Yesterday started with music. Normally, drums and flutes outside my bedroom window at 8 in the morning would probably send me into a lather, but I'd been awake since six or seven and the advent of such a boisterous and joyful noise after the inner sturm und strang of the day before was most welcome. It felt like a very good omen. I'm sure the bride and groom whose wedding continues apace in the back courtyard hope so too.
I got up and dressed and waited patiently for Gary's friend, Ranjeet to call. I'd received an email from him the night before saying that it would indeed be possible for me to go to an orphanage that works with the Bookwallah Organization
and read to the kids. I expected a call around 9 or 10.
While I waited, listening to the music, my friend Tina started a chat on facebook. When I told her what was going on, she wanted to hear. So, we switched to gmail video chat. What a thrill, chatting from the other side of the planet. However, she couldn't really hear for some reason. So, I had to type anyway. Eventually, I stopped even trying to talk. So, she would talk. I would listen. I would type. She would read. It was like she was deaf and I was mute ~ a fun, lovely shift in perspective.
When the call finally came for me to rendez-vous with the Bookwhallah folks, it was Ranjeet's wife, Shilpa, who called. She explained that she was already on her way to Sister Eliza's and could I meet her there in an hour.
"Sure," I said.
"Great. I'll just sms you the directions, call from the auto when you are on your way, or if you need any help talking to the driver."
After waiting for 10 or 15 minutes for Shilpa's text which wasn't arriving, I started to wonder if I'd mis-understood. Was I to get in the auto-rickshaw and then call her for directions? I texted her trying not to sound too addled, though I felt like a silly, impatient goose. The truth is, I find Indian dialects a bit difficult to understand and after a day spent thoroughly culture shocked, some residual feelings of insecurity still permeated my psyche; I was sure I was never going to understand this place, it's people, or even simple communication.
As soon as I sent my text, Shilpa's directions came through: Ask for the landmark-Sahar Cargo Complex. Take the GTC Road. GTC is cigarette factory. Call me whenever you want. :)
Whew. Ok. Game on. I started to dash out the door. But something called me back in. That morning I had put on my other new Punjabi shirt, but decided to wear my own skirt underneath, instead of the pants. "Sahar Cargo Complex....hmmm....I don't know...I think maybe I want to be wearing pants." I changed quickly and then re-dashed to the corner for a rickshaw.
I had been going south all week; now the rickshaw careened northward. I discovered little warrens of shops and a huge stall filled with yaks for milking. It was a hive of activity. Soon we headed east to the highway, which is quite something in an auto rickshaw, let me tell you.
I think often of the English and their legendary stoic nature when I'm in an auto rickshaw hurtling down a road, millimeters from trucks, cars, motor-bikes, bicycles, cows, humans. Once you choose to get into an auto-rickshaw all you can do is sit there and hope you make it to your destination. There's no point getting into a panic, or asking the driver to slow down. I try to not even hold on. But rather, sitting calmly, with an open, neutral face lest the driver catch me wincing, I challenge myself to keep cool under impossibly strange and harrowing circumstances. Rather British, don't you think?
After 15 minutes or so, we exited the highway and I thought it might be time to call Shilpa for the next set of instructions. That's when I discovered that my phone had no reception. I let a little panic slip in. But then I thought, maybe it's just this little hill I'm next too, I'll get bars in a minute. Sure enough, we turned a corner and, voila, bars. Ok. But then it looked like we were getting on another sort of highway, so I thought I better wait till we got off that major road to call Shilpa ~ no point trying to convey nuanced instructions to the driver while we were on the interstate, right?
You can all groan together now.
That's right. The bars went away again.
They did not return.
Shortly after we ended up side-tracking the highway entrance where I should have called, we approached the end of a cul-de-sac. We had reached Sahar Cargo Complex. It was a large gated place with hundreds and hundred of people milling about out front. Most of them men. To the right of the front doors was a police station and the entrance to Sahar Village, yet another warren of stalls and tiny homes and people. I leaned forward and tried to explain to my driver that I had no reception on my phone to call for further directions, did he know of an orphanage? Sister Eliza? He just looked at me. A man came up to the rickshaw, he sensed that I was obviously in the wrong place, and indicated that he was ready to help. I asked him, "I'm looking for an orphanage? Do you know a Sister Eliza?"
In my mind, I was hoping this Sister Eliza was some famous nun, like Sister Theresa, though I actually pictured her more like some eccentric character that might be known around town for her funny-benevolent ways. I mean, a Catholic nun has to stand out in these parts, right?
