, I had expected it to be a sad place, an emotionally wrenching experience. But those expectations had been turned on their head. Yes, there are stories behind each of the children – many of them painful and tragic. Stories of death, abandonment, abuse, poverty. They all have a past.
Yet their hope and resilience have amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspire 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 just showing up.
As I sat in the courtyard on my last night with them, I felt everything I loved about the place converge together inside me in that moment.
The smell of the chai, its cardamom and ginger and cinnamon drifting up to my nose, the sound of bare feet slapping against the ground as children ran. The soft breeze that whispered through the trees and caressed my skin while the fading sun bathed everything in an orange and pink light. The colorful painted elephants who seemed to watch over us from their places on the surrounding walls. The vibrant blue and yellow and purple sarees of the house mothers as they passed by and the bangles on their wrists that clinked melodically against each other while they worked. The occasional monkey above us in the trees, or a calf or dog that wandered into the courtyard before being shooed away by the staff. Most of all, the familiar faces around me that made me feel I had come home.
The very existence of these children had forever altered both the person I was and my view of the world. In some ways I felt more familiar to myself here, like I was now the person I had been brought to India to become. I had arrived, that first time two years before, not really knowing what to expect. I had not come to India to change anything about it; instead, the country and its people had 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.
India simply cannot be approached with anything but fully open arms and a willing heart. And it will embrace you in return with an exhilarated spirit, splendor and enchantment, nonstop vitality, amazing people and their daily parade of life – struggles, joys and triumphs – that passes by every moment. I was lucky enough to have been given this incredible treasure by these children and the people of India.
Millions of children in India share a similar story. A life of poverty with no family and little hope. The Miracle Foundation provides these orphans with food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, love, and most of all – hope.
The classic “All Things Austin” website, The Austinist, has just reviewed the new 2011 Revised and Expanded edition of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. Thanks, Austinist! The review is below, or you can read it at The Austinist here. To purchase your copy of the new edition of The Weight of Silence, please click here. It’s available through CreateSpace, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others, and there is a Kindle edition as well!
Not to get all inside baseball on you, but this review of Shelley Seale’s memoir/reportage from her time in India was delayed by an almost tragicomic set of circumstances seemingly destined to keep this book from getting reviewed at all. Throughout it all, Seale was polite but persistent, and after we (finally) had the book in our hands and read it, her dedication to the work came into a wider perspective.
Most books have something of import to communicate to the reader, but this true life account of Seale’s trips to India in the middle and end of the last decade exposed her to not just tremendous poverty, but to its most helpless and legion victims, children, many of whom are also having their years of innocence wiped away by plagues of disease, forced labor and nothing short of sexual slavery.
It’s not an easy subject to broach or to read about, and the introduction itself to The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India is a testament to this difficulty. “There is a holocaust quietly happening among India’s children. The perpetrator is poverty, and its foot soldiers are disease, gender and caste discrimination, unclean water, illiteracy and malnutrition.”
Not exactly beach reading, but Seale has a patient and balanced viewpoint that eases some of the pain inherent in her topics. Furthermore, she’s less interested in a litany of complaints or solutions and is more dedicated to her reporting. As she explains: “Foreigners rarely fully understand the society they think to ‘improve,’ and the potential for imposing their own cultural bias can result in negative consequences for those whose lives they seek to change.”
Seale’s own effort at understanding actually begins through local media, when, in 2004, she was flipping through Tribeza and was inspired by the story former advertising exec turned philanthropist Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation. One year later, Seale and Bodreaux were bound for an orphanage in Cuttack, where we first meet Papa, a caregiver for orphans, and children like the shy Santosh and artistic Sahiful. This is actually the book’s second printing, and in the epilogue we’re given a glimpse of the continued stories of some of the individuals Seale met in her previous visits.
Critiquing a book that essentially hopes to raise awareness of child poverty feels about as useful as complaining about the Jerry Lewis Telethon – what are you supposed to say, that you had hoped it would be funnier? – but that’s our job and we should probably do it. While the book aspires to cut its beyond-sobering statistics with warm stories of Seale interacting with and bonding with children, the juxtaposition is frequent and at times jarring – some critical distance with the individuals she meets and less of a grocery list of factoids and overwhelming social ills would have made the reading more fluid.
