|My Recollection Shelf|
For a long time I believed that exhaustion, stress, frustration, or panic were all “mind over matter” problems, that I could always talk myself out of them and stay in control. After two months in a rural orphanage in India, I’d stopped believing that… or at least I had to realize that when my mind had reached its limits, it couldn’t overcome even the smallest thing. It was time to leave.
Why this experience was so intense and impossible for me to bear any longer is very difficult to explain, and it would take much longer than the story I intend to tell here, the simple and stunning events of my last night which somehow reached into my shell-shocked soul and became a memory that will stay with me all my life.
There was an old man who lived at the orphanage. No one seemed to know where he came from, or why he was here. After a couple weeks I asked about him, and Vinod, the director, told me “He just came one day, and he stayed.” “What’s his name?” I asked. Vinod looked surprised. “Everyone just calls him old man,” he answered, and that was that. Old Man couldn’t speak much, and when he did it was in the coarse, too loud voice of the nearly senile. He seemed to have assigned himself the job of sweeping the dusty grounds every day, and afterwards he would sit on a log outside the main building and occasionally yell and the children or me. It took several weeks before I realized that one or two of the words he was yelling were English (at least in origin), but there was no question of trying to communicate… not only because of language problems, but more because I was already overwhelmed by the barrage of communication failures on every level and I’d started rejecting any extra effort that seemed futile from the start. So, for two months, I ignored him, like everyone else, and I focused all my energy on keeping myself sane amidst the flood of frustrations, noise, alienation, loneliness, and anger.
On my last night I was sitting outside my hut with a few other volunteers, talking about the situation in which we found ourselves. I was sad to leave the children who were sweet (despite the fact that they’d nearly driven me insane), and I was disturbed by the way the experience was ending. Still, not much was in my mind but getting away and getting some peace. So when Old Man shuffled across the yard towards where we sat, I nearly started smiling and nodding him away even before the inarticulate screeches began. He stopped in front of me, looked into my eyes, and said loudly, gravelly, but shockingly clearly: “My….name….is….Mallappa Kamati.” I was take so off guard that I immediately stood up and shook his hand, as if we’d just met and not spend the last two months “together.” But he wasn’t done. “This..” he waved his hand unsteadily toward the schoolhouse I’d been building that stood shrouded in the dark, “Thank….you. I…. am….. protestant …..Christian.” My eyes must have widened to their limit at this. It was inconceivable! I’d not met a single protestant in a year! But there’s no way he could have known what this meant to me. I exclaimed “You are?! I am protestant Christian!” He looked up at me again, smiled, and slowly reached out his frail arm to shake my hand again. Those were the only three sentences he said, and looking back I can’t imagine how anyone could have packed more meaning into so few words, meaning that touched me deeply. I suddenly had a thought, and motioned to him to wait there while I went into my hut.
I don’t know what put it into my head, but it’s a testament to the many tangled emotions I was dealing with. I suddenly thought of my cross, which used to be nearly a part of me (I wore it every day for over 10 years), which I’d stopped wearing several months before. I’m not entirely sure why… it was a combination of things: in Japan realizing that it meant almost nothing at all (or meant something completely different than I intended), while travelling in poor countries for the first time I realized I still had more questions than answers, and meeting people from so many different places I realized I was being held to represent idea or assumptions that were no part of the reason why I wore it. But mostly, I felt that something in me was changing, and putting away this symbol of my identity left me feeling like a blank-slate with no bias between me and the new world I had jumped into. I still carried the cross with me for many months of travel, and I think I assumed I’d be ready to put it back on at some point.
But I knew this was an opportunity to do something better, and maybe, in some small way, make up for all my personal failures which were all suddenly embodied by one lonely old man whom I’d deliberately dismissed. I came out of the hut with the necklace in my hand, and I carefully put it over his head and laid the cross on his chest. He held it in his hand and looked at it, then looked up at me and smiled, not widely but deeply. He nodded several times, slowly turned around, and shuffled away into the dark. I never saw him again.
There’s always someone watching in India. No small part of my daily stress was from the complete lack of privacy, from locking my door only to find a line of eyes peering intently at me through the whicker weave, to fleeing to the hills for some solitude only to attract the attention of half the village children who then sit down nearby to get in a good long stare at the foreigner. So until this moment I didn’t even realize that several of the orphanage children had been sitting nearby watching us for quite some time, and one especially had taken careful note of the exchange between Mr. Kamati and me. “You wait,” he told me, and ran off.
This was Depu, one of my unabashedly favorites at the orphanage. You could immediately tell from his eyes that he was bright and sharp, and you could tell from a few days with him that somewhere in his dog-eat-dog environment he’d picked up an instinct of decency and empathy for others. He wasn’t perfect, far from it, but he was the only one I felt I could “count on.”
Depu came running back, and taking my hand he pressed into it a small, shiny, beautiful angel strung on a piece of string. He closed my hand around it and said very matter-of-factly, “You Christian, me Hindu.” “Depu, where did you get this?!” “Girl in Goa,” he smiled back. That made sense; a few weeks earlier we’d all made a trip to the nearby state of Goa, the only Christian state in India, and we’d stayed with a friend of Vinod who had two daughters, one of them Depu’s age. I’m sure she liked him, and maybe he liked her. This angel had been a parting gift from her that he’d keep in the weeks since, probably the only possession he could call his own besides his clothes. But I didn’t think of all that at the time, I only felt the weight and power of the gift, that it was from the heart. And even if I’d realized at the time what this angel might have meant to him I still would have accepted it; after all, Depu’s gift was prompted by seeing that a possession can be made more valuable by giving it away than by keeping it close. We all have the power to imbue objects with great significance, and in no way more than giving it away in an act of love and selflessness. Somehow Depu understood that, and I never would have denied him the poetry of that moment.
I left the next morning, walking over the fields as the last sunrise lit up the orphanage behind me. If nothing else came of those two months, one thing definitely changed: I went from carrying a cross in my backpack, to wearing an angel around my neck. This angel immediately symbolized more things than I can list here. But more than anything else it symbolizes my snatched-from-the-flames hope, the hope that even faced with all the divisions of culture, language, religion, stress, anger, and the limitations of our humanity that none of us escape, that even through all that people can still reach out and touch another human being… almost like an angel.