“When You Walk Through A Storm…”

From Rodgers & Hammerstein musical CAROUSEL


When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark.
Walk on, through the wind,
Walk on, through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart,
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never walk alone.





This song came to me this morning as I walked home from taking the girls to school, Ganga on my back.  The song comforts and strengthens me. 

 24-11-08 wal alone 006w

It also has a past for me, real and symbolic.  It's the song with the high notes I couldn't reach and was therefore ridiculed by the teacher and kicked out of the school Glee Club.  I can still hear her booming voice, "WHO IS THAT SINGING IN THE BACK ROW WHO CANNOT REACH THE NOTE?"  Meekly I said, "me" and she sent me from the room. "YOU ARE OUT OF GLEE CLUB!"  As that was some 55 years ago, I can safely assume I will never get over the shame I felt, and the loss, and the self label, "I can't sing."


Most of my life though I have walked alone.


This morning I sang softly to Ganga, and like most little children made no complaint about my voice.  She was just happy to have me back home after four days away.  She has been a brave and strong little one, worried, keeping an eye on my office, waiting for me to walk through the door.  But unlike past times, she didn't run fevers or cry inconsolably.  She waited, for her off-tune, walking-along Mummy to come home.


I was in Frankfurt Germany for three days, visiting with Cici, my younger daughter.  She is OK about being talked about on my blog.  We talk and visit through Facebook.  She is never embarrassed by my writing.  She loves to share my work with her friends.  She loves that I am part of their worlds too.  And this is true, that I am.  I believe that her generation is different, better in some way that will be evident in the future.  They are not so cynical.    But she IS embarrassed when I wear a saree in Frankfurt, rather a normal reaction. The first reason is that I gained weight so my western clothes didn't fit.  I never got shopping because of chaos here.   But I guess I just wanted to wear a saree,  one of those things in my head, a kind of adolescent wish to be accepted as I am by my daughter.  She was good spirited about it. I gave her permission to post on Facebook the most embarrassing picture. But the one she put up was small and mild.  Below you will see what/who she had to walk beside as we explored Frankfurt and talked, and talked. 



If you look closely at this picture you will also see the untied shoe laces.  She was kind and tolerant, and never told me directly what she felt.  She just told me what her friends back home told her when she reported on my appearance!



Wearing a saree in Frankfurt, just wearing a saree leaving Kolkata, was  a much more powerful experience than I had anticipated.  I wasn't just a tourist leaving Kolkata for Germany, but clearly had a base, an attachment, my own internal sense of belonging.  Indians smiled at me.  I smile at Indians but they don't "recognize" me when I am in Western clothes.  I am a stranger.  But with a saree on, with my Nike sneakers (common dress for traveling non-fashion conscious older Bengali women) I really look more "familiar," and so my smile is returned.   In India I have worn a saree exclusively since February 2004.  I started because my daughter didn't know how to wear a saree and neither did her Indian friends raised in the US.  So I wanted to be a mom who could teach her to wear a saree (for the once a year occasion when she wanted to).  I figured the best way to learn was to wear it every day when I was in India.  I really loved wearing it, and it meant a lot to the people I was with, as it means a lot to my children at Shishur Sevay.  In the US I would probably be seen as a pretender or a wannabe — totally politically incorrect, but here in India it is a sign of respect for India, a sign of not separating myself away.


As a white skinned mother of a dark-skinned Indian child, we were rarely taken for mother and daughter.   But now in Frankfurt, in a saree, the assumption was that we were together, mother daughter or aunty, but of the same family/community/world.  For me that was a wonderful feeling.  There is a pride in walking with one's children, and the acknowledgment felt wonderful.  In one store the people assumed she was my daughter.





Kolkata has become home.  I have children here, children who called twice a day to ask what I was doing, to talk to their Cici did, to ask when I was coming home, and once to tell me homework had been done, and could they watch TV (yes, of course).  I am torn, with children on both sides of the oceans.


