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Letter from India: Silent Cries

January 2007
Letter from India: Silent Cries

I saw him in 1999. He must have been about ten years old—a mere stack of bones with every ounce of life suctioned out of him. Naked, he was crawling on the street, defecating and vomiting simultaneously—this right outside the venerated Babulnath Mandir, just off Chowpatty beach in Mumbai.

I whizzed past that dying child in my chauffeur driven Opal Astra. But I carry that image with me. It pops up in my head every now and then. It surfaced unexpectedly this holiday season when more jewelry and cashmere came my way.

A weekly trip to an organic food store in south Mumbai takes me past a fishermen's village where unclothed children play about mounds of garbage. My American friends have often questioned me about the seamless coexistence of poverty and plentitude in India. (Post Katrina their query has become more introspective.) My philanthropy has thus far been limited to handing out small bills to beggars, purchasing UNICEF greeting cards and the occasional roll of wrapping paper from the Spastic Society, and donating blood.

In India it seems serious charity is no longer limited to corporate houses and those with a tax write-off agenda. The BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) generation appears to have an altruistic muscle. My twenty-something nephew tells me about the mentor program for street children that he has signed up for. He suggests running an Internet search for NGOs working with orphans—a cause close to my heart. I am amazed with the endless directory listings.

I decide to visit Asha Daan somewhere in the Byculla labyrinth. Run by the Missionaries of Charity (founded by the late Mother Teresa), it houses handicapped children and destitute adults. Established in a warehouse allotted by a large conglomerate, the premises are cleaner than I had expected. The expansive room for children is neatly lined with metal cot beds painted blue. The air is cool, perhaps on account of the high ceilings. Strangely, I don't hear anyone crying.

A soft-spoken Sister dressed in the trademark white and blue sari greets me. She tells me that the police bring abandoned children to the facility, from railway stations, garbage dumps, pavements, just about anywhere.

A handicapped child on a wooden board with wheels brushes past me. Wheelchairs are obviously a luxury. I inquire about volunteering: any particular area in need of hands? Drop by and spend time, even half an hour a week, I am told. The children hanker after love above everything else.

Three-year-old Avinash wanders in. I smile. He stares vacantly at my three-month-old daughter dressed in Baby Gap, snug in a sling. He says nothing. I wish I could get a glimpse of the innocent child buried in that worn body. What does he long for—food, clothes, toys? Has he ever tasted the sweetness of chocolate? Or felt his mother's tender touch?

The Sister urges me to keep my commitment if I were to make one. "Once children start depending on you, they get upset if you don't come back." I wonder if I can frequent a place that houses so much tragedy. Do I have the heart to hold a dirty, diseased orphan and love it like my own even for a few minutes? I stare (even though I shouldn't) at Avinash's stoic face—yes, I can. I must.

But not today. I am overwhelmed, heartbroken at this first-hand encounter with children robbed of their childhood.

I fight back the tears and present the Sister with a small monetary donation and a pledge to return. I see Avinash glance in my direction and turn away. I will see him again.

--Reetika Nijhawan

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