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The Essentials of Being

India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever.

You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time.

This was written by Linda Karl on her blog, Linda’s Yoga Journey. I love it, because it makes me smile with humor and wistfulness at the same time; and because the comparison is oh, so true. I have been thinking a lot about what it is that draws so many people to India – often the same things that repulse others. I can only answer that for myself.

India’s rawness of life strips away the unnecessary – distractions, superficial attachments, trivial worries. Without this safety net life becomes fundamental, only the essentials of being, and causes you to be fully present in your own existence. You become lost, in order to find. Revealed are not only the blemishes and horrors of the country that might be recoiled from – abject poverty, child beggars, humans sleeping in the street like animals – but also revealed are the blemishes within ourselves, stains on our own souls. At home, these things are hidden neatly away as much as it is possible to do so.

But in India, everything is in full view; nothing is hidden. If I am repulsed without feeling compassion, my character is lessened; if I am aghast without recognizing the inequitable and appalling facets of my own culture, it is a reflection of my own true self; if I run away because it is selfishly easier than facing reality, it leaves a gaping hole in my connection to the human condition, that cloth of which we are all a part.

India shows us where our suffering lies, and in this way becomes more than anything else a teacher, if only we are open to learn from her.


In other news, the wonderful blog Surface Earth made a very nice posting about my site, as well as some other inspiring stories of people of change and hope around the world. I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out:

How to Get 100 Million Children in India Reading

“Santosh is one of the boys.”

I looked at Papa in surprise. Shortly before leaving India, he and Caroline and I sat under the shade of the mango tree while he related to us the difficulties he was having with some of the adolescent boys. A group of them were going off to classes in the morning, but then sneaking back into the ashram shortly thereafter to play or nap. It had been occurring on a fairly regular basis, exasperating both Papa and the staff.

“Santosh?” I questioned. “He’s been skipping school?”

“Hai, yes,” Papa said. “I don’t know what to do. We don’t have enough people to watch every child every minute. I tell them they must get their education…” He trailed off, raising his hands in a gesture of defeat.

I glanced at Caroline. Part of me wanted to laugh a little, at the image of this small band of renegade boys pulling a Huckleberry Finn to have a good time. But of course I did not want to make light of the problem, and was well aware of the importance of an education for all these kids. Their futures had been compromised enough with the odds they already had stacked against them: abandonment or orphanhood, poverty, caste. Without a good education the future grew much bleaker. It was their ticket out.

“Do you think I should talk to Santosh?” I asked both Caroline and Papa.

Papa nodded his head vigorously. “I have talked, and still they are doing this. He will listen to you.”

I had halfway hoped Papa would decline my offer. Until then I had been the fun aunt who only had to play games and have a good time and bring treats. But it was a long-term relationship I had embarked on, not only with Santosh and Daina but with all the children, and Papa as well. I knew that going into it, and now the time had come for the aspect of the adult/guardian role that was not so fun – the arm of discipline. I was going to have to be the bad guy.

Later that day there was a lull in the activities and I pulled Santosh aside for a quiet moment. His English had improved but was still limited, so I needed to make sure he understood. “How is school?” I began.


“Do you study hard?”


“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Santosh thought about this for a moment. “A dancer,” he said. I suppressed a smile at the memory of him dancing in the mosh pit party when we’d first arrived. Like most children, his adult career plans changed with regularity; when I’d first met him, he wanted to be a painter. In one letter to me he’d written that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up.

I paused, choosing my words carefully. “Papa tells me that sometimes you don’t go to school.” Santosh looked down, not meeting my eyes. He seemed embarrassed that I knew this; it had not occurred to him that Papa might tell me.

“Papa said that you and some other boys leave school and miss classes,” I continued. “You know that school is very important, don’t you?” His nod was an almost imperceptible movement. “You need to go to school every day, Santosh. You need to study hard and do well in school to be a dancer when you grow up. You need to know your English well so you can be anything you want to be.”

He nodded again, but was clearly sulking at the reprimand. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel bad or think I was mad at him, so I put my arm around his shoulders and hugged him to me. “You’re a very smart boy, Santosh. Do you know that? You are very smart. You can do anything you want to. I’m very proud of you, and it will make me happy if you go to school every day and work hard.”

Santosh continued to look at the ground. I patted his back. “You will go to school every day, and not leave classes? You will study hard?” He nodded. “Okay. Do you want to get my camera and take some pictures?” I stood up.

He loved snapping photos with my camera, and I sometimes entrusted it to him as my “official photographer.” He smiled and perked up, and I took his hand. “Come on, let’s go.”