I'd spent months working on coverage for while I was away.  Most of it worked.  Some didn't.  I am alone with the responsibility for my children, which is why I now more often use the first person, "my."  It is as important to the children as it is to me that in my absence they are well cared for.


Thus the song, thus filling my heart with hope, listening for the silver song of the lark, and holding my head up high.

Rejected for Adoption

The girls at Shishur Sevay were all rejected for adoption. Some describe being lined up along a wall and looked at — and not being chosen.   The girls with disabilities didn’t even make it to the line-up, as it true also for the older and darker girls.  In a sense, this is the real definition of an orphan, a child no one wants, a child who is legally free for adoption, but rejected.


Yesterday we had 25 visitors from the US, families with their Indian adopted children, returning to the places of their births and the culture of their heritage.  I always wanted Shishur Sevay to be a place where adoptees could come back and feel at home, and to feel good about what they saw.  My kids here were wonderful hosts, mixing easily with the visitors, helping in any way needed.  There was no tension and no fighting.  We were celebrating birthdays of three of our children, the ones with disabilities and no traces of their past.  I’d made 1 January the birthday for the three and decided to celebrate when our guests were here.  I found out that two of the children also had birthdays and quickly had their names added to the cake.


The main question asked by our girls yesterday was whether these children were born speaking English.   The girls are very familiar with adoption as some of the girls in the institution with them went for adoption.   I remember in raising Cici that some people would ask, “But how did she learn to speak English?”  The day we went to pick up our last group of children, a girl initially given to us was pulled away, screaming, because she had just been picked by the agency there to go for adoption.   We were told that as she was “fair and smart” she would be adopted, and we learned later she went to a “good, wealthy family.”  

I’m the kind of person who is always wondering what is going on that I don’t see.  When I adopted in 1984 I wondered about the children not adopted. These are the children I wanted to care for in opening this home.  These are the children I have.  My feelings about international adoption are mixed.   The first problem with all adoption is that it occurs within the context of a business, a basic exchange of money for a child.  And because the business is framed as “humanitarian” there is less or no oversight as to what actually goes on.   Further, because of “privacy” concerns, there is no way to authenticate papers.  When I buy a computer I have more information about where it comes from than I do in adopting a child.  For those in the US, remember the scandals of United Way, the pinnacle of ethical donations, created so there would be proper screening and controls — while unfortunately providing a five star jet-set existence for its executives.  I’m not talking about “third world” or “poor” countries.  These problems are endemic.

A few years ago I came across an adoption orphanage where two of the toddlers were tied to their cribs, hands and feet, in cribs too small for them even to stretch out.  Another child was tied to the window pane with a rope to her foot.  The management were not embarrassed.  In fact I took pictures freely.  I have pictures of smiling staff while a child is in the background straining to see what was going on, limited by her tied hands and feet.  When this child was upset she would rock, and I was sure one day she would rock the crib over.  I held them each, promising I would do what I could to get them out of there.  I failed after many different avenues I tried, including taking the pictures to government officials, and also trying to negotiate “under the table.”  I was threatened.  I made sure there were others who would release the pictures if anything happened to me.  When we opened Shishur Sevay I kept a place for two more little ones, just in case I could get them.   I still think about them.

I am aware of the enormous difficulties of children raised in counties not of their birth and heritage.  This is particularly true for dark skinned children raised in a primarily white environment.  I am in touch with adoptees who imagine their lives, their emotional lives, better if they had remained in their country of origin.  These were some of the questions I came here to answer for myself, or at least to understand the picture better.  There is no one answer, no easy answer, for a child born into a situation where the family and community of origin will not keep the child.  It is rarely simply a matter of money.  Among the poorest, children are rarely given up.  It takes an agent who will pay, and a level of disintegration or social status protection of the family, so the child is not absorbed.


