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A glimpse of Indian heaven

India will dissolve your ideas about what it is to be a human being, what it is to be compassionate, what it is to be spiritual or conscious.  Its people give new meaning to perseverance, courage, ingenuity, and friendship.” 
James O’Reilley and Larry Habeggar

At 2:00am weary eyed and sweaty from the long journey I tentatively push my cart through the sliding glass doors as I exit arrivals in Chennai, India.  The heat, noise and fumes immediately batter an already uneasy state.  Scanning the sea of faces a wave of relief comes over me as I spot a man with a beaming warm smile clutching a small sign bearing “Global Volunteers” in simple scrawl.  “Welcome to India, Lydia,” he shouts over the din.  “You are the last to arrive,” he says as we pile ourselves and my bags into a tired mini van.  Stephen Raj, a gracious and overwhelmingly affable native of Chennai will lead 5 of us volunteers through  Global Volunteer’s India program charged with assisting a local orphanage teach English, serve food, and provide basic love and care to 100 children either orphaned, abandoned or left victim by families unable to provide for them.  Standing there that minute amidst the whirlwind of sights and sounds only found in India, intimidation seeps into my very being.  I suddenly become fully conscious of where I am what I am about to embark on.

Our taxi swerves in and out of the dark streets of Porur, a crowded suburb of Chennai, India’s fourth largest city and “home” to 6 million people.   We stop at the end of a quiet road in front of what is the team’s guest house, a non-descript 3 story concrete building.  Placed next to the entrance gate I notice a small shrine with the Hindu elephant God Ganesh, Lord of success and destroyer of evils, god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth, sitting proudly inside.  Great heaping masses of dirt, garbage and a sleeping cow line the sidewalk to the house.  We climb a narrow staircase in the dark and enter the house.  Steven gropes around in the dark for lights and whispering, gives me a quick tour of our spartan quarters. We walk though a small room smelling strongly of spices, onions and garlic.  A chipped and worn counter top houses a tattered 2 burner gas stove.  A couple of baskets expose bunches of coriander, curry leaves, a few potatoes and eggplants.

Making macrame

He leads me by boxes of drinking water stacked along a wall to the conference room surrounded with posters of flags from all over the world, the Global Volunteers logo and poster paper with Team Goals scratched out in sloppy handwriting.  I quickly scan the words written, love the children, serve, help others–basic statements fundamental to why volunteers have come. Apparently there is no need for fluffy semantics.   “From the last team,” Steven explains.  Centered in the room is a big brown table bordered by red plastic chairs where we will eat, hold team meetings, read, generally live.  Lonely Planet Guides to India, phonics flash cards, and children’s books are heaped on a counter in the corner of the room.  The bathroom consists of a bare concrete floor with walls of faded and dirty chipped paint.  A small baby blue plastic mirror hangs delicately over an old sink where a line of ants busily heads towards the cracked window. A single tap mounted high, cold water only, serves as a shower.  Steven advises me not to use any of the electrical outlets. 

He mumbles something about a morning meeting only a few short hours away, bids me a quick farewell and points to a room will be sharing with a woman named Charlotte. I rummage in the dark through my bags in search of my sheet and pillow and collapse onto a hard cot stalked by mosquitoes.  I fall into a fit-full sleep with great startling claps of thunder and lightning outside, brief flashes of light exposing a bare bones room and the snoozing lump of my fellow volunteer.

Sizzling sounds and potent curried aromas wake us in the morning.  Over breakfast of tiny short noodles, spicy tomato chutney and ruby red pomegranates I acquaint myself with the rest of the team. There is Nelson, a young energetic Canadian banker and Rick, a warm and reflective single man his later 40s is also a banker.  Marshall, sweet and innocently kind is a border-control officer and has been on several Global Volunteer projects around the world.  My roommate Charlotte is a divorced woman in her 60s with two daughters my age.  A free spirit at heart with an infectious laugh she reveals a deep wisdom enhanced by years of travel.  Each one of them, including myself has heard some sort of calling to serve and all have succumbed to its force. 

“Do not wait for leaders. Do it alone, person to person.”
–Mother Teresa

My fascination and subsequent love affair with India began most likely from the Indian take-out food we invariably ordered when my parents took us back to their homes and families in England.  I would savor the explosion of flavors, the burning hot all over my mouth coupled with sweet and tangy relishes lighting up far beyond just my sense of taste.  As a young adult India came to me through idolization of Ghandi and Mother Teresa and their unfathomable composed strength.  Later with nursing babies draped on my arm, I would flip through pages of a glossy coffee table book, ablaze with images of brilliantly dressed women in saris, deep brown wrinkled sadhus, and hazy sunset views of the Taj.

