Many of you who have followed my trips to India throughout the years and/or read my book, know about Santosh. The first child I sponsored at the orphanage, who I first met on my initial trip there in March 2005. Then 11-years-old, I thought Santosh was too shy of my attention, and that I would have little interaction with him during the week. That first night, when Papa Sahoo (who runs the home) called him out to meet his sponsor, he was very wooden and shy, and quickly ran off.
But moments later he was back, with a Texas cap that my friend and co-sponsor Craig had sent him. Throughout that first trip Santosh was often at my side, to my surprise. In the several years and trips back to the children’s home after that, I realized the impact it makes to these children to be sought out – to be remembered, to be made to feel special and loved. Not in general, but specifically – because they are the individual child they are. Just like our own children or loved ones. To know that they are somebody to someone. That they matter.
Then, after a few years, suddenly Santosh was gone from the orphanage. When he was about 15, his father removed him from the home and sent him to live (and work) with a guardian a couple of hours south in Konark. I am guessing at the time, that Santosh figured I was history. He would never see me again.
But he didn’t realize just how stubborn I was. Or just how special he was.
I bugged Papa for details of where Santosh was, exactly. Craig, his co-sponsor, went to find him in Konark that first time. On my next trip to India, I also went to Konark and found Santosh. Fortunately his guardian, Pravat, is a good and caring man who took Santosh into his home and family. That was five years ago, and since that time I have visited Santosh just as I do the home in Choudwar where he once lived – and where 115 other orphans still live. In fact, all these years since Santosh left the home, I have also brought him up to Choudwar to visit his friends there again and to spend time with me and my family/ volunteer group while we are there. On the trips to India he would smile and laugh with us, join us at dinner and even staying in our hotel with us, holding my hand as we walked the streets of India – Santosh always on the street side to protect me from danger.
In the last few years, the beauty of technology made our communication even easier: Santosh was on email, and Facebook, and Skype! The world between Texas and India shrunk just a little bit, and Santosh and I were still in each other’s lives.
No, Santosh, you were never forgotten.
But then, early this year in 2014, something happened. Exactly what I am still not sure of, but Santosh had some sort of problem. He was attacked and robbed, I believe, and he lost both money and his mobile phone which was his link to communications and the online world. Suddenly, I stopped hearing from him. He didn’t return my messages; his mobile number was disconnected; he disappeared from Facebook and Skype.
I worried, as any mother would.
I sent messages to his guardian, Pravat, and his friends Kshetra and Mithun who are also in Facebook. They gave me small pieces of information but still, no direct word from Santosh. I was anxious to get back to India in person this fall, to see Santosh in person and re-establish contact. To find out what was going on. To let him know that Mom still cared what happened to him.
Two days after I landed in India, I was in a car going to Konark where Santosh lives and works. After not having spoken to him or heard from him in months. I pulled up to the market where he works in the family store, and Pravat brought him out to meet me. Santosh was wooden, as he was on the first night I had met him nearly a decade before as a child. He wouldn’t meet my eyes or return my hug. I explained to both of them, with Pravat translating some of what Santosh’s limited English might not grasp.
“Santosh, I have been so worried about you. All these months I have thought of you every day and hoped you were all right. I wanted to hear from you. I came here to see you, the very first thing. Before I went to the home in Choudwar or saw Papa and the other kids. Coming here to see you, to make sure you are all right, was the first thing I did when I got to India. I am your mom, and I love you always.”
Suddenly, Santosh started crying. The boy who is now a young man, a sometimes moody adolescent who was often stoic and rarely showed a lot of emotion. Tears were now streaming down his face and he wiped them away roughly with the back of his hand.
Pravat said, “He thought you had forgotten him.”
My heart felt such a stab. This boy who had lost his mother before he even knew her; whose father took him to the orphanage by the time he was two years old. To lose another parent figure, what must that feel like?
I assured Santosh that I had NEVER forgotten him. Not for one day, one moment. And that I never would.
Finally, a smile. Smiles and hand holding and laughter all day. I went with Pravat and Santosh to their home, where I spent the day with their family and ate lunch with them.
A few days later, after the rest of our volunteer group arrived in Choudwar to spend our week at the orphanage with the kids, Santosh came up on the bus and we picked him up. He spent the next several days with our volunteer group, staying at the hotel with us and going to the children’s home with us and generally having a great time. There was a lot of smiling and love, even dancing and singing.
Santosh was back. For anyone who ever wonders why we do this – why we go back, over and over and over – this is why. All you ever need to know to answer that question is in this story.
And I believe, now, Santosh knows for certain, that he will never be forgotten. That he is part of our family, and always will be. Not because he was an orphan, or a kid at the home that I sponsored. Not because I feel obligated, or sorry for him, or have to. But because he is HIM, Santosh, and I – we all – love him for the special, unique person that he is.