Tuesday, March 15
Tuesday - 15 Mar 2005
India is Growing on Me
I am starting to sleep all the way through the night now, without waking at 4 a.m. The sun backlights the drapes around six-thirty, and I pull them open to reveal a beautiful day above the trees outside my window. The woman of the house across the way is already out on her rooftop terrace, hanging laundry and watering her plants. I open the window and the sounds of India fill the room, sounds which are becoming familiar and which I know I will miss. Dogs barking, children laughing, the beep-beep of horns, and underneath it all – you have to listen carefully for it – the swoosh-swoosh of the brooms constantly brushing away the dust of Cuttack.
The chaos is almost starting to seem normal to me, the maze of streets making sense as we take off for the day. I recognize stalls and vendors, and know where we will turn. What had seemed such mayhem when we arrived days ago actually has a certain rhythm, a symmetry and even organization to it.
Breakfast at Aja's House
We are driving to have breakfast at Aja’s house today. Aja was a Major General in the Indian army for forty years. We enter through the gates of his courtyard from the crowded, noisy street and instantly peace and beauty prevail. The landscaped garden is lush, the portico and covered patio with rocking chairs inviting. Aja shakes all of our hands and introduces us to his wife, then leads us inside with the same entreaty Papa always uses: “Come, come!” We sit in the cool living room, fans blowing above and the doors open to the courtyard. A houseboy brings a tray of watermelon juice. I have taken a large drink of it before Caroline apologetically tells Aja we cannot drink it. No tap water, no fresh fruit or vegetables. I’m disappointed to see the glass taken away – it was refreshing and delicious.
Aja begins by telling us that he has arranged a visit with a very important person for later in the week, retired Chief Justice Misra from India’s Supreme Court. Prior to the Supreme Court, Misra was a senator for six years and is the founder of India’s Human Rights Commission. Aja passes around a book about Misra. It is impressed upon me that this is a very important man indeed – and important to the Sishu Sidan orphanage. After the cyclone hit the ashram in 2000, it was Misra who paid to have it rebuilt.
Then Aja speaks of the children. He tells us that his top priority is education – they will have no hope for their futures unless they learn English well and have a trade. Improving their school, increasing English tutoring, and providing vocational training or funds for university as they reach adulthood is paramount. They will be able to make a living if they have the education to be carpenters, electricians, mechanical repairmen or computer techs and programmers. I think of the article I just read in the morning’s paper about Bangalore, the high-tech center of India, not having enough people to fill all their IT positions.
Aja also explains to us his and Papa’s reasoning against some of the things that he resists The Miracle Foundation providing the orphanage, such as air conditioning. They are concerned with giving the children what Aja calls “appropriate technology.” Very few in India have these amenities, and it is doubtful the children would experience them again. Why raise their level of expectation, get them acclimated to these luxuries as a standard, when in all likelihood they will not have them later? The goal is for each child to be fully prepared for a normal life in India; and so the focus is on basic needs, love and education – not amenities. After being here only a few days, I understand the concern. After all, it is this American acceptance of luxuries as standard conveniences, and then necessities, that have led us into a pursuit of happiness in which the wanting of ever more can ultimately only leave us continually unfulfilled.
Aja echoes my thoughts as he discourses on the difference between needs and wants. So much of the world does not understand the difference, classifying mere wants as needs, when there are only a very few true needs in life. “True wealth,” Aja says, “lies in not wanting more, but in needing less.”
We are called in for breakfast, where we are served a delicious assortment of tiny filled pancake-like treats, vegetable-and-spice stuffed rolls, flat bread with chutney, and other exotic dishes. We talk leisurely over the meal for an hour or more, and I find myself enjoying the relaxing pace, not missing the hectic, constantly harried rush that is my life back home.
There are many things Aja respects and admires about the U.S. – our pursuit and reward of personal excellence, the opportunity for a person of any class to improve their station in life – and many things he finds difficult to understand, such as our preoccupation with money and our complicated lifestyle. When Mother Theresa spoke in New York, she walked to the podium, looked out for a moment, and proclaimed that America was the poorest country she had ever seen. She meant, of course, our values; our equation of financial success with moral superiority, our sense of entitlement, our overabundance and overuse of the world’s resources, our purposeful ignorance of the plight of the rest of the world.
Before we leave, Aja shows us his shrine. Every home in India - in fact every family-run shop - has a small shrine, be it an entire room or a small shelf. Aja tells us that lighting the lamp in the shrine was his mother's greatest joy - it was a small thing, but it was her happiness in life. Since she has passed away, the lamp has been continually burning. For sixty years, never once has it gone out.
Back at the ashram, we stage more game stations for the kids. There are puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which we have taught the kids and they love. When it's time to "put your backside in and shake it all about" they shake it for all it's worth and giggle like mad.
Baxter and Matt also had the idea to set up a tug-of-war, buying rope at a local shop. We stretch it out in the play yard and divide the boys into two teams. They play the first round and have a great time, cheering when one side wins and then quickly setting up again for round two. Heels dug in, they wait for the word "go!" and start pulling with all their might. About a minute into it, without warning, the burlap rope snaps in two, right down the middle! Both sides of boys fall down and sit on the ground a second, stunned, before breaking into laughter. I'm laughing harder than the kids - it's the funniest thing I've seen all week.
Monkeys in the Ashram
There's a commotion in the courtyard, people looking up at the roof and pointing. "Monkey, monkey!" the children cry. I look up, and sure enough I see a monkey scamper across the roof of the boys' dormitory. Then there are two, then three - a whole family of monkeys. We quickly pull out our cameras and follow them as they leap from one roof to the next. I've never seen anything like this - wild monkeys in their native habitat, moving through villages like stray cats back home. We see about six in the group, including a little baby that scampers around playfully. The children seem just as delighted, although I'm sure this is not a new sight for them.
After the excitement of the monkeys dies down, Papa presents Baxter, Andy and Matt with a gift of punjabis, the top and pants set that Indian men wear. He even has a tailor there ready for alterations. One by one the guys go into the apartment to try on the clothing, coming back into the courtyard for measurements and fitting. Andy is last, and the punjabi is biggest on him. As the tailor goes to work on the shirt, he matter-of-factly pulls the pants down to get a better hang on the top. Andy stands there, stunned, in the middle of the courtyard and the circle of us, in his boxers and punjabi top. After a few seconds of silent surprise, we all start laughing; but the tailor doesn't even crack a smile, going about his serious business.
A visit with Mama
Later, Miilly takes me by the hand and leads me into the apartment, back to Mama's room for a visit. Jeenu is there also. Mama tells me that this is "Caroline's room," that Caroline is their daughter now. She proudly shows me the photo on the dresser of herself and Caroline taken the year before. Orange soda is brought to me - they seem to have this idea that all Americans drink cold soda all day long, because they bring it to us every chance they get. I think again what incredibly gracious and hospitable people they are.
Miilly and Jeenu fire off more questions of me - what kind of work do I do, is it this hot where I live, how do I like their country, am I enjoying my stay? They ask me about Chandler, and if I might think of ever coming back and bringing her. Jeenu asks me how old I am, and when I reply with a teasing, reproving look she drops her eyes and smiles sheepishly at her question. They are so polite, and by nature reserved; but with encouragement their curiosity often gets the best of them.
Babu, Mama and Papa's son, comes in to "take a snap" as they say. Mama and I sit together as he frames us in his digital camera and snaps the photo. Mama tells me that the picture will be placed on the dresser, next to the one of Caroline, and when I come back I can see it there.