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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
As the New Year dawned on 2004 I was living in Austin, Texas, freelancing and trying to single-handedly shepherd a thirteen-year-old daughter through her teenage years unscathed. I felt slightly adrift after recently leaving Dallas, a relationship and a full-time real estate business to craft a life with more meaning. For me this meant going back to school, embracing my first passion of writing instead of the career I had haphazardly fallen into, and engaging myself more deeply with social and political issues of importance to me.
I had always been involved in children’s rights and nonprofit work with youth – mentoring at-risk teen girls, volunteering with Child Protective Services, and standing up for children as a court-appointed advocate when they had been removed from parents due to abuse or neglect. This interest had been sparked in me early, when my mother became a foster parent for a home for unwed mothers. More than fifty babies lived with us over the years on their journeys to adoptive parents, and in 1984 my parents adopted my youngest sister just as I was graduating from high school.
One day in early 2004 I was paging through a local lifestyle magazine, Tribeza, when an article grabbed my attention. It told the story of Caroline Boudreaux, who had visited India three years earlier and happened upon a home full of parentless children living in incomprehensible conditions. That night a toddler named Sibani walked over and laid her head on Caroline’s knee. Caroline picked her up and rocked her to sleep, singing a lullaby as Sibani pressed her small body into Caroline. When Sibani was asleep Caroline carried her to bed, but what she found chilled her. The room was filled with thirty wooden frameworks that looked like picnic tables; no mattresses, no pillows, no blankets. The couple who ran the orphanage constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for the children they had taken in, children who had nowhere else to turn. Caroline had to put the sleeping baby down on the hard slat that served as her crib, hearing her bones clack against the wood.
The moment she returned to the United States, Caroline left her career in television advertising behind and started a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the children in the home, in spite of having no idea what she was doing or how to do it. She simply knew she had to do something. Next to the article was a full-page photograph of Caroline Boudreaux holding a picture of the little girl, Sibani, who had so altered her life’s path.
I wondered what could be so powerful about these kids that would cause a person to completely turn her life upside down. And what kind of a woman does that? A woman that I wanted to know, I decided. That afternoon I sent an email to Caroline, telling her I’d like to know more about the work she was doing and if there was a way I could help. She replied the next day, and the following week I was sitting in her living room with a handful of other supporters.
“Hey, girl! It’s good to meet you, thanks for coming,” Caroline welcomed me in an easy, friendly manner with her Louisiana Cajun drawl and infectious laugh. She offered pizza and wine, brushing back rebellious pieces of her curly dark hair that escaped from the barrette attempting to tame it. As she spoke to the small group about the children and her fledgling organizations’ needs, Caroline’s eyes were serious and the strength and passion of her dedication evident.
I walked away from that evening committed to redesigning and producing The Miracle Foundation’s newsletter and volunteering at the next fundraising event – and, for the first time in my life, with thoughts of India in my head.
* * *
One Year Later – March 2005
The plane from Delhi started its final descent for landing and my heart began to race. After thirty-six hours of travel this was the last leg of the journey bringing me and ten other volunteers to Bhubaneswar, capital of the northeastern state of Orissa located four hundred kilometers south of Calcutta, where the Miracle Foundation orphanage director, Damodar Sahoo, would meet us. As the plane touched down my stomach tightened while I waited impatiently for the exit doors to open. Eleven dazed Americans emerged into the piercing sunlight and walked across the tarmac to the small terminal. Caroline was immediately spotted by Mr. Sahoo – the man known to all simply as “Papa.” In his white Punjabi suit that looked a bit like pajamas he was just as the pictures I’d seen of him, only bigger. A large man, not fat but substantial, Papa swept Caroline into his arms for a hug across the metal bars separating the passengers in baggage claim from those waiting for them. He lifted his large, thick 1980s style glasses from the bridge of his nose and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief.
It was then that I saw he had an entourage. Behind him were his wife, two women staff members, and three girls from the home. They broke into huge smiles, waving excitedly and calling “Sister Caroline!” Caroline greeted and hugged them all while the rest of us gathered our luggage, our energy suddenly replenished. As we each showed our passport and exited the gate, the girls handed us bouquets of marigolds and red roses, then kissed their fingers and bent down to touch our feet in blessing. The oldest girl, Jhillismita – nicknamed Jilly – was about fourteen and wore a brilliant blue salwar kameez, the casual Indian outfit that many girls of adolescence and older wear, comprised of a long top over matching pants and a scarf. The two younger girls, Pinky and Meena, were around seven years old and dressed in simple cotton floral schoolgirl dresses, with headbands holding back their short glossy hair. They were bashful with us, dropping their heads and giggling together when we tried to take photos with them.