I sat in the Rickshaw for a moment deciding whether to just have the driver take me back to the west side, to a place I might get reception. But then I thought, Shilpa said Sahar Cargo Complex, it can't be far. I'll just get out and ask for directions, surely I can walk from here. I was really glad to be wearing pants. It seemed far more likely that I'd get help wearing pants.
I went to the police station. Outside was a large range rover filled with very important looking men. I leaned in and asked them, "Do you know of an orphanage? Sister Eliza?"
One of the officers waved me away and said, "Go ask in there." He indicated a door on the ground floor.
I went inside and found a room partitioned in half. A front half and a back half. There was no elegance to the room. It was a haphazard affair, furnished with old office bits and pieces from God knows when. Straight ahead was a very large desk with a man behind it who was obviously in charge. There was nothing on his desk. He had no phone, no journal, no nothing. He appeared to just sit behind the desk, being in charge. Against the wall to my right, facing into the room, were two smaller desks with men working diligently in journals and the likes, keeping tabs. To the left was another desk facing my direction with a man on a phone, also writing in a large journal as he spoke. There was another non-uniformed gent sitting opposite, ostensibly waiting for information being passed from the other side of the line.
I approached the man with nothing to do. The Man in Charge.
"Excuse me. I'm looking for an orphanage around here run by Sister Eliza? Do you know it?"
"Yes, for children. An orphanage. Sister Eliza runs it."
"No. No orphanage in all of this area. None."
"Well, do you have a phone I could use. My phone doesn't work. I need to call someone."
"You need to call?"
"Yes. My phone is not working. Could I use one of your phones?"
A long pause ensued. Maybe he hoped I would just go away. I waited patiently.
"Ok. Use that one." He gestured to the land-line his co-worker was on at the next desk. "Sit. Wait." Here he motioned for me to stay right there at his desk.
I did as I was told. He then opened a drawer and pulled out a ringing cell phone. He answered it. He closed it. He put it back in the drawer. I waited for the other phone.
The Man in Charge leaned back in his chair. Put his hands behind his head, looked down his nose at me. (Do they teach that posture in "Man in Charge" school? ) "You are working at this place? This orphanage", he asks.
"You are visiting your sister?"
"No, I am seeing the orphanage."
"Huh." Then he turned to someone walking in and I was left alone.
Eventually, the other man, the Phone Man hung up, dispensed his information to the civilian who up and left and I went over and asked if I could make a call. Phone Man scooted the phone over for me to dial. I did. It didn't work. I was unsure exactly where to start dialing the number that came up on my call log. I think there are different prefixes for land and mobile phones or something. So, I asked Phone Man to help. He took my phone and very precisely wrote the number from my call log in his book. Then he carefully picked up his phone and dialed. He listened. He looked at me and nodded. The call was going through; he handed me the phone.
Shilpa answered, "Morgan I have been trying to call you."
"My phone has no service. I am at the police station at Sahar."
"The traffic Police or regular police?"
"Regular, I think."
"Let me talk to someone there."
I gave the phone to Phone Man. He explained where I was, where we were. He hung up. "She will be here. Ten minutes. Not far."
I went out to wait on the front steps. I found a spot out of the flow of traffic and started to take a defensive pose, arms crossed over my heart. I stopped myself. I lowered my arms and grounded my feet instead. I was completely safe. Standing outside a police station in India. Waiting for someone I don't know to take me to an orphanage so that I can read to kids.
People stared. I just stood. Letting the circumstances be as normal as any other. Of course I should be standing there. Of course.
As promised, ten minutes went by and up buzzed an auto-rickshaw. Instead of one lady, two ladies stepped out, waving. Shilpa and her co-Bookwallah volunteer, Sujaya.
|Sujaya and Shilpa|
They ran up to meet me, we exchanged hellos and stories of trying to call each other and realizing at the same time that my phone had gone out of service. Shilpa went in to tell the police that they had collected me. Then off we buzzed to the orphanage, which was not in walking distance to the station as I had imagined it to be.
While we rode, Shilpa and Sujaya told me that in India the Police station is actually the last place they would have chosen to go for help. Strangers, shop keepers first. This didn't surprise me. I think if I had not been somewhat persistent about using a phone, the Man in Charge would probably have let me walk back out into the crazy streets without a second thought for my well being. Ah well, it turned out fine and that's what matters.
Soon we arrived at a tiny hamlet of Sahar Village. The streets became too narrow for the rickshaw to carry us further, so we disembarked and wove our way towards The Blessed Handmaidens of the Holy Trinity School and Orphanage. Though the pathways were torn up for plumbing work, the little enclave was quite lovely and clean. Tiny houses were kept spic and span, walkways swept; the fruit and veg stands were all inviting and well tended. There was a real sense of care, a solid feeling that spoke of family and custody and civility. Though the homes were no more than the size of a one car garage, they all had an aura of expanse, they issued invitations to peek in, to wonder what it would be like to nestle into them for an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime.