For our 10th wedding anniversary my husband offered me a real taste of India, something to affix to my magical, mysterious, imagined India.  For 7 days we meandered through the outrageous living streets of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.  We gazed at temples from the backs of intricately painted elephants, slept in ornate palace rooms of past powerful maharajas, sipped Darjeeling tea at the Imperial Hotel.  It was a surreal and exotic trip akin to a soft sweet delicate curry.   This time though, I come in search of the other side of this staggeringly diverse and complex country, for to know only a part of India is to not know her at all.  I have come to learn of her pungent and perhaps bitter profile, the India that bestows unforgiving challenges on man.  I need to see it upfront, hold it, be apart of it, serve within it.  India now calls me from the very depths of who I am.

We set off for the orphanage crammed into a jeep blaring new age Indian pop music, sandlewood incense burning on the dash next to the Hindu statue of Shiva.  Trips in the car would, over the course of our stay, have each one of us gasping and crying out in fear as every split second we were swerving violently to avoid obstacles in the road—masses of people on bikes and scooters, sacred cows sauntering wherever they pleased, ubiquitous yellow dump trucks taking up the entire road driving a million miles an hour.  If we managed to gain any speed at all, it would be suddenly halted by a massive pothole jerking us forward sending bags of school supplies and water bottles flying. Earsplitting honking of horns and music, dust caking our sweaty skin combined with everything coming HEAD ON make any distance in the car a feared event.

On the first day the jeep is held up by what looked like a fantastic colorful parade.  Throngs of young men are singing and banging on drums around a donkey driven wooden cart entirely covered in a dazzling display of fresh flowers.  “Is it a wedding Steven or a religious festival?” I ask.  “No, this is a funeral,” he yells over the noise.  It is then that I notice the small brown toe of the corpse on its way to the crematorium.  One quickly realizes that there is no insulation to the realities of life here.  It is all to be seen on the streets—birth, daily ablutions, celebrations, and death.

“You cannot view her [India] through the eyes of the flesh, or if you do you will want to shut them.  Her real life burns in the Unconscious.”  F. Yeats Brown

Lydia’s class

By the time we reach the orphanage we are exhausted and filthy.  But what we experience there in the coming days is a brutal reminder of the insignificance of our personal comfort.  Past the busy village set in the lush countryside surrounded by green rice fields and banana trees sits Dazzling Stone Orphanage, a roughly built unfinished cinder block building.  We meet Deva and Joy, the Indian couple who 5 years ago founded the organization and decided to devote the rest of their lives to needy children in Chennai.  With limited English, Joy describes its humble beginnings as she gives a tour of the building and its surrounding flower and vegetable gardens.  The couple had been made aware a few years ago of the plight of a handful of orphaned children in a nearby village and decided to take them into to the fold of their family.  Word spread quickly of their generous efforts and soon the floodgates opened and children drifted in from all over the area.  Only 3 years ago, Deva and Joy were housing the beginnings of a significant orphanage on the veranda of an old building.  They had then and still have now, no funding whatsoever from the Indian government..  Global Volunteers became aware of their plight and as of 2 years ago were able to assist in the building that stands today.   The program is now almost fully funded by Global Volunteers.

Joy guides us through a rough empty building with dark rooms, no doors, no toilets, no beds.  The walls are stacked cinder blocks and the floors on the ground level where the children sleep are packed dirt.  There are lights only in the downstairs wearily coming from one or two fluorescent bulbs.  By day the building becomes a school for the children yet there are no desks.  We pass a dingy corner with two cots where she explains they have taken in an old homeless man and another disabled person who had nobody to care for him.

 A small simple separate structure reveals showers but for toilets all 100 children use the field some few yards away.  Joy walks us proudly around the back to their outdoor kitchen.  A turkey and several chickens run madly around the perimeter.  A thatched open air structure covers a wood fire where all the meals are cooked.  Their diet consists of an assortment mainly of fruit, vegetables, rice, beans, and lentils. To eat, the children are seated in lines outdoors and due to a shortage of plates, the first round hurries to eat and rinse their plates to hand off to the next. A water pump sits next to an aluminum container holding drinking water.  The two cups dangling from the side are shared by all. 

Joy’s pride is evident as she gives the tour.  We all silently gasp.  In the background we hear the giggles of children and I feel a surmounting excitement, and sudden impatience to get on with what it is we came here to do.  We are ushered into one of the dark rooms on the main floor and are told to seat ourselves on the two benches at the front of the room.  In lines of two, one for the girls and one for the boys, the children file in, some bearing wide toothy grins, others hiding shy smiles.  They sit down in perfectly neat rows and stare at us with open expecting eyes.  The heat of the room is suddenly extreme and we sweat profusely, trying discreetly to swat away the hovering flies and mosquitoes.  The children appear oblivious to the heat and bugs.  After a short introduction given by Joy followed by a prayer in our honor, one by one the children come up and shake our hands individually introducing themselves.  It’s an overwhelming experience and a quick glance at my teammates reveals they are as choked up as I am.  The children are so welcoming and so beautiful that touching each of their warm little hands is an honor in itself. 

