Traveling in India
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.
A Small Town in Calcutta
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.
The Incredible View of India
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.
Beauty is not to be separated out, sanitized, and kept apart for its own sake.
The true measure of beauty lay in its imperfections; to see it, one must embrace it all. India immediately wraps itself around me and refuses to let go.
And in the children, beauty seems to come alive, almost making me believe it is a living entity I can capture in my hands.
Without warning, we lurch around a village corner and turn into the orphanage entrance. The cars stop and a hundred children line in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” repeatedly.
I open the car door and they are all around me, touching my feet in blessing. The children are shy at first, obviously excited but reticent.
One little girl, about seven years old, summons her courage and touches my arm, then grasps my hand. “Hello,” she says softly, looking up at me and just as quickly dropping her eyes, giggling.
As soon as she does this, the crowd of surrounding children sheds their reserve and instantly moves in closer, putting their hands out for me to shake.
There is a never-ending supply of hands raised in front of me and I shake them over and over.
I am overwhelmed and unsure what to do, blindly following behind Papa as he moves into the ashram, or communal retreat.
It is almost surreal and happening quickly. I don’t have time to look around or get any sense of where I am in the darkness.
Everywhere Followed by Children
There are just the children, all around, and my feet moving forward until we arrive in a courtyard. The children, as one, leave our sides and begin climbing a staircase in an orderly fashion.
We follow with the dozen staff members, removing our shoes at the top of the stairs and entering the prayer room.
The children are already lined up and sitting on rugs on the floor, boys on one side and girls on the other, ages progressively going up toward the back with older kids sitting behind younger.
I am handed a small bouquet of red roses and marigolds and led to a spot on the mats.
At the front of the room is an altar holding flowers, small trinkets of devotion, a picture of the guru Sai Baba and a statue of Vishnu, an ancient Hindu god.
Tacked to the walls on all sides are pictures of other Hindu gods, Ganesh and Krishna, as well as Jesus, Mary, Mother Theresa and Mohammed.
Ceiling fans whir overhead to stir up the warm air. A staff member lights incense at the altar while another blows a horn softly. The children sit up straighter and cease any fidgeting or whispering.
Then the prayers begin with a simple chant: “Om….om..,” the small voices resonate deeply.
The chanting gives way to a song, a hundred sweet voices dance in the air and fill the room. Beside me on the rug sits one of the smallest girls, with glossy black curls and deep dimples.
She is sitting lotus-style with her middle fingers and thumbs pressed together on the knees of her yellow and green flowered dress, eyes squinted tightly shut in concentration.
The Prayer of Life
Her strong, clear singing distinctly carries to my ears apart from the others. The voice of this three-year-old rising so pure and true is one of the most powerful sounds I had ever heard.
Soon the singing fades into silence and Papa prays. He says there are many religions represented and respected in the ashram.
“Here, there are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. We pray,” Papa said, “to God and Allah and Jesus and Mohammed. The meaning of life is to love all. The purpose of life is to serve all.”
It is a simple prayer, reminding me that life need not be complicated unless we make it so. A soothing peace palpable in the air fills me and I breathe out deeply.
The past 40 hours of travel with little sleep falls away as if it were nothing. There seems to be no other world outside this place.
As Papa speaks my eyes travel over the faces around me. I wonder when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had.
As much of a loving community as the ashram seems, it is not the family that most of the children had once known.
I suppose the pieces of memory fade until this strange new place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day the children realize they are home.
If You Go
The Miracle Foundation
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer and author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. For the past three years she has been traveling throughout India, getting to know dozens of children living in orphanages and on the streets, victims of AIDS, trafficking and child labor.