I had never expected to be in India. It wasn’t the exotic beauty that had drawn me. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure; but they were not what pulled me close, made the place somehow a part of my soul before I had even arrived.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Many of them are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets.
Amidst the growing prosperity of India, there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than 25 million in all. They are invisible children, their plight virtually unnoticed by the world, their voices silenced.
In Choudwar, a small town about 100 miles south of Calcutta, a man named Damodar Sahoo, lovingly known as Papa, has dedicated his life to providing some sort of family for hundreds of these children.
The organization with which he works, the Servants of India Society, is funded and managed by the Miracle Foundation and assisted by donations and volunteers from the United States. I had no way of knowing just how much it would change my life.
Eleven dazed Americans emerge into piercing sunlight and walk across the tarmac to the small terminal. As our group enters, we are immediately spotted by Papa. Alongside him are his wife, two women who work at the orphanage, and three of the children. As we show our passports and enter the gate, one by one, the little girls hand us each a bouquet of flowers, kissing their fingers and bending down to touch our feet in a blessing.
We are crammed into vehicles with our luggage and zoom down the dirt road, peppered with potholes, narrowly missing bicycles, pedestrians, cows and rickshaws. India is everything I imagined it would be – only more so.
More colors, more noises, more smells, more people, more everything. It is an assault on all the senses at once. There is the constant beep-beep of the horns, deteriorating buildings, ragged street vendors and ramshackle homes. The wonderful and the abject co-exist side by side, for the most part, peacefully.
However, there is much beauty in the midst of it all. The warmth and shyness of the people, the colorful saris, the upscale shops next to the vendors, the swaying trees surrounding it all. I am enchanted by a brief glimpse into an ornate Hindu temple, candles glowing and people bowing their heads to the ground in prayer.
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