That said, it must be noted that the tone of the book is overwhelmingly positive, and, as Boudreaux explains late in the book, the time has never been better to help the helpless. “The time for philanthropy is now…Together let’s put our feet down and stop allowing children to starve.”
When a girl in the developing world receives 7 years or more of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. And when women earn income, they reinvest 90% of it back into their families, compared to only 30-40% for men.
So why are girls so overlooked around the world? Shockingly little has been done to understand these phenomenons, or the economic impact of educating and empowering girls. Many girls around the world are invisible before their feet even hit the ground; millions are not even recorded at birth. To the world, they simply don’t exist.
That needs to be changed.
I met many such girls in my travels through India over the years, and I tell many of their stories in The Weight of Silence. Stories like Sumitra’s, who came to the orphanage in the middle of the night as a starving 9-month-old whose mother had died. But today, Sumitra is receiving wonderful care and education, and her future looks hopeful.
I have seen, first-hand, so many similar stories that showed to me, in person right before my eyes, what monumental changes can be made with just a little bit of care, effort and money. The one thing that amazed me the most, throughout my journey of writing this book, has been the realization that although the need is great, the answer doesn’t have to be complicated or impossible. I have seen incredible things accomplished from humble beginnings. Truly, all it takes is enough people caring enough to do ONE THING, to take ONE ACTION, to perform ONE SMALL PERSONAL MIRACLE.
Will you be that person?
Meet Anita, a beautiful young girl from India who had to go on a hunger strike just to convince her parents to let her go to school rather than get married.
Must so many girls have to struggle so hard, simply to have an education and a better life? This is a question that Anita asks – but I think it’s a question that girls shouldn’t have to ask. It should be the right of all girls.
Today Anita owns her own business, because of her determination and her ability, finally, to go to college. She was also an inspiration to other girls – after she went to school, all the girls in her village went. You can hear her story, in her own words, below:
Anita asks, what does my story mean to you?
I’m one girl who gets to speak to you. But there are 600 million like me who face little chance.
I’m Anita. I’m a girl. And I’m waiting to hear from you.
The girl effect is about girls.
And moms and dads and villages and towns and countries.
Want to be part of the Girl Effect movement?
If you have a blog, you can participate this week, October 4-11, by writing a blog post for Girl Effect. Visit Tara Mohr’s website to sign up and find out how to become a Girl Effect blogger, and click here to see other bloggers and their posts.
If you join as a blogger, I’d love to hear about it! Please post a link to your blog in the comments below. Thanks, and here’s to Girl Power!
Tomorrow morning I board a plane headed for South Asia (first stop: Thailand), and I couldn’t be more excited. My boyfriend, Keith, and I are going to spend more than two months in Asia, including of course India, as well as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. We will arrive in Calcutta, India on October 21, and from there take the train down to Orissa to spend four days with my darling, beautiful children of the Sishu Sadan orphanage outside Cuttack. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen them, and my soul is already rushing out for Daina, Pinky, Salu, Babina, Rashikanta, Rohit and the other kids who stole my heart over five years ago, and started the entire journey of this book.
After that, we will meet up with the Miracle Foundation volunteer group at Sooch Village, to spend a few days with the kids who are living in that wonderful children’s village full of individual cottage homes, a school, and a great lunch-and-learn program for the children in the surrounding village. I will stay on with Caroline Boudreaux for several days after that, at Sooch and at Rourkela, where many familiar faces will greet me such as Amir and Sumitra.
I will certainly be posting from India, and updating you on the children as well as sharing photographs taken during the visit. So please come back to see how they are doing and how much they’ve grown!
Before I go, I also wanted to let you know about some recent exciting happenings with The Weight of Silence. On September 23 I was featured as a return guest on Conversations Live radio show. I appeared on the show last summer, after the book’s release, and host Cyrus Webb invited me to return to discuss the issues of invisible children, and what’s been going on with the book over the last year. It was a great interview, and you can listen here if you’d like! (15 minutes).
A great new review of The Weight of Silence was also published on Luxury Reading. In part the review reads:
Author, Shelley Seale, takes us on an emotional journey, showing us the lives of children living in poverty, toiling as child laborers, and those struck with diseases such as AIDS. In the modern world, children are subconsciously taught to take for granted many basic things. Children in the slums of India truly see some of these basic things as privileges and luxuries. This book is likely to evoke feelings of heartbreak and tears of sadness, but is ultimately one of hope.”
So bon voyage, and the next time you hear from me will be from India.