* * *

The difference that an education, literacy and competency in English makes in the future of a child cannot be overestimated – especially a marginalized or disadvantaged child; a child like Santosh. One of the main factors that makes children vulnerable to street life, trafficking, early marriage, child labor or adult unemployment is lack of education. And education of its children remains one of India’s greatest challenges as a country. Approximately a hundred and thirty-seven million Indian children – nearly half the entire population of the United States – are illiterate. In the six to fourteen year age group, thirty million cannot read at all, forty million recognize only a few letters, and forty million can read some words. Over fifty-five million of these children will not complete four years of school, eventually adding to the illiterate population of India – the largest of any country in the world.

The World Bank Group has a terrific blog devoted to Ending Poverty in South Asia. The blog is maintained by Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist of the South Asia Region at the World Bank. Its goal is to create a conversation around how South Asia can end poverty in a generation.


Last year an article appeared on their site that asked the question:

How do you go from a rural India in 2006 in which:
– close to half the children in grade 1 could not recognize numbers or letters
– almost half the children in grade 2 could not read a grade 1-level text fluently or do a 2-digit subtraction problem confidently
– about half the children in grade 5 could not read a grade 2-level text easily or do a simple division problem

to a situation by 2009 in which:
– all grade 1 children know at least the alphabet and numbers
– all grade 2 children can read at least simple words and do simple sums
– all grades 3-5 children can at least read simple texts fluently and solve arithmetic problems confidently

And do it for a target population of almost a 100 million children?

The article goes on to focus primarily on an initiative called Read India that was launched by Pratham, a nonprofit organization devoted to the education and literacy of India’s children. I have written about Pratham in my book as well:

When families struggle to feed themselves and even clean water remains painfully scarce, education plays a minimal, too often expendable, role to many of India’s poor. Organizations like Pratham employ a preventative approach to decrease the vulnerability of children living in such poverty to ending up on the streets, trafficked or in child labor. Originally parented by UNICEF in 1994, Pratham began in Mumbai slums where the learning program reaches about thirty thousand children each year with literacy efforts, preschools, computer classes and teacher training. It quickly expanded to Delhi and other cities, launching a nationwide program called Read India in 2002 with a mission of “every child in school and learning well.”

An incident in a Delhi slum called Zakhira demonstrates the difficulty that children living in these areas often face just getting to school. Zakhira is an illegal shantytown balanced precariously – and dangerously – in a triangle formed between three train tracks. Trash and defecation clog the tracks where trains speed by mere feet from corroding tin and plastic homes. Not long ago a young child was run over and killed by a train as he followed his mother to school. When the police came, the grieving mother had to deny the child was hers to avoid prosecution for endangering the lives of passengers on the train.

Other students must cross these very same tracks to attend the nearest school, a risk that most parents don’t allow. The largely migrant families that make up Zakhira rarely stay for more than a few months. These challenges, coupled with the great poverty, make many parents reluctant to send their children for an education. When Pratham set up their program in this area in 2005, many members of the organization saw the Zakhira venture as one of its most difficult and wondered if the possibility to teach anything substantial there even existed. Slow improvements have come, however. Children who previously knew nothing of India’s Independence Day now celebrate in Zakhira’s own commemoration festival. The community was soon swarming with children able to count and read the Hindi alphabet; seemingly small accomplishments, but something few in the area could do before.

* * *

A few weeks after I returned home from that visit with Santosh, I received a letter from him. He talked about the fun of the visit, sent wishes for our good health, and asked Chandler to write him a letter. He also wrote:

“Now I am appearing for my annual exam. We’ll get summer vacation next month. I’ll let you know my academic result on my next letter. You are right that education is very important for me. Lovingly yours, Santosh.”

Helping Hands from the Global Village

I had the pleasure of meeting Major General Basant Kumar Mohapatra when I was in India in both 2005 and 2007. The Major is otherwise known as Aja, which means grandfather in Hindi. Aja was retired after forty years of service in the Indian armed forces. Our group of volunteers enjoyed a lovely and delicious brunch at Aja’s home.

Aja was one of the most peaceful people I had ever met; the feeling inside his house was one of quiet and contemplation. I loved listening to his simple, but wise, philosophies for living. “True wealth lies not in wanting more,” Aja said, “but in needing less.”

Later, as we ate, someone commented to Aja about how happy and giving the children were with us. Aja responded, “It is because they know you come without any self-interest. You come only with love. This is the most important thing. Skin doesn’t matter, color doesn’t matter; only the heart matters. You come to share joy with them – and also sadness, if it is there.” He looked around the table at all of us and then he beamed. “You see, the world has become a global village.”

It is true. Through this blog, incredible people from all over the world have contacted me; people who are also touched by these children and their stories, and who are interested in joining the effort to uphold their inherent right to the most simple of all things: a childhood.

Here are just a few of the people who have contacted me in the last month, and the paths they are on which have converged with mine, even from another part of the globe:

Nechama Goldstein is an independent documentary director from Israel. He lived and worked with the boys in the CCD home in Calcutta for several months – I featured their story here. There he conducted a film workshop for these young, aspiring filmmakers. Today, with the gracious help of Swapan Mukherjee of CCD, Nechama is currently making a feature documentary about child slavery, called “Lost and Found.” Nechama says, “It really moves me to meet people who are fighting for the awareness of this cause; we should find a way to make a bigger impact together!”

Nancy Quin is an artist in New York. She and her husband are headed to Delhi in February 2008, and are interested in conducting an art program with children living in orphanages while they are there. Her idea is to conduct both an art school in which the children can create their own individual works of art, as well as an art exchange with children in the U.S. Later, in August 2008, there will be an exhibit in New York which will feature this artwork. She has done a similar program in Africa, and the exhibit from that raised awareness for the nonprofit organizations and money which was sent back to Africa for the programs. Nancy says, “My hope is to connect children of the world through visual art, while bringing art into the lives of children who do not have the means to create it.” –Contact Nancy via Email

Jessica Whittenbury, an Australian who works for Virgin Blue Airlines in her home country, is traveling to India with her sister Kate in January 2008. There, they plan to visit the Little Hearts home run by C.P. Kumar, which I visited for several days last March. I wrote a story about it here. There they will play with the children, providing a much-needed respite from their daily lives, and help C.P. with volunteer work that might need to be done.

When it comes to talking about people who are helping, I cannot fail to include my own family. They have all supported me throughout my work in India, and the writing of this book over the past year. My mother, Sandra, and my grandparents, E.F. and Shirley, have both made monetary contributions to several organizations with which I have worked. Thanks to all of you, and I love you!

If you’d like more information about the needs and how you might get involved in ensuring the rights of exploited or impoverished children in India, please contact me.

Children Seeking Forever Families

You are probably used to me writing about India and her children. Today I would like to write about American children who are also desperately in need of a family to call their own, and who are in danger of falling through the cracks and being lost forever without one. I am talking about children in the foster care system who are longing to be adopted.

For years I have worked as a court-appointed advocate for such children, and have been involved with the Heart Gallery of Central Texas. The Heart Gallery aims to find “forever families” for these children. The hardest children to place are teenagers, sibling groups, and those with disabilities or special needs. Recently Tracy Eilers, a friend of mine and director of the Heart Gallery, sent me the following information about a boy, Jarod, who is about to age out of the foster care system and has almost given up hope on a family to call his own. The prospects for kids who age out of the system are grim. As Tracy says, “18 isn’t a good thing for kids in foster care.” Sent out on their own with no one to care for them or teach them how to be an adult in the world, half of these kids end up homeless.

Tracy said, “Week after week, we film segments for Forever Families… week after week, I meet the most amazing kids… and every second of every day I hope beyond all hope that we can make a difference in these kids lives… I don’t know if I have ever hoped so much as for Jarod.” Please see Jarod’s story below – it touched my heart and I hope it will yours too. And if enough people see it, maybe Jarod will find his forever family.

Last year at this time, Jarod was showing off his Junior ROTC uniform for his Forever Families segment. He was 15 and only recently decided he wanted to be adopted. Jarod’s goal was to become sergeant, but he moved from foster home to foster home this year and isn’t in ROTC anymore.

The rest of year has been filled with just as many disappointments, and now his outlook on life is bleak. No 16-year-old should feel this hopeless.

Jarod came in to foster care when he was 10 from his uncle’s house, where there were five kids – Jarod and his sister, and their three cousins. Jarod was the one who had to go into foster care.

Forever FamilesWatch Jarod last year and today, and see how this teen who deserves so much feels he’s worth so little.


He’s had a very hard time trusting adults, and who could blame him? Now he’s 16 and repeating the ninth grade. In two years, he’ll age out of the foster care system. Foster teens on their own are at a higher risk of homelessness and substance abuse. “To me it seems like it’s too late. For life, I guess. When I turn 18 I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.

Jarod’s anger, frustration and confusion has caused him to give up on adoption. His aunt was going to adopt him, but it wasn’t a good fit. They lived together for a month but kept getting into fights. Now Jarod is in a shelter, where he says things aren’t going well.

“I got in trouble because I broke a door. I feel mad all the time. It’s not foster care. It’s not being adopted. It’s just when I turn 18, what am I going to do? Am I going to be on the streets? I don’t know what I’m going to do. I barely got an education. Ain’t nothing to do,” he said.

Jarod is out of hope. He feels he’s out of time and he has no idea what to do about it. Ask about his future, and he shuts down.

Though he’s given up on himself, he still has another year.


You can learn more about Jarod and other children available for adoption at the Adoption Coalition of Texas.

The Adoption Coalition of Texas is hosting a Foster Care and Adoption Information Meeting Saturday, December 8th at 10:15 am at the Old Quarry Branch Library located at 7051 Village Center Dr. Austin, Texas 78731. The meeting will last no more than an hour.

Call Renee Sassin at 512-687-3208 if you have any questions!