Day 130 – Jhag Children’s Village

In the morning I have a message from Priti. She doesn’t tell me she misses me, as she feels we are always together. I love the sentiment but I have to hold back the urge to message back and say that I miss her too! Actually I have to hold back the urge to message everyone I know and tell them I miss them. I only have ten more days in India, but I guess with home almost in sight I am starting to feel my heart being pulled in the direction of Sydney. Just when I am missing my family most, my brother Oli, the Master of One-Word texting, sends me a long and much appreciated message of support, advice and simple wisdom; “Short journey. Live it well.”

I-India pick me up at 10.30am. Sitting in the office with Mr Prabhaker and Mrs Abha Goswami, my eyes wonder over the framed pictures of gurus around the room. One picture in particular catches my eye. It is titled ‘The 42 teachers of India’ and is set up similar to a school photo, with the names listed according to which row they are in. All the classical sages are there, including Sai Baba, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and many others I have never heard of. After some patient waiting, we get in the car to drive the 40kms to the Jhag Children’s Village. This is the main project that I-India has created for the street children. On the way I ask Mr Prabhaker how I-India began.

Turning his gaze inwards, affectionately recalling the past that has led him to this point he begins, “20 years ago, I was a professor and my wife was a researcher. We began a research project to create a socio-economic profile on the street children of Jaipur and Jodhpur. That was a significant turning point in our lives as we realised how many children were living without shelter, without food, education or any proper care. Some were abused at the hands of their own family members and others were being forced to beg in the streets. We submitted the research and my wife was very disappointed to find that nothing was done about all this information. She began asking the children whether they would like to attend classes, if education was offered. Despite the mixed responses, she soon quit her job and gathering the teaching materials herself, she obtained a rickshaw and drove around to the areas where these children were and gave them basic education, food, sanitation and medical treatment right there in the street. This was the beginning of our School on Wheels program. Soon we were able to get our first buses and set up some mobile showers and classrooms.”

When we arrive at the village, the sun is already at its highest point and the sandy playground is deserted. The school principal welcomes me and takes me on a tour through the empty classrooms. There is construction happening all over the village; a second floor is being built on the school, an auditorium and a medical centre is going up. The young teachers are in a staff meeting in one section of the school and stand to greet me. I realise that this is the first time I have had a whole room of people stand up just to say hello to me. I wave awkwardly and to my relief, they eventually sit down. When we enter the boys’ home, two young boys of about 11 and 13 are waiting at the entrance. One has a dish on which he applies the blessing of red paste in the centre of my forehead and a small scattering of rice. He then takes a handful of pink flowers and throws them over my head. His shy smile is broad and welcoming and I say thank you in Hindi. They are about to turn and run away when I pull them back for a photo, which they obediently stand still for. I am given a short tour of the dorms and told that each child has their own bed. The medical wing at the back of the building is littered with some boys who don’t even look sick. When I ask the doctor what is wrong, he tells me that they are at the tail end of a chicken pox outbreak and these boys are almost better. Chicken pox already ruined my 11th birthday, so I am safe. Each of these boys sees the camera and demands I take a picture of them. The male ego appears to be universal.

In the girls’ home, I am welcomed with the same greeting. When I use my only Hindi sentence to ask the girl what her name is, she says, “Mera nam Priti,” and holds my hand to lead me through the tour.  I send a silent thank you to my friend Priti, who has sent this angel to guide me and remind me that we are never alone because we are all one. When I sit down amongst the girls, they crowd around me and using my single Hindi sentence, I ask their names. Realising I have no other way of communicating with them, I go through the numbers in English and in Hindi, then the colours.

Far too soon, I am told lunch is ready and taken back to the boys home where I sit alone amidst eight empty chairs and am served a never-ending plate of food. Chapattis are thrown at me and I worry that I am offending the cook when he looks concerned that I don’t accept the third helping of food. When I finish I realise that the strange look he gave me could have been because my face is probably as yellow as my fingers. Ever-grateful that I never go anywhere without baby wipes, I clean up and head to the boys’ play room. They seem more or less uninterested in me, so I approach a group of serious looking kids sitting around a board game. It is like a game of pool but with flat discs that kind of look like Casino chips. One of the boys has his focussed game face on while he gesticulates angrily at the board. Another of them who was arguing his point finally gives up and laughs and they resume playing. Satya, who was one of the two who gave me the greeting blessing, pulls a tiny picture out of his shirt pocket. The picture is of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant headed deity who seems to be continuously appearing on this journey to guide me. From my teacher at Sadhana Mandir to this small child, this god of luck has appeared at all the significant points along the road, like a marker in the road that says “keep going, you’re on the right track!”

When someone asks why I have short hair, I pull out my iPhone to show a picture of me with long hair. They are shocked and keep asking if it is my sister. I say no and point at myself but they just shake their heads. One of them asks if this thing has music so I put a playlist on shuffle. The whir of the fans drowns out the sound, so I hold the phone to Vijay’s ear and he listens intently to Sweet Home Alabama. I ask if he likes it and he slowly nods, his mouth half open in wonder. When the song changes to Adele, though, he hands the phone back to me with a frown and a shake of the head. A 16-year-old boy named Arjuna sits down next to me. He speaks a lot more English than the younger ones and as he starts to ask questions his extreme Vata energy hits me. Suddenly I see myself how my teacher in Rishikesh must have seen me; talking quickly, randomly jumping from one thing to the next, standing then sitting and throwing hyper-flexible limbs around. He shows me the triangle pose and wants to know more. He demands three poses for getting taller, three for losing weight, three for memory and concentration and three for relaxation. When I am trying to explain meditation, Sanskrit comes in handy and I say “Dhyan”, to which he responds by whipping his legs into a cross-legged position and joining his thumb and first finger together. How long should he do this for, he asks, ‘five minutes?’ Then he asks how long he should sleep for, when he should practice, when he should eat. Mind you, about ten minutes has gone past while this rapid conversation has taken place. I am left a little dazed and confused by the speed at which he is tossing questions at me when finally a boy offers me a game of cup and ball. I am just glad nobody has asked if I want to play cricket. Being from Australia, there is always the risk someone will completely throw me if they mention Ricky Ponting. It’s not that I don’t like cricket… I just prefer to stick pins in my eyes while watching paint dry.  It’s right up there with ten-pin bowling on my list of top-ten things never to suggest to me.

After a couple of hours, some boys have taken themselves off for a nap in the dense afternoon heat. I decide to go back to the girls’ shelter home but find that they, too, have succumbed to the heat and lay sprawled all over the floor. Puja, the only one who is awake, quickly tries to wake everyone up to greet me, but I tell her not to worry and to show them that I don’t care if they sleep, I lie down on the carpet with them. A few with messy hair and that all-too-familiar look of “why the hell am I awake?” throw their bodies back onto the ground and resume napping. The small group around me lay down but eventually they become curious of the photos I am taking of them. Like male ego, female vanity transcends all places and the girls smile coquettishly. When they all start to wake up, Puja asks if I like music. I nod yes and they put on a DVD of Bollywood video clips. Several girls jump up, align themselves across the room and I am given a live concert of Bollywood dance and music. The older girls of 11 and 13 know most of the moves by heart and the younger ones follow along, moving their little hips in time. Another universal imperative in the world of girls; it is absolutely essential that I admire the Barbie doll collection. A smaller girl near me named Sunita falls silent as she stares at two Barbies. She smooths out their dresses and lays them next to each other. She seems to be studying them. Suddenly I wonder why they even have blonde Barbies in India. Shouldn’t they be olive skinned, with a long black braid and a sari? What kind of ideals and comparisons are these white-faced effigies creating?

In the car on the way back, the song playing on the radio is the same as the pop song that Puja and Priti were dancing to. It has been a long, hot day and I didn’t lift a finger in terms of “volunteer work”. I don’t feel like I gave anything, but rather gained so much. With the boys, I learnt more Hindi in two hours than I have learnt in over a month in India. With the girls, I saw what it is like to grow up in the current Indian pop-culture and I was welcomed and fed like a revered guest. I lay myself down to sleep at night with a simple prayer of gratitude and a vow to somehow help do more for these children of the world who despite having nothing, can radiate such bright hope and luminosity.

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