The moment we approached our ultimate destination I was thoroughly enchanted. Imagine twisting and turning your way through narrow alley ways, after days of feeling lost and alone, a sort of darkness enveloping you, then finding yourself emerging into a wee courtyard, no "courtyard" is too big, just an open corner in a closely situated hive of homes, and seeing a place that radiated light and energy and hope.
The school was actually founded by a Sister Paulette in 1990 as a place for under-privileged kids to get an education. They raise funds for tuition for a handful of students who could not afford to go to another school. The cost per child for this school, if I understood correctly, is 250rs. That's 5 bucks. In addition to the school, Sister Paulette, along with Sister Eliza, house and care for roughly 15 orphans. That's who I came to read to.
I have no idea how big the school and orphanage is, but I suspect it is not very big at all. I was led over the threshold into a lovely room about 10 feet by 12 feet. The floors were a bright white and red marble, gleaming. Inside 5 girls were practicing a dance for Republic Day celebrations which are coming up on Wednesday. I met Sister Eliza who I could tell is clearly a character though we only had brief interactions. She took my hand to shake it, then deposited two brisk kisses, one to each cheek, a gesture I had not encountered, nor expected to encounter, in India.
Shilpa, Sujaya and I were deposited in the corner to watch the dance rehearsals. This was the only room big enough for the practice to take place. So we would have to wait for all the girls to get their turn. Then the teachers would rehearse their song. Then the orphans would get their book.
I couldn't have been happier to wait and watch the dancing. Simply Beautiful. If that had been all I'd seen yesterday I would have been thrilled.
But then the orphans arrived.
I'm just gonna say it. The word "orphan" has certain connotations. With it, I associate other words like "dour", "depressed", "sullen". These kids are having none of that. They are curious, affectionate, playful, bright, and full of love.
We played a bit of peek a boo with the camera while the teachers went over their song.
Then it was time to read. Bookwallah was started by my friend Gary Mills, who writes plays and books for children, along with his friends Seena and Ranjit as a way to get kids interested in reading and learning, kids who, until Bookwallah came into their lives, might never have held a book of their own. Waiting for me on the table were four stories for me to choose from. I started with the one on top. One of my favorite books of all time: The Giving Tree
As I'm typing I am suddenly over come with tears. The Giving Tree
is so poignant all on its own. A story about a tree and a boy who love each other. Over the years the tree gives everything it can to the boy, who, once his youth of playing with and swinging in the branches of the tree is over, only comes to visit when he needs something: Money~the tree gives apples, A House~the tree gives its branches, A Boat~The tree gives it's trunk. After each visit from the boy and gift given by the tree, the book reads, "And the Tree was happy." Except when it gives up it's trunk and the boy goes off leaving the once glorious tree as a stump, then the book reads "And the tree was happy. But not really." At the end, the boy comes back, now an old old man. The tree explains it has nothing left to give. The boy-man explains that he is very old, all he needs is someplace to sit and rest. The tree straightens up and says that old stumps are good for sitting. The boy sits. "And the tree was happy."
Poignant, right? Now imagine reading such a love-story to a group of wide-eyed beauties who are all motherless and fatherless?
Now hear, if you will, one tall boy saying with you, each time the refrain appeared: And the Tree was Happy.
I cannot contain that much love, the too muchness of love that came with hearing that boy say repeatedly, "And the Tree was Happy."
I went on to read three more books. The Gingerbread Boy
which is an illustrated version of the song, and a book by Spike-Lee called, "Please, baby, please"
where a mother tries to get her baby to do all sorts of things that babies aren't inclined to do: sleep, share, etc. At the end, the tables get turned and as the mother turns out the light the baby says something like, "one kiss, mama, please, mama, please."
Forget. About. It.
There is only one reason why I wasn't a puddle on the floor. Because all along these kids were cuddling and vying to see and read; all they wanted was to hear the story, to be talked to, shared with. They were not concerned with their lost kisses, their absent mothers. They were living in the shared moment of that story. It was such a pure illustration of the power of story-telling, of art.
When I was finished reading I asked for a favor: a picture. While we were getting into place for a photo, I heard one particularly small child scurrying behind me say, "Please, Baby, Please."
When they got up to leave each orphaned child came for a touch, hug, a hand shake. They all said, "Thank you, Didi." Sujaya explained that "Didi" means older sister. If you ever want to make me melt, just call me "Didi."
