Day 134 – I-India street schools and Women’s shelter homes

Today is my last day with I-India. They have promised to show me the last of the projects including the street schools and the women’s shelters. We get into the back of the jeep and drive through dusty lots where the makeshift huts begin to appear. They are mostly made of tarpaulin and canvas sheets laid over plank wooden and stick frames. At the centre of this desert community we pull up beside the school, which is a simple hut with no walls, covered in canvas. The children are sitting in the shade. Some have torn clothes and one child is sent out to go and put some pants on. They have little, but besides some dry scabs that are typical of children who play in hot dry weather, they are clean and healthy. I-India brings shower facilities every two days, as the nearest water is a few kilometres away. There is a group of goats bleating in the next hut as the children get up for some yoga. I go through some basic stretches, warrior two and finish with a balance. They laugh uncontrollably, especially when I ask them to stand on one leg. As we prepare to leave, Kavita from I-India asks them to recall any of the yoga I showed them. A few stand up and show us the tree, but I see one child absentmindedly pick up his foot and stretch it straight above his head. It seems these kids could show me a thing or two about yoga.

We move onto Vasihali, which is another street school. Similarly, it is built on the sand, amid the canvas and tarpaulin huts. This one, however, is a little bigger and has four walls, covered in blankets or gudris, and posters of the English alphabet. The room is crowded full of yelling children, chanting, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” I enter and sit in the corner and slowly the children come over to talk to me. They speak endlessly, ignoring the fact that I can’t speak or understand Hindi. A boy named Sanjay comes and spells words for me. Curiously, they all have their names tattooed on their forearms in Hindi and in English. Just like the youngest girls all have the nose piercing, earrings and black kajal around the eyes to protect against the bad spirits. It is a strange sight to see a tiny child bejewelled with smoky eyes. Some children are completing a small test and there is much yelling as they hand their papers to the two teachers to mark. The teachers manage to keep control of the chaos and laugh at each other throughout it all. The children recite poems and songs and then the girls stand to show some traditional Banjari song and dance. It is beautiful to hear them singing together, their arms raised high and their hips shaking seductively.

I finish the day at the shelter home for women. There are two shelters in close proximity to each other and the first one that I enter is full of sleeping young girls. A couple of them wake up and we go through my basic Hindi. They sit around me and place sweets in my mouth. I can’t even tell what these sweets are; they are red and hard and taste distinctly Indian. One small girl, Devi, runs to her locker and comes back with pink blush on her fingers that she lovingly applies to my cheeks. “Pink colour,” she says, simply. I don’t think there is a single place on this planet where little girls are not taught to love the colour pink. As I am trying to get a good picture of these girls as they dash about the room, an elderly lady enters. Her name is Jaya. She speaks perfect English and sits on the floor with me to ask where I have come from. She asks what I have been doing in India and when I say that I came to study yoga at an ashram in Rishikesh, she is very excited. She is from Uttarakhand, which is nearby and tells me I have to go to Renagate when I come back to India. I make sure she writes it down for me but she writes it in Hindi so her note needs translation. She wants me to show her some yoga, not teach, more like perform, I move through the surya namaskars and she tells me that she can see I practice with sincerity. This is one of the most moving compliments I have ever received in my life.

After I eat, Jaya takes me to the other shelter. She asks if I want to have some mehindi, Henna, and I am surprised that I haven’t had this done already in my whole time in India. Excited I outstretch my left hand for Rajini, who is a talented artist. Kiran, who I met at Ladli last week, completes my right hand and then in a bustle, I am told I have to leave as the car is coming to take me back to the guesthouse. I don’t want to leave. I am so much enjoying the company of these girls. I try not to touch anything as the brown paste dries on my hands. In the car, Jaya tells me that she comes to the shelter every single day. She lives far away so she has to take two buses to get there. Such selfless service, such devotion to other people is rare in the west, but not in India. When people say karma yoga, the first person that comes to mind is usually Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Karma yoga is the act of service to each other as a means for serving god.

I have a list of things to do before I leave India, so I have had to regrettably cut short my time with I-India. I realise that the only discomfort I have felt when at Children’s Village, or at the shelters, is when I have been served like an honoured guest. In Australia, we only expect service like that when we are paying for it. We don’t really get the idea of selfless service. This cultural difference has become so apparent to me. Since the first time I saw the simple act of touching a respected person’s feet, I have seen that Indian culture is permeated with the essence of devotion to each other as embodiments of god. When one says ‘namaste’, it is not merely a greeting, but recognition of the divine light that resides within each being. I have felt that while visiting these children and young women that I have not been doing enough for them. In thinking of volunteer work, I wanted to be able to offer something of myself to them, but instead have felt like they have been the ones to enrich my lives, to feed me food, sweets and chai. They danced, sung and recited poetry for me and a part of me felt anxious at the idea of receiving so much and feeling like I gave so little. I guess that is part of my social conditioning to believe that I have to give back in order to receive. It is a difficult thing to break down those conditions and accept selfless love. To accept selfless love, in a way, is also to give selfless love.

If there is one thing I have seen with I-India is that it is an organisation built on selfless love and selfless service. From its birth with Mrs Abha’s rickshaw school-on-wheels, to the complex that is the Jhag Children’s Village, still in construction, this is a group of people who saw the needs of others and have devoted their lives to their service. Mr and Mrs Goswami have built their lives around karma yoga, around these women and children who radiate the divine luminosity of beings that are loved.

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