From aged 2 to 16 some proudly sport their introductions in English, some eek out their hellos in Tamil, the Indian language native to the southern state of Tamil Nadu.  Some say nothing at all simply holding out their dusty hands, staring wide-eyed.  While they appear relatively well groomed and healthy at the outset, some even wearing black shoes and pulled up socks to match their tattered school uniform, upon later inspection I notice so many of them had open oozing sores on their heads, arms and legs.  Most scratch incessantly at heads full of lice.  Their clothes, especially the young ones fall off their bony bodies with gaping holes here and there.  The girls’ backs are bare as all of the dresses lack working zippers.  They all hack, snuffle and sniff, especially the little ones who toddle around noses streaming, diaperless and dirty.   Holding each of their hands I feel the importance and significance of each one of them and I long to have the time to know each and every one of them, to hear of their dreams and fears, their pains and wishes. The crushing reality of such an impossibility slices through me.  The enormity of those before me was grander than I could have ever prepared myself for.   How can I make a difference in such a short time?  What is it that they need most?  Why such inequity?  What is my Purpose?  Simple yet haunting questions that creep into the back corners of consciousness.   The experience at the orphanage would be series of highs and lows strung together along a path that I hope would lead to some answers. 

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Ghandi

We arrive each day after the children complete morning lessons in Tamil.  Our jobs in the afternoons and early evenings are to teach English classes to small groups of 4th and 5th graders.   They are already starting out in the world with major disadvantages and life obstacles, raised in poverty, many without parents.  At least if they are sent off into Indian life with a proficiency in English they will have one leg up from the bottom.  A chance. 


While teaching English seems a relatively simple task to perform at the outset, it quickly proves incredibly challenging.  Some speak, read, and write easily, while others have trouble expressing their names and sounding out simple English sounds.  Reaching them at their individual proficiencies will take planning and coordination.  But they are all ravenous to learn, so eager to come and set up my red plastic chair before them.  “scuse me miss, scuse me miss,” they shout as they rush around fussing about, brushing off my chair before the lesson. 

With Pondichurai, Sureth, Sancheth, my bright eyed and animated 4th graders sitting before me, I begin by pulling out three long sharpened pencils.  Eyes widening they tentatively reach out and take the cherished items like prized Christmas gifts.  With their papers delicately balancing on knobby knees they carefully print out words and eagerly repeat phrases.  They learn quickly and passionately.  My two fifth graders however are not as fervent about their studies.  Vijayacumar struggles to get through the writing of his name, discouraged each time as he can go no further than the “c.”  And Rajethswari, either overly tired, or very bored rolls her yes back in her head in blatant statements of apathy.  Smirking, she passes her time playing with the lice that falls on her paper.  She reveals early on however that she is bright and I know she is farther along in English than the others yet I fight and toil each day to spark her attention.   Then Nelson suggests that perhaps she is more of a kinesthetic learner.  “Get her up and moving,” he says.  “She is probably just bored.”  The result is astonishing.  A simple game of Simon Says has her keyed up, screeching with joy, rattling off entire sentences in English. 

Most frustrating by far are my attempts at teaching certain pronunciations of letters.  Curiously the letter “f” invariably comes out as a “p.”  “There is no P sound in an F,” I say.  Vijayacumar looks at me with puzzled glassy eyes.  I point to the image of a feather on a flash card.  “Feather,” I say.  “Peather,” they repeat sharply.  “No, fffffeather,” I say louder.  “PPPPeather,” they shout back.  The exchange continues for several minutes.  I rummage in the pile for another flash card.  “Fish,” I say.  “Fish,” they repeat nonchalantly.  I jump up with joy startling the rest of the volunteers and their groups.  “Yes, that’s it!” I exclaim offering pats on the back and pinches on the cheek.  In fear of losing our foothold on our achievement I opt for reinforcement and pull out the feather flashcard once again.  “PPPPPeather!!!!!” they scream expecting my continued excitement.  Well, at least they were engaged I tell myself.  Our achievements are small and at times I feel I go backwards but I can only hope that the cumulative efforts of the hundreds of volunteers that visit the orphanage would overtime surmount to something.

At the end of our lessons I let them draw, dream and imagine with colored pencils and crayons.  There is such little opportunity within the orphanage for the luxuries of expressing themselves individually and they impatiently await the handing out of the white paper when our class is over.  I begin to question which part of our class is more important, the learning or the dreaming.  Despite their sheltered existence and limited occasion for new experiences their creations radiate joy and hope, worlds full of oceans, ice creams, planes on which to discover the world and homes filled with families, food and good fortune. 