The day goes on, my friends. Shilpa and Sujaya took me out for Thalis, a lunch made up of many marvelous small dishes that are eaten by hand with various breads. We went to Shilpa and Ranjeet's neighborhood, Powai. As Shilpa explained, this area is quite planned. It is also more western. It is organized and neat and filled with high-rises and air-conditioned buildings, malls, super-markets. It was very beautiful and so unexpected after my week of inner-city exposure.
We three ladies sat at lunch discussing bookwallah, family stuff, cultural differences. I told them how I'd taken the train at rush hour. They were amazed. Neither of them had taken anything but a car or auto-rickshaw in years. We laughed. They took me to a store and Shilpa, who got my tastes instantly, started pointing out fantastic clothes. I gave into one great billowy pair of pants. I'm wearing them now. Indian clothes feel a little bit like pj's. Not a bad way to dress, if you ask me. It felt so natural, so real, suddenly, to be in Mubai.
One of the cultural differences we'd discussed was that Indians are not huggers. I'd been told this by several people, read it in my guide. I related how when Payel was finally setting off for the hospital I had been flummoxed by what to do. My American instinct was to give her a hug, but I knew that wasn't appropriate. Finally, as I stood in the kitchen hemming and hawing, I finally said, "Payel, I know it isn't Indian, but I would so like to give you a hug before you go." She laughed and said, "No, oh, of course you can." And I did.
Leaving Shilpa and Sujaya I insisted on more hugs. They willingly obliged. I could not have ended the day without hugs. I also said, "Thank you" as many times as I could get away with, another decidedly un-Indian thing to do. But I don't care. I can't say it enough for it to express the amount of gratitude I feel for the day they gave me.
But wait, there's MORE. After the day comes night.
Following an exhausting (and exhaust filled) rickshaw ride home, I decided to head right back out to Juhu Beach and a little theatre called Prithvi. I had half an hour to make a six o'clock curtain. I barely made it when what should have been a 15 minute commute encountered Saturday Night in Mumbai traffic. Holy Moly. Juhu Beach, which had been a calm, almost deserted beach on Tuesday, was now chock a block full of thousands of people. THOUSANDS. It was quite a sight to see hundreds of women in saris wading into the Arabian Sea, kids playing, families out for a Saturday evening stroll. I'd show you, but I left my camera at home.
At Privthi, I was going to The Ramaleena
. As the man at the ticket counter said, very dismissively when I enquired if I could still get a ticket, "It's a hindi play." The premise of this particular Hindi play is that a production of The Ramayana is supposed to start, but the main actor walks out for various reasons I didn't understand. With an impatient audience, the director has no choice but to do the play with stand-ins. It was basically Hindu mythology meets Shakespeare's mechanicals. Sure I couldn't catch everything. But the physical story telling was so brilliant, crisp, clean that I got a heck of a lot. I even managed to get the running jokes about the stand-in who played the bad guy not being able to pronounce the big words. I didn't need to know what the words were to begin with to know that he was really messing them up. Another instance of the power of good story-telling.
When I emerged from the theater the city was teeming with people. It was insane. People EVERYWHERE. I tried three times to get a rickshaw to take me to Santa Cruz Station. No one would take my money.
I thought, here I am, I've made it through this day of police stations and harrowing rickshaw rides across town and now, NOW I am finally going to hit an impasse. I had started to fall asleep in the theater from sheer exhaustion and now I was looking at either walking for an hour through hordes of people or calling Ranjiv at the hospital for help. Finally, phone in my hand ready to dial, I made one last attempt at getting myself out of trouble and I asked a cab driver if he would take me to Santa Cruz station, thinking maybe a cab might be different from a rickshaw. Sure enough he would, but at three times the fare I'd paid to come to Prithve.
"Sold", I said.
At that high price, I was determined to ask him to take me right to my door instead of dropping me off at the usual spot three blocks away by the farmers market. I soon discovered, however, why so many people had refused my fare. A thousand vehicles seemed to be going to Santa Cruz Station. It took forever. When we did make it to my neighborhood I got out even before the usual spot, just to be out of the car.
Lucky I did, otherwise I would have missed the fact that contrary to the rest of the cities I know of, in Mumbai farmers markets and street vendors are even more busy and packed at nine o'clock at night than they are at nine in the morning. My neighborhood was as bustling as I've ever seen it. Through the haze of mind-boggling fatigue I navigated the Christmas lights and candy sellers and mango carts, the men leading kids around on ponies, women shopping for saris, the cars, the rickshaws, the dogs, to my quiet little home away from home.
I washed. I changed into actual pjs. I crawled into bed.
And this tree was happy.