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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Day 131 – Ladli Vocational Training Centre

A short distance from the I-India head office is the Ladli Vocational Training Centre. When school is finished children have the option to come here and train in stitchwork, jewellery-making, block-printing and tailoring. There are also English, drawing and dance classes available. When I enter, everyone is busy at their stations on the floor though the atmosphere is extremely relaxed. I sit down at the card-making section next to a girl named Tulsi. She looks up at me with a beautiful smile and starts chatting in perfect English. Though she dismisses the compliment, we begin talking about studying and she tells me that she will soon begin college and study Hindi literature. Her favourite authors are Swami Vivekananda and Tulsi Das. She is surprised that I have heard of Swami Vivekananda though I shyly admit that I haven’t read his books. The other girls point at my tattoos so I show them my dolphin, bird and unicorn. I have learned he Hindi words for fish, bird and horse and they seem satisfied with the explanation. I start to draw my dolphin and bird tattoo on a blank card and ask Tulsi if she knows the story. I start to tell her about the bird and the fish that fell in love when suddenly she exclaims, “Yes! I know this story. There is a story like this one in Hindi! They can’t be together because the fish cannot live in the air and the bird cannot live in the water.” I am a little surprised that she knows the story since most westerners don’t, but then it is likely that this is originally a Hindi story. It makes sense when you consider the issues of caste and arranged marriages that are common to Indian couples.

After lunch, the girls rest for an hour. I join another group and receive another lesson in Hindi. Today I am learning fruits and colours and how to ask where someone is from. The part of my brain that is storing all the Indonesian for that exam in the near future is probably going to suffer for this later but at the moment I am just relishing the flavours of this new language. When they tell me the word for grape is anggur, I get a little excited because it is the same in Bahasa Indonesia! That is where the similarities end for now. Kusum and Binki ask if I am married. I try to explain that I was engaged but that I am not anymore, but they don’t care about that, they just want to know if it was a love match or arranged. I say love match and try not to think of the horrors that would ensue from a marriage arranged by my mother, or even worse, my father. One of the girls is only 17 and bears the red strip of glittery paste going up from the centre hairline that is only worn by married girls. She has only been married a couple of weeks and still does not live with her husband until next year. She seems incredibly unfazed by this small detail of her life. For her, it is what it is.

Leaving Ladli, I ask how much it costs to send one of these girls to college for a degree. I am told it is 12,000Rs per year. That is about $250 USD per year, to give a girl a chance at a meaningful career and an independent life.

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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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Day 129 – eating carbs alone

Over breakfast chai, I am reading the paper one last time with the girls. I am feeling nervous about setting off on my own for the next few days. I have been pushing this niggling feeling away all morning. Of course, The Times of India have an article called the Speaking Tree and today it is about self-love. Talking about loving and respecting the self, first, the writer says, ‘Ask: Could you live with yourself on a deserted island?’ Beside it, in the Sacred Space column are quotes by various Gurus about being Free of Fear. One of them is Swami Rama. What are the chances? It says ‘All your fears should be examined so that you can remain fearless as long as you live.’ India always seems to have a message for me when I need it the most.

Sadly, I hug my friends one more time as they leave for Uddaipur. I am at the Janpath Guesthouse in the Sodala area. Mr Tyagi, the owner of the guesthouse, is like grandpa and even though he speaks perfect English, he is a little hard of hearing so I have to slow down my usual rapid stream-of-consciousness and speak a little louder. His wife speaks no English, but he tells me that she likes my tattoo of wings on the back of my neck. I need to change money so I am taken in the car with one of their assistants as he submits my details to the local police and runs some other errands. After Sumatra, Bali, Rishikesh and Agra, the heat of Rhajasthan seems normal. I am sweating out of my shirt but I barely notice anymore. I would always prefer to be hot than cold.

Back at the guesthouse, it is already 1.30pm when I call Mr Prabhaker who tells me to just relax and settle in and we can start tomorrow. My over-active Vata energy wants to just get started but I know I need to rest. I have been going without stopping for the past five days and I can’t remember the last time I had an afternoon to just be alone and read a book. I also have some clothes that need to be washed. I should go and get online but I need to eat something so I take the short walk to a sandwich shop across the road. I get a Veg Burger that is mostly bread, a packet of corn chips that pretend to be jalapeno flavoured and a large bar of Silk Cadbury Roasted Almond. Alone in my room, I sit down on the edge of the bed and eat. It suddenly occurs to me that although I came to India alone, I haven’t actually been alone at all. I was immediately thrown into the family of the STP program at the ashram, then I went trekking with Yon and ended up trekking with a small group of blokes, then met Pri and had a bit of a girls’ trip… Now I am finally alone and the first thing I do is overload on carbs and eat a single person’s meal. It. Is. AWESOME. I munch happily at the chips, though they are not spicy at all and then finish with three pieces of chocolate. The packet says it should be stored below 26 degrees. I know it is going to be well over that in here when I don’t have the fan on. I briefly consider finishing the whole thing right now but I don’t feel like having a tummy ache.

In my solitude I am struck with the possibility of doing so much. I write, I read, I roll out the yoga mat and then I lie down on the bed for a moment and fall asleep. When I wake up it is late afternoon. I feel like I have wasted all my solitude! I think I slept for at least two hours, which will probably interrupt my sleep tonight. I slowly roll out of bed and find my way to my poor, forgotten yoga mat. I have been running on the treadmill at the gym of the hotel the past couple of days so my legs are tight and sore. I need to stretch. Afterwards, in savasana, I start to dream about what it will be like to get back to Sydney, seeing my friends and family for the first time and getting a real soy mocha. I gently pull myself back to the yoga mat I am lying on. Be here now, Liz. When it is over, you will be dreaming about India again so just be present and enjoy the final week and a half of cows in the streets, real chai and chapatti. As of tomorrow, I get to offer back some of my gratitude to this beautiful country for the gifts it has given me. This will be the best part.