Our group made its way outside as everyone else in the small airport stared after us. Two jeep-like vehicles were brought around for all eighteen of us and our piles of luggage. Long moments of delay followed while Papa and the drivers held a frenzied discussion. I stood by with the other volunteers pretending not to notice the passersby pointing us out to each other. I wasn’t sure what the waiting and confusion were about, but after only a few hours and two airports was beginning to understand they accompanied most everything in India. At last our luggage was crammed into one car and tied to the roof of another and everyone piled in. We zoomed away from the airport, narrowly missing bicycles, pedestrians, cows and mopeds. Our driver, like all the others around him, merely laid on his horn continuously – presumably to warn those in his path that it would be their fault if they were struck, having been given adequate warning.
As we entered the city, the cacophony of sights and sounds that was Bhubaneswar was jarring after the peaceful countryside I had gazed down on from the airplane. From the air the beauty of the place was unmistakable. Lush trees and hillsides, stands of palms along lakes and rivers. The green was a richer shade than I’d ever seen before, the water a serene silver mirror reflecting sky, the pure undeveloped land seemingly endless. Now, in the midst of it, 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. 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.
Leaving Bhubaneswar we drove another twenty minutes before reaching the smaller city of Cuttack, near the orphanage. We stopped briefly at the hotel to check in and leave our bags before continuing on our way to Papa’s ashram. Another careening ride down the bumping roads and a drive across a curious toll bridge on which there was much exchange of words and then money, more waiting, until the gate was finally hand lifted by a guard. Night was falling as we lurched along and then, without warning, turned in through the gates.
In a second, the cars stopped where rows of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” over and over. I climbed out and they were all around, touching my feet in blessing. Overwhelmed and unsure what to do, I blindly followed behind Papa and Caroline amidst the sea of small bodies. The children were shy at first, excited but reticent. One little girl of about seven summoned her courage and touched my arm, then took my hand.
“Hello,” she said softly, looking up briefly before her eyes slid away from their contact with mine. As soon as she did this, the surrounding children shed their reserve and moved in close, putting their hands out for me to shake. I did, over and over; there was a never-ending supply of hands raised in front of me.
“Hello, hello,” I greeted dozens of children who passed as a blur before me, the throng of us slowly making our way into the ashram. Everything seemed to be happening so quickly, I didn’t have time to look around, to see the new wing The Miracle Foundation built or get any sense of where I was in the darkness. There were just the children, all around, and my feet moving forward until we came to a courtyard. As one the kids left our sides and began climbing a staircase in an orderly fashion. We followed with the dozen or so staff, removing our shoes at the top of the stairs and entering the prayer room.
The children were already lined up and sitting on rugs on the floor, boys on one side and girls on the other, ages progressively going up toward the back with older kids sitting behind younger. Ceiling fans whirred overhead to stir up the warm air. We were escorted to the front of the room where we, too, sat cross-legged – male volunteers on the boys’ side and female volunteers on the girls’. At the front of the room was an altar holding flowers, small trinkets of devotion, a picture of the guru Sai Baba and a statue of Vishnu, an ancient Hindu god. Tacked to the walls on all sides were pictures of other Hindu gods – Ganesh and Krishna – as well as Jesus, Mary, Mother Theresa and Mohammed. A staff member lit incense at the altar while another blew a horn softly. The children sat up straighter and ceased any fidgeting or whispering.
Papa walked to his brand-new podium and microphone, a contraption he was clearly proud of, and began to speak. Alternating between English and Oriya, the local dialect, he welcomed Caroline as his “daughter” and the volunteers as friends, introducing us one at a time. When Papa called my name a girl I later learned was Sibani presented me with another bouquet and bent down to touch my feet.
Then the prayers began. It started with a simple chant: “Om….om..,” the small voices resonating deeply. Finally things slowed down enough for me to begin to take it all in, to look at the kids clearly and in light, to start to feel my heart calm. The chanting gave way to a song, a hundred sweet voices dancing in the air and filling the room. Beside me on the rug sat one of the smallest girls, with glossy black curls and deep dimples. She was sitting lotus-style with her middle fingers and thumbs pressed together on the knees of her yellow and green flowered dress, eyes squinted tightly shut in concentration. Her strong, clear singing distinctly carried to my ears apart from the others. The voice of this three-year-old rising so pure and true was one of the most powerful sounds I had ever heard.
Soon the singing faded into silence and Papa prayed. He said there were many religions represented and respected in the ashram. “Here, there are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. We pray,” Papa said, “to God and Allah and Jesus and Mohammed. The meaning of life is to love all. The purpose of life is to serve all.”
It was a simple prayer, reminding me that life need not be complicated unless we made it so. A soothing peace palpable in the air filled me, and I breathed out deeply. The past forty hours of travel and little sleep fell away as if they were nothing. There seemed no other world outside this place. As Papa spoke my eyes traveled over the faces all around me. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. As much of a loving community as the ashram seemed, it was not the family that most of the children had once known, distant and ghostly memories for the most part.
Home is a fragile concept – far more delicate than those of us who have always had one can imagine. When a person no longer has a home, when his family is taken from him and he is deprived of everything that was familiar, then after a while wherever he is becomes home. Slowly, the pieces of memory fade, until this strange new place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day he realizes he is home.
The stories that were shared with me do not belong to me. They were given to me as a gift, often because I was the only person who had ever asked.