So yesterday, over lunch, I had a chance to talk to the girls, ask them what they think about adoption, about the children visiting.  They are already familiar with Indian adoptees because of Cici Didi and others who visit and stay with us.  I asked my question very carefully, first making it clear that no one was leaving for adoption.  I asked, “If you were little, do you wish you would have been adopted?”  I knew from their grins, that the answer was yes.  The lone major dissenter was a girl we home-school but send to school for examinations because she acts so badly in school.  I’ve always believed she just needs to be home, enjoying what she didn’t have before.


In India, as in most places in the world, there is a great demand for  healthy infants.  This is not true for older children or children with significant disabilities of any age.  Adoption of older children can be very difficult.  Children traumatized with violence and abandonment do not “melt” into a family already formed.  Loyalty to their families, alive or not, fantasized or not, will keep them from giving themselves fully to their “new” families.  They do not forget, nor should they.  The past must be built upon, not buried.  It must be a foundation, not a black hole.  Moishe Holtzberg, two year old who lost his parents in the Mumbai attacks will not be expected to forget them.  Someone or someones will parent him and love him as if he were their son, but he will be allowed to honor and love his martyred parents.  It would be strange if he didn’t.  The same is true of adoptees who have known and lost their parents and families.


The adoptees visiting were surprised, and I think disappointed that these girls would not be going for adoption.  It says a lot about their adjustment and happiness, and ability to deal with duality, at least at this time in their lives.


I am often asked about adoption.  I simply could not imagine putting one of my girls on a plane to go to strangers, knowing I probably would NEVER see her, hear from her, be able to be there for her, or even know how she is.  No child should have to be torn in that way.  Most “preparation” is really indoctrination and threats.  The older adopted child is forced to turn to absolute strangers who do not know her language at a time when she is most in need of comfort, reassurance, and information as to what is going on. My girls here love and care for their Gods.  They take their strength from their prayers, pujas, rituals.  What happens when everything is changed, lost, and even your Gods are no longer there?  And there is no one to ask, no one to tell…

Sometimes I think if children must be moved, they should go in groups, and stay in groups, and have contact with “home” and be able to visit “home.”  The natural questions for the Indian adoptee raised in the US, “Am I American or am I Indian?” would still be there but there would be context as to what “being Indian” means as well as what “being American” means.


I came to India with hope that there would one day be many Shishur Sevays, and maybe there will be, because this is a very good way for the unchosen to grow up in their country and culture of heritage.  Love, the ability to love, the fortune to be loved, are essential in our lives if we are to have any peace or satisfaction.  We cannot order it up, nor even predict where it will be found.  We are a family here, a funny family — we each play our parts (me- several at once) — and any child we might lose would create a great gap and give us great pain.  As I write I hear the girls upstairs in classical song class.  Today we visited the home of one of our massis to see her new grandson.  This is how I imagined it, a weaving together of connections, of people we know, of people we become attached to and who become attached to us.  We have love here.  That’s a lot.

An Ordinary Miracle

The following is the introduction, statement of the Founder for the Annual Report 2007-2008, now overdue of course!



From Mother and Founder,

Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay



An Ordinary Miracle


Once upon a time there was an old little house on a tiny piece of land in Panchabatatala, where New Alipore meets Behala in Kolkata, West Bengal, India,

South Asia

, Planet Earth, The Milky Way Galaxy, in the Universe.   Then a miracle happened, and it became home to 12 orphan girls, twelve girls suffering from various forms of social deprivation, nutritional deprivation, emotional deprivation, educational deprivation, and four of whom suffer severe physical disabilities. 


The miracle is that this house is now one of laughter and joy, and big dreams for the future.  This required enormous determination and plain stubbornness.  It required a deep and unshakable belief that children and flowers bloom when they are fed, protected, and loved.


The ordinary is that we are meeting the most ordinary needs of children, shelter, food, health care, immunizations, clean water and clean toilets.  Education is intensive, not unlike that of Indian families in most places.  The children have school, then tuition, then cultural programs, dance, song, art..  Their needs are pretty simple, but they lack the parental and familial advocates to insure they have these necessities.  And the society does not make meeting their needs a priority. 


