Sometimes, I think, in our comfortable, complacent existence, we get so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that we tend to forget that we are actually alive. I like to say that India, on the other hand, is a place where you are acutely aware of the fact that you are alive. Life there, compared to our cushy, air-conditioned daily routine, is so uncomfortable that you can’t forget for a moment that you are alive.
After a few weeks of backpacking around northern India, Beloved and I decided to spend some time volunteering with the Sisters of Charity, the order founded by now-Saint Mother Teresa. Many backpackers like us had found that it was the perfect antidote to the backpacker’s life of consumption and ignorance, the only thing close to a solution to the way your heart went out in city after city, furious at the filth and the disease and the abject poverty but unable to do anything constructive about it.
We asked to be placed wherever we were needed most, and we were assigned to work in the mornings at a home for adults with a wide range of physical and mental difficulties. Although there were both men and women at the house, they were segregated, and so were the volunteers, so Beloved and I had very different experiences of that house.
We saw things that still haunt us to this day. Maladies and injuries we can’t mention in polite conversation. People so forgotten by society that they managed to forget themselves as well. People who had looked death in the eye, and now were now unafraid, but carried something in their faces that mere mortals couldn’t look at without being blinded, like Moses coming down from the Mountain.
All the Sisters, in their iconic white gauzy saris with the blue trim, were, of course, referred to as “Sister.” But there is a custom in India of showing respect by calling women whose name you don’t know (or don’t remember) “Auntie” and calling men “Brother,” resulting in everyone there forming a strange Möbius strip of a family that is all interrelated and yet makes no sense at all. It was hard work; exhausting both mentally and physically, both back-breaking and heartbreaking at the same time.
But every day in the afternoon, after a meal at the same restaurant in the backpackers’ ghetto and one of numerous cold showers for the day in an attempt to cool off, we would take a metro ride followed by a bus ride to the far side of town where there was a home for children. Here we were together, and here there was an inexplicable joy.
These children had a variety of severely debilitating physical and mental difficulties, all of which were considered by the local culture to be bad luck or punishment for past wrongs, and so they were conveniently forgotten. All the children were nonverbal, so the the language difference was irrelevant, and they loved it when you sang, when you talked to them, when you picked them up and danced with them. And every day, the heartbreak of the mornings was healed by the innocence and joy of the afternoons.
We were always there for their early dinner time, and we would each be handed a plate of rice gruel to feed the children who were unable to feed themselves. One afternoon, I was feeding one particularly sweet and jovial little boy who was paralyzed from the neck down and was not all there mentally. He wasn’t even really partially there mentally. But suddenly he looked over my shoulder and started laughing uncontrollably. I turned around, expecting to see Beloved or one of the other workers making silly faces at the sweet boy. But there was no one there at all.
Still, the child continued to laugh at something over my shoulder. And I had a funny feeling that, in his terrible physical and mental state, completely left behind by the world but still precious to his Creator, he was actually able to see something that I couldn’t see. Something miraculous and eternal; perhaps an angel smiling at him over my shoulder.
“What do you see, sweet boy?” I asked him, and he turned, still laughing, and locked eyes with me, including me in the joke.
And so, just in case, I turned around to look again.