During my last visit to Mumbai, India (October 2010), I was trying to find an organization that would be willing to accept cloth diapers generated through Lil Helper and the Baby Do Good project. I asked around and someone suggested I go to Asha Daan, an orphanage run by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. Asha means hope in Hindi and Daan means charity.
I have lived the first 19 years of my life in Mumbai and had faint memories of Asha Daan from my childhood. My dad would occasionally drop off wheat and rice there. I had never ventured past the gates.
My young self had naively imagined that Asha Daan would be abound with street urchins. This was the image of orphanages I had painted in my mind. Oliver Twist and Bollywood flicks mainly fueled this illusion.
Innocent? Ignorant? Maybe both.
My youngest brother, Mustanshir, and my cousin, Fatema, accompanied me to Asha Daan. As soon as we entered through the gates of the orphanage, a kid, 9 or 10 years of age, approached us with a toothy smile and cheerfulness that could perhaps only be achieved if you’d give up reading the newspaper. He readily introduced himself as Ravi.
One of Ravi’s cornea was discolored. He greeted me, asked me my name, where I had come from, what I do for a living, etc. If it wasn’t for his stature you could easily mistake him for an immigration officer. Thankfully he didn’t find it necessary to finger print me. He latched his hand on mine and called me uncle.
A Sign of Respect
Any man or woman who is deemed to be 5-10 years older than you is ripe to be called Uncle or Aunty in India. Not doing so would be considered disrespectful. People who look your age or a little bit older than yourself are called bhai for older brother or bhen for older sister. Most people will not address you by your first name; only adults are allowed that privilege over kids. When I first started university in Canada as an international student, I would call my elderly building superintendent Peter Uncle- he didn’t like it.
Holding my hand, Ravi guided our party of three to the head nun’s, Sister Mary Infanta’s, office. She was on the phone, so we waited outside.
There was a printed notice that I saw pinned on of one of the doors. It read:
“Welcome to Asha Daan.
Dear visitors and friends, we cherish you spending your time with us. Do not just hand down to us eatables, our appetite for lunch may be ruined. Give whatever you brought for us to the person in charge. And God bless you. We thank you for not taking photos, but you probably leave with our imprint in your heart. Do not show us pity, we are happy. If you doubt, then just ask us “Kaise hai?” (How are you?) and what you will hear will cheer you. Then, if you have come as a visitor, you will leave as a friend.
Please come again. We love to keep in touch.”
Ravi tugged my hand, beckoning me to go inside the office. Sister Mary asked me a small subset of the questions that had just been fronted by Ravi. Since he already knew the answers and then some, he took it upon himself to let the nun know it all. At the end of the short interview, an exchange about me that I didn’t participate in, Ravi looked up at me as if to ask if he did fine. I nodded in approval.
Difficult? Yes. Heart Melting? Even More So.
Sister Mary informed us that most of the children in their care were not orphans. They were abandoned. All of the children were either mentally or physically challenged. Their parents gave them up at birth to orphanages in different parts of the state. Some of the kids were left at the hospital where they were born. Some were left at Asha Daan’s doorstep. As these kids would have a tough time being adopted they are filtered through the loosely strung and highly porous child welfare system in India till they turn up at Asha Daan, one of the few places in the country that would accept them. Some of the kids will live here for the rest of their lives.
Asha Daan houses approximately 300 mentally and physically challenged kids, out of which 41 were infants. This number includes even individuals who are adults. They had a separate dormitory for 20-odd HIV+ women, abandoned by their families. There was also a large shed where 120-130 destitute men stayed temporarily.
There was a small girl, not more than 12 years, on a wheelchair huddled amongst a small group of children. I could see her looking at us from the corner of my eye, but didn’t think it would be respectful to divert my attention from Sister Mary.
No sooner did I look in the direction of the little girl on the wheel chair, she waved at me with the familiarity of a long lost friend and a smile that sometimes still radiates from within me.
Sister Mary offered to take me through the facility. I reluctantly agreed.
I feel uncomfortable in the company of mentally challenged kids. It is not that I find their impairments distasteful or unfortunate. Maybe I do not want to think of how easily I could have been in their place. Just 1 DNA sequence or gene, out of the 30,000 genes, could have misfired and my physical and/or mental capacity would dilute. Or maybe, by being willfully ignorant of the plight and challenges that are faced by children who are not deemed “normal”, I can continue to live in my little oyster of a world. Or maybe, I do not know how to interact with children who do not communicate in conventional ways. I still struggle to find a logical explanation for my odd behavior.
More Than A ‘Tour’
Sister Mary walked me around the first of five dormitories, which houses around 60 kids below the age of 18 years. Once the kids reach adulthood they are segregated by sex into two separate dorms. Some kids go to a special school. The kids were afflicted with all kind of challenges. A lot of them had cerebral palsy; few were visually impaired; a couple of kids had their limbs missing; some had Down’s syndrome. There were a few women, nuns and volunteers, who were playing and feeding the kids. All of the kids were wearing clean clothes and they looked tidy. Ravi was still holding my hand tight. He probably knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it through the facility without his patient company.
As much as I wanted to learn about the children, there was a feeble voice in my head coercing me to flee. It is the scared and weak part of my psyche that would make me run away when I should stand my ground and force me to shut-up when I should have spoken.
I had always thought that disabled kids spend their days being disabled. The limited contact that I’ve had with challenged kids lead me to believe that they must be unhappy because they are not “normal” and they more or less sit in a corner.
I was surprised that the kids despite their physical and health conditions were cheerful. The happiness on their faces was pure. All the kids had smiles that would put Richard Branson to shame. When you looked into their eyes, you could see the clarity in their conscience. When they interacted with me, though briefly, they gave me their complete attention, a feat that I still struggle with on a daily basis. They were doing things that all kids do- playing and being carefree.
They had challenges, but they were not disabled.
Sister Mary informed me that they have enough food supply due to the benevolence of a bunch of people. They only had a couple of wheel chairs that were currently being shared by the kids with mobility issues. She told me it would be nice if the kids had another wheel chair, so that they can get around a little more. She was also complaining about the rising cost of adult disposable diapers that some of the older children had to wear. But one thing that she wanted above everything else is for people to come and spend time with the kids.
She pointed out the dorms for the older occupants. I excused myself from visiting them so as to not intrude their privacy. I was being overwhelmed already by what I was seeing.
I took the Sister’s leave and thanked her for her time.
Ravi, like a graceful host, left me till the gate and invited me to come as often as I could. I wasn’t saying much in the fear that I might start crying.
As we sat in the car, I burst into tears. I am a fairly emotional person and my eyes well up for random things too. But that day I cried like I was expelling bad spirits from my body. I have only cried like that a few times before and haven’t done it since then.
Having spent my formative years in Mumbai, I was no stranger to abject poverty. The slums, beggars and hoards of street dwellers are ubiquitous in the landscape of the city, so much so that you stop noticing them. Living in a society where street urchins try and sell magazines to a tinted Mercedes numbs you of the deprivation. But what I saw and experienced at Asha Daan shocked my core.
In my brief time there, I was forced to acknowledge the kids as human beings and not just scenery in a chaotic panorama of one of the most populous cities in the world.
These kids were coping with their situation like champions, but I couldn’t help but feel that they must miss their parents.
It also put the recently diagnosed disability of my then 4 month-old daughter in perspective. I had avoided thinking about it till that point. I will elaborate in a later post.
From Perspective to Happiness Determination
That day I realized, if I want X things right now, once I get those X things- I will gun for X+1 things. If my condition for being happy is acquiring materialistic things, then there will be no end to it. If the kids at Asha Daan could be happy with what little they have, why can I not find peace and contentment at my current station in life.
No, I haven’t become a monk. I still have goals and aspirations- some of them are still lofty. But I have promised myself that I will try and find happiness in my family and other pleasures, like the company of good friends and books. My happiness will not depend on the car I drive or will not be measured by the size of my house.
I have also promised myself to spend time at Asha Daan whenever I move back to Mumbai.
Have you had an experience that overwhelmed your being? What was it? And what came out of it? Please leave a comment.