Many forces combined for me to become mother to these children; a sense of destiny, the voices of the children calling to me, my Kolkata born daughter – and an awareness of hungry and abandoned children from the earliest times I can remember.  My grandmother, herself an immigrant to


, used to take me to the ocean, point out over the water and tell me never to forget the hungry children across the world.  In Kolkata I feel close to her spirit and her strength.


In this second Annual Report 2007-2008, we will write of Shishur Sevay in the context of Indian and international shared values and commitments to children.  We will show that what we give to our children is no different from what the international community including India agree are the rights of children; put simply, what they should have.  That’s all we are really doing, giving them what they should have, what we all know they need, but still do not give.


I look at the blossoming of our handicapped children, so far beyond our expectations.  They are each centers of love, giving and receiving unconditionally.  They are the heart of our home.  For the big girls, they are like the siblings they lost.  We all celebrate each advancement, standing alone, rolling over, drawing a picture, beating a drum to rhythm, trying to talk, and always glowing when they are held.  Our handicapped children have also started school.  Each morning, dressed in their proper uniforms they go off to their teachers, their education, their bit of normality of what should be the life of a child.  They have a life!  In fact their lives are full, with teachers, aunties, didis, and a lot of mother’s love.


I am a dreamer and the dream grows.  But this dream must grow slowly, and it must grow from its foundation.  A tree grows by feeding its roots, not by pulling at its branches.  We are growing our saplings in the best soil we can create, with warmth, sun, food.  We provide structure for when our children are set off balance by unhealed wounds and inner winds. We treasure the blooms.


Childlife Preserve: Shishur Sevay got its name from my stay at Kaziranga Wildlife Preserve in


.  Kaziranga is home to the Indian One-Horned rhinoceros, wild elephants, and the domesticated elephants who take visitors for journeys through the tall grasses.  In the evening when the domestic elephants came to be bathed in the creek and fed, I played football with an elephant calf as he learned to be comfortable with people.


Later I found myself thinking about that place often, and wondering, “Why can’t there be a place like that for children, a Preserve, where they are not prey?”  Thus the name, Childlife Preserve.  And then because my life is a fusion of American and Bengali, there had to be a Bengali name so our home would be understood for what it is.  Shishur Sevay, in the interest/service of children.


In a world globally and locally full of violence and abuse, Shishur Sevay is an oasis, a place of growth, of healing, of love.


Dr. Michelle Harrison

Re-used needles and syringes; No soap in the toilet

Sonali had a focal seizure Saturday morning while I was coming back from taking the children to school.   The massis called me and all I could understand was that something was wrong with Sonali.  I ran as much as I could, cursing that I didn't get to the gym more often…. and arrived to find her having a right sided convulsion, limp except for the twitching and jerking of the right side of her face, arms and legs.    I threw her favorite soft blanket around her and Seema (our Governing Body secretary who walks the girls to school with me in the morning) and I headed out to find a cab. I called Bijoy to come early, but he lives too far away to come instantly.  Out on the street there were no cabs, as drivers were probably sleeping off the Puja celebrations of the night before.  Then Seema went to find the ambulance, but she took my bag with my wallet.  So there I was standing in the midst of Panchabatatala holding a convulsing baby and realizing I no longer knew where Seema was, or when she would come back.  I also realized I had no money as it was all with her.  I was really afraid — with both the mother me and the doctor me scared Sonali would stop breathing.

The ambulance came — Seema having roused the guys from festival celebration the night before and we rushed off to the hospital.  I called ahead to the pediatrician who took care of Rani there.  By the time we got to the hospital the seizure was subsiding.  We decided to admit her to the PICU and put her on iv's as we didn't know what was going on.  Sonali is about three.  I have old records showing brain ischemia and asymmetry.  She has an odd shaped head, not noticeable with her full head of curls.