At the sound of the 4 o’clock bell, they are ushered out of their uniforms and into play clothes.  For the girls this means a combination of dresses both western and Indian styles all in a questionable state, zipperless, torn and graying at the hem.   Even so, there are girls with an obvious flair for fashion who manage to find style in the rags, swishing a brightly colored scarf around their necks.   Complimented with a proud strut, off they go to the snack line, ready to take on the world.  But for many it means grabbing whatever was available, almost always several sizes too large.  One boy walks around permanently clutching at his waist in attempts to keep up his shorts. 

Once changed and having been out to the field to use “the facilities” the children line up on the ground outside for a snack of assorted fruit combined with either chick peas or lentils.  Then until six in the afternoon we have free rein to play with them however we want.  The younger ones could be taken upstairs separately to the open air top floor.  There they anxiously await the up ending of a huge bucket of broken plastic pieces that have long since seen better playful days.  I silently wonder what on earth the kids could do with such a motley collection of bits.  Within minutes however, broken airplane wings become swords, legless babies are propped up, anything with even one working wheel becomes varied racing modes of transport, and small pieces of plastic are with the swish of a small hand at once magnificent arrays of fruits and cakes. 

“We can only learn to love by loving.”  Iris Murdoch

I was tentative the first day at free time, more comfortable with the structure of my organized classroom with measurable accomplishments.  I carefully inch my way into a gathering of little girls.  “Scuse me miss, scuse me.  Have some TEA,”  I am beckoned as an upside down hat is lovingly shoved into my hand.  “And some CAKE,” another says boisterously, forcing a make believe plate in my hand.  I quickly become a welcomed guest at an intimate tea party with fellow girlfriends each with a baby tucked under their arm.  Others join our party, with their babies on their laps, all tenderly primped and poked, fed and put to bed every other minute.  Out of the corner of my eye a little girl no more than 3 years old, creeps closer and closer to me.  I ask her name and she just turns her head coyly and leans into my arm.  The heat of her touch is alarming–clearly a full blown fever.  I stroke her hair and attempt to pull her into our girlie play.  Gingerly she sits her almost weightless self in the center of my folded legs and then, comfortable with her perch, drifts in and out of sleep as I stroke her cheeks.  So I find myself among my new girlfriends at a tea party sipping the best tea India has to offer, eating plate loads of cakes and candies.  What more could a girl want?  With the girls with their stuffed babies and mine, as real as the day’s sunlight curled up in my lap, I get a glimpse of heaven.

One morning at the guest house I sit fiddling with pieces of string.  Out of the depths of a dusty closet in my brain I remember the knot used to make friendship bracelets.  Gripped with girlish excitement I whip off a sweet twirling bracelet with a red bead nicely placed in the middle.  The men stand over my shoulder bemused and silent.  Thrilled at the prospect of teaching a group of older girls the simple knot, I stuff the string and beads into my bag and we set off for our afternoon classes.  When free time arrives I pull out my example bracelet and within split seconds I have a throng of children, older and younger, boys and girls all wanting string to make their own.  Dozens of them crowding around me yelling “scuse me string, scuse me string.” With hordes of children pushing to see our demonstration Charlotte and I carefully walk through the steps of the knot.  There is complete silence.  “Make a four with the string, Pinch, Take the right side and go over and under, Pull with the left and right.”

Charlotte and I madly cut string quickly realizing we wouldn’t have enough for all.  The following day we come armed with more, but this time different colored strings and matching beads.  It is all out mayhem with the whole orphanage involved.  One could hear the hum of,  “make a four, over under, pull left and right…” from dozens of bodies hunched over with the strings tied to their toes, metal bars, chairs.  The smallest children too young to do their own are forced into holding the strings while the older ones tie the knots furiously.  Delighted at having made something pretty, they proudly tie their treasures around their own wrists and those of their friends.  I could feel the power of their energy in the air—like racehorses let out of the box.   Silently, I hope and pray that they have ample chance in their lives to contribute, create and accomplish, for the opportunity alone brings about such joy.

But if there was one activity that the children prize more than anything else we offer them, it is the simple act of handing out books.  The most favored by far is Beauty and the Beast.  “Beast, Beast!” They yell as we place the stack of books down on the gravel where they are hungrily grabbed at and dispersed within seconds.  It’s sheer panic to get to them and then off they go forming little groups huddled around someone who can read.  The glossy photos of iced cakes and round chocolates had them lurching at the pictures with fists clenched as though stuffing the food into their faces.  They relax into a contented trance taking in the melodic sounds of the stories, lounging on each other’s laps.  Was it the pictures, the fairy-tales, the happy endings? 

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