Ganga and Bornali are seven years old.

I took Ganga and Bornali to the dentist this afternoon.   I'd taken Rani two weeks before.  Her teeth are unaligned and she sometimes bites her tongue.  Ganga has two blackened teeth, still milk teeth, but I wanted to know if they posed a problem.  She also has one badly decayed tooth with gum swelling around it.  The dentist will try to do this in the office but it may be necessary to do the procedure in the hospital under general anesthesia.  Given my experiences with the health care system here, that is a frightening prospect. 

The children were seen elsewhere last year but no one offered a dental age.  Today I learned that according to their teeth development they are seven years old.  It is hard to describe how horrible that feels, because when they came, two years, three months, and one day ago, they looked like babies.  Here is a picture of when we first saw them at the institution.  I took the picture and wrote their names on the palm of my hand because I knew we wouldn't get records that would identify them… I at least wanted to know their correct names, or their names on record.


Many thoughts go through my mind at once.  The most repetitive is, "where was Ganga for the first five years of her life?  How can a child so social, so engaging, so curious, so aware of everything around her, so dependent on me — how could she have arrived with no motion, no expression, no relatedness, just passively being moved, changed, fed — a rag doll that could be left in any position, arms that just hung, hands that did not close.  Where was she for those five years?  How could no one have noticed, for if they had she would have come with some of the vitality she has now? 

Ganga had her eyes, the eyes that begged me to take her upstairs to the classroom, the eyes that watched the Bengali movie Damu, about a father who was able to get an elephant for his daughter.  So I wonder about her past.  Did she spend all those years in a hospital?  Was she hidden away in a room with a TV?  Did she have people she loved, grew attached to, lost?  Was she loved at all?  When we meet old people, especially when they are dressed in white cloth, she tries to talk to them, as if to take up where life left off.    She looks to them with a sense of familiarity and with expectation that they will know her.  Saraswati_4745 


Bornali's ears are pierced so she had to have had a family at one time, a family that abandoned her.  A child with no mobility cannot run away, or get lost somewhere in a train station or on a road.  She had to have been left, given up — ties broken.  Someone had to have said, "We don't want you."  Bornali showed no emotion for a long time.  She bit anyone who came near — not aggressively really.  She was like a little alligator squirming on her belly, mouth open, ready to clamp onto any flesh she came near.  I had a separate crib built for her because we couldn't leave her near the others.  Bornali didn't laugh and she didn't cry.

 My first goal with Bornali was to stop the biting, which I did by offering my arm, and really yelling when she started to bite.  She either had to learn not to bite or she was doomed to a life of isolation.  She learned; I took apart the crib.  She has blossomed into the child in the pictures in my last post.   She is a sweet little girl, but on the shy side.  She is smart, and learns quickly.    She is exceedingly vulnerable to loss and separation.  She has her favorite care-giver, and especially her favorite Didis.  And of course, I am mummy to all of them.  How should she be seven?  How could she have been five when she came?  Who did this to her?Bono_0147w


Rani of course we know about as we found her mother.  She too has changed incredibly, now being present among us.    She has left her isolation.  We welcome her.  In her case there was no way her family could have kept her, and no facilities that would have taken her.  So she was left somewhere, to be taken by police to Sukanya home, where we found her and brought her to us.  For a long time she required one full time caregiver just to manage her.  She is funny and silly.  She has incredible rhythm sense and she and I tap surfaces together or she takes my hands in hers and claps them together.  When she came she only spun around in circles.  The girls love her and one of the older girls taught her to stand.  Now she stands on her own.  Her mother has peace of mind.  This is nice for all of us.


Sonali is our youngest and the only one with medical records.  She is visually impaired and microcephalic — but we really don't know yet what is ahead for her.  She has had severe seizures.  Her latest effort is to put food right up against her left eye and then taste it with her tongue.  She is trying to coordinate visual and taste.  She has also begun to seek more social contact.  Much of the time she was in her own (seemingly delightful) world, climbing and swinging on anything her hands could find.  One of our teachers is determined that she will be a gymnast.




This is not just about India, for children all over the world are abandoned, particularly children with disabilities.  My mind goes to cold hearts, to people who only love those whose protoplasm is formed according to certain social conventions.


I love these children.  That's the bottom line, and it hurts that they have had such loss, isolation, hunger in their lives.  Because I love them I will continue to to everything in my power to provide those experiences that make life meaningful and allow any of us to grow.  But it still hurts that Ganga and Bornali are seven, and that so many years have been lost.

Saraswatiw_4755 Saraswati_4746-



I am up at 3 am, thinking about this post, what is still unsaid.  Looking back, the children look like pictures we sometimes see in the news of children who have been locked in closets, basements, never taken out, poorly fed… a seventeen year old who looks like seven.  And what we are seeing at Shishur Sevay is that our children somehow preserved a sense of self, identity, even throughout their earlier years of neglect.  How does this happen? Ganga and Bornali are normal children.  If they had normal motor function, speech, and early care, they would easily blend in with any other group of children.  Ganga would be outgoing; Bornali would be shy.

So the question on my mind when I woke at 3 am was,  How does the human spirit survive intact when there is no reason, or does it live like a hidden spore, ready to grow when/if it is touched by human warmth and love.  For both of these girls there was some hidden protected place.  I'm reminded of a poem I wrote, about a protected place…


There are Cobwebs in my Heart

There are cobwebs in my heart

Where mama used to be,

A room preserved…

Frozen in the moment of her


The growing strands of thin floating filaments


From the corners of

Her room,

And gather over time to mark the emptiness.


An alter of love remains,

Built long ago to call for God,

— Just in case he was listening –

A dainty layette,

Delicately embroidered

White on white

Awaits the newborn,

Booties, hand sewn in some distant land,

Where women feed their own

Knitting for the children they’ll never know.

A lullaby plays, the needle jammed —

The cradle will fall.

The cobwebs soften the harsh notes of the broken music,

They blur the searing loss,

And comfort the dying infant

Like gentle shrouds of lingering memory.

Oh mama, if only you had stayed.


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May 2009
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