The hospital is one of Kolkata's better known places, a private hospital.  It cost Rs. 25,000 to admit her, about $500, which will sound like nothing to those living on a dollar or euro economy, but is a great deal of money for someone living on rupee economy.  Once in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) the team came to start an IV.  That's when I stopped them from re-using a bloody needle and catheter from previous four failed attempts at getting a line into a vein.  In this hospital, and according to the doctors this is true throughout Kolkata, needles are re-used in this way.  I was shocked, really.  I can't imagine being in an intensive care environment for sick children and finding dirty needles being used!


We got through that, but then later a nurse came to put something into the iv.  The syringe said Augmentin, but she was pushing fluid in and out.  I asked what she was doing, and first she said medicine, then changed it to "saline".  The bottom line is that they reuse syringes too.  In this process the nurse also let the IV line hang so the open end was touching the bed and I told her this was no longer sterile.


A young doctor I'd met before on Rani's admissions explained that the staff reuses needles and syringes to save money for patients because the patients are poor, and they are charged for needles and syringes and bed pads, etc. 

There was also the matter of the toilets and the lack of soap.  I saw this on the last admission a few months ago and talked with him about it.  He tried to institute change but it didn't last.  Actually there is no soap in any of the toilets in the hospital (as I'm told) because it isn't the custom. 

I had met the Director of Operations by chance when I was arranging for the C-T scan and called her, thinking she would be aghast at what I'd found (don't laugh too hard at me).  She was defensive and said the hospital was wonderful, hadn't I read in the newspapers?  Now I clearly had lost my cool and said I didn't care what the papers said, but I'm sure they would love to know about the re-use of needles.


I went back to Sonali's bed and tried to be calm.  Another senior doctor there said it's this way everywhere.  She said, "we go abroad to train and then come back to these standards."  I heard again about how India is a poor country.  It's not a poor country but it is a country of poor people.  I talked of transferring Sonali but I no longer knew where to go.  I wanted to take her in my arms and flee, take her to safety, but there was no place to go.  Then I decided I'd stay the night and work as "massi" since visitors weren't allowed but massis were. 

There was one scene in the elevator because the guard tried to take me out of the elevator because my card (given to me by emergency room) said Day/Night Visitor but he said that was only for the lobby.  I said my baby was upstairs and I wasn't leaving and all the other people started yelling at me and I yelled back that I was sick of this place as they used dirty needles and syringes.  I asked if they knew that!  One man, particularly nasty said, "well, anyone can make a mistake!"  My readers have to understand that when doctors "make a mistake" in West Bengal they are likely to be beaten up by the patient's family.


I had called Seema earlier to come and help me decide where we could move Sonali if we had to, so she was in the vicinity, thinking all was well since I had gone back up to see Sonali.  I called her and said I was in the corner of the elevator refusing to leave.  The hospital had also started posting men in black uniforms and black turbans, looking like bar bouncers or the body guards of gangsters, and I wasn't going to be bounced.  Seema came and pushed herself onto the elevator and did a lot of just patting people and telling them to take us up to the PICU — did the, "she's a doctor from America and she is upset about the dirty needles."


I decided then that I had to stay the night with Sonali and play the massi role.  The PICU had said they had to have someone with her as they couldn't manage her, so I became the one, to their dismay.  I came back to Shishur Sevay to say hi to the kids and tell them Sonali was doing well, and to have something to eat as I hadn't eaten all day.  The girls packed a bag for me… picked out a sari, blouse, made sure I had comb, tooth brush… towel and I went back.  But I told Ganga I'd be out for the night taking care of Sonali.  I have to tell her or she gets very upset.  Meanwhile Bornali was already upset that Sonali wasn't there.  She keeps track.


The part that was nice was spending the night with Sonali as I don't usually spend a lot of time with her alone.  To everyone's shock I was able to feed her, change her diapers, etc.  I sang songs to her, stretched out next to her — they allowed that.  The doctor came late at night so we had a chance to talk for a while.  Like everyone else, she just says that's how it is here.  But we also talked about soap and I suggested dispensers since bars walk away.  That part was surreal, talking about dispensers….  

In the evening the nurse brought me a blue gown to put over my sari.  I asked why and she said because i'd be sleeping there and in contact with the baby.  This is true and good, but I asked why only in night.  Actually I'd never seen a blue gown on anyone!  She said in the day the massi didn't have contact with the baby so she didn't need a gown.  This is nuts!  In the day the massi carried Sonali, fed her, sat on bed with her.  I wore the gown and insisted the massi wear one when she came in the morning.  I asked about the child in the other bed and the nurse said the mother didn't touch the child so she didn't need a gown.

This hospital has a School of Nursing.  These nurses and students are from their School of Nursing.  They were working as they had been taught.  I was clear these were lapses in teaching, not intent of any of the staff there.


In the morning Sonali was clearly ready to go home.  The nurse asked if she should give her a bed bath and I said fine.  Then she asked me for the soap and powder to bathe her but of course I didn't know I had to bring it.  After the plain water bath i went to change my sari, brush my teeth, etc.  The bathroom and toilets were flooded but there was a small container of soap!  I had to take the top off the toilet and fill it with water from a mug so it would flush.  But at least I could wash my hands.


I drew the curtains around Sonali's bed and put on my sari…. engaging in what I call the Zen of Sari.  It means you have to relax in order not to get into a battle with six yards of material that wants to go on it's own, not where I want to fold it.  But, once done, my sari was much admired.


I told the staff that my arguments were with the administration, with the head of their nursing school, in the hospital…. and that these were policy issues, re-use of needles, soap for toilets…  The junior doctors I talked to were upset that they are constantly compromising their standards.  They want to leave India because they can't stand what is happening to them, the lowering of their standards.


I have a thing about handwashing, which is to say it's big in my head.  I still see images, drawings, of women dying of puerperal fever and Semmelweiss ridiculed for wanting to disinfect the hands of doctors.  I love building toilets.  In one orphanage here in Kolkata I put in a septic chamber and toilets for girls in the dormitory rooms.  I've built a few toilets in villages.  At heart maybe I'm a "barefoot doctor."   My idols were Albert Schweitzer and Tom Dooley.

Soap is so simple.  It's so cheap. 

By noon Sunday we were ready to go home, and I made my way through the bill department and the pharmacy.  Seema called to see if I needed help and I said I thought I could get through the process without making a scene.  Actually, when I was standing in line at billing a huge fight broke out with men screaming at each other!   I waited…. I'm fine waiting.


Bijoy had brought a massi in case Sonali was staying, and I wanted to leave for a bit. Instead we were packing to leave. We were at Sonali's bedside and I so much wanted to carry her.  I didn't want to always be "white lady carrying bags."  But this young woman really wanted to be the one carrying her out so I let her take Sonali and I followed with all the "stuff." 

Sonali got a huge reception at home, with girls arguing over who would hold hold her and feed her.  She seemed happy with the attention.  Bornali laughed; Ganga just looked relieved to see me and didn't want me to put her down.  Rani seemed fine when I was away, but seeing me got her started… crying, screaming… hitting her head.  So I spent time with her, immitating her sounds, clapping my hand in rhythm to her clapping.  This went on.  She was happy and calm. 


…Which reminds me, Kasturi,  a close friend of mine and of Shishur Sevay has posted pictures and a note and poem about Rani.  http://ashajournal.blogspot.com/2008/10/i-met-rani-in-june.html It is really beautiful.  My dream is for my children to have voice, to not be orphans to the world.  Kasturi has given Rani voice, even as Rani works so hard to create her own voice of communication.  This is what they all work on.  Voice is connection.  We all search for connections.  Our connections are part of how we know ourselves, how we build sense of self, identity, and dignity.  Washing and grooming are part of who we are, what and who we carry with us….


Sonali and her massi in Bed I of PICU. (Blue gown per my instructions)Rani_2926w





November 2008
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