My friends in Thailand keep asking me, “How was India?” I know everyone expects an answer like, “It was great!”, or “I had such a good time!”, but not a single answer like that would be true. And to be honest, I don’t really know how India was other than different from any place I have ever been before. Every woman I saw wore a colorful and glittery sari, and most had gigantic piercings in their noses. Men sported huge turbans, and bindis in the middle of their foreheads. Animals freely roamed the streets: dogs, goats, pigs, water buffalo, monkeys, elephants, camels, and cows. The cows alone were insane! They are sacred animals to Hindus, so they roam freely in the streets, in the buildings, on top of the buildings. People washed their clothes, their dishes, and themselves on the streets of Kolkata, breaking open pipes to get the water to wash their bodies. Men would be scrubbing themselves and their babies as I walked past them at six in the morning. Children ran naked around the sidewalks. One little boy in Kolkata ran after us naked, screaming, “Aunty, Aunty, chocolate!” while holding a chicken over his shoulder. That same little boy greeted me nakedly every morning when I left at 6AM to go to Mother Teresa’s convent, and nakedly when I returned at noon. Newborns slept on the sidewalks under mosquito netting next to their parents. Dinner was cooked over an open fire on the street. Trash piled up everywhere, in every city, and people made cow patties for a living. Men either stared at us like we were sex objects, or they ignored us altogether. I never felt safe, but then again I never felt an immediate threat. Amