Independence Day

15_aug_1405wAugust 15th is Independence Day in India.  Our girls danced in the school program.   At other Independence Day celebrations I’ve been a guest, or speaker, or sponsor.  But this time I was a parent, rushing the kids out the door because WE got the time wrong,  pinning sashes so they wouldn’t fall of their shoulders as the they danced, and taking pictures (always).  Gibi arrived in time to cue them from the sidelines. 

They danced just fine.  Always looking to be sure we were watching, they concentrated on holding their fingers in the right positions, tapping their feet at the right time, turning right, or left or kneeling when they should.   They danced with gusto and with pride; they felt glorious.

To celebrate Independence Day means to understand you are part of a country with a history, with a pride, with songs and stories, and great leaders whose names you hear over and over.  Our girls came to us with only vague concepts of India.  None of them could identify India on a map, or understand that Bangladesh and Pakistan were countries that bordered India.  Now they know our home address, the city, the state, the country.  India on the map has a unique shape with special meaning to them now. Time, Place, and Person, the three major criteria of awareness in the mental status examination.  Today our girls know about calendars and about countries, cities, communities.  But "person" or "who I am" remains elusive. 

Remember, they are orphans, so their pasts have to be reconstructed with bits of information, bits of memory.  Some came without names or ages, so before they began school we practiced names and ages, and how to respond when other children, or teachers, asked about their families.   

Part of the community, and outsider too — this is the duality of their lives, now and probably throughout their lives.  They are insiders until certain questions come up, and then they are outsiders.  To the extent that we, the founders, can be part of the community, their acceptance increases.  But always there is a point of separation, the moment they are asked,

What is your mother’s name?

What is your father’s name?

Do you have any sisters or brothers?

Where are you from?

Our girls have no birth certificates.  They cannot prove who they are, or even that they are citizens of the country whose independence they celebrate.

Amader Meye’ra


Amader Meye’ra
Floating in the darkened night,
Wailing to come home.

"Our girls"  that’s what Amader Meye’ra is in Bengali.  Like everything else about Childlife Preserve: Shishur Sevay, these words are a combination of English and Bengali….

First came the words, and then the picture — or maybe together…. the outside wall of Shishur Sevay in April 2006 when we bought the house — and then the words, as time went on and we faced obstacle after obstacle, and yet i felt the girls’ presence — my children out there — frightened, waiting, wailing.  I put together the words and the picture.  Here was the address where I was waiting for them.  I showed it to people, like opening my heart… but I think mostly people just smiled politely — and I understand that.

But that’s how it felt, like the girls were out there already waiting, that all of this was predestined, that i had to understand that each obstacle, each delay, would still bring us to the place where the "right" assortment of us would all be together at Shishur Sevay.  Sometimes it was hard to remember this.

It was like this when I adopted, 23 years ago — waiting for the child I knew i was to mother, naming her so she could find her way back to her name, and thus to me.  Now at Shishur Sevay, I was waiting.  I renovated, added a room, made the house more beautiful.    I secretly sprinkled glitter into the cement as the roof was being poured.  I wanted the roof to sparkle in case the children were coming by flying elephant.  I wrote a story once about Sarmu a flying elephant who brought children home to their mothers.  Always I heard my children calling.

Sarmu and Ma Kali brought them home.

Trains in India will never be the same

Yesterday I traveled by train.  I hadn’t been at Howrah Station since children came.  Now it was a different place for me, because my girls had wandered the tracks, sat on the platforms and looked up the TV hanging from the steel rafters.  I looked at those TV screens and imagined my children sitting right there on the floor.  I entered the train car and took my seat.  Three waif like children reached through the bars, hands cupped to receive..  I wondered,  "Were they friends of my girls in a lifetime ago?"  As the train rolled,  I looked at the shacks, and the families living on the open hillsides.  My girls talk about living in the open, along sides of ponds, along tracks, wandering, without shacks.

My first trip to Mumbai, (then Bombay) was ten years ago, when I traveled in my corporate role with Johnson & Johnson — One day I crossed a street toward a hospital entrance, when another waif girl about ten, a baby on her hip, ran up to me, "Aunty, Aunty!" she pleaded with me, hands cupped.  Her skin was the deep dark color of my daughter’s, her face not so different — they could have been sisters.  That could have been my daughter… images and thoughts as vivid now as then. 

The begging children at Howrah Station reminded me of my orphans.  I imagined them showered and dressed, pretty clips in their hair, faces glowing instead of their ashen look of dried skin.   My children’s skin has changed since they came to us.  Their arms and legs have many scars, pock marks, remnants of past trauma and infections.  But the skin is softer and smoother now, the the range of colors deeper and more intense.  And the girls don’t itch all the time.

Trains aren’t the same.  Begging children aren’t the same.  We have encounters and then we are changed — then I am changed, and so on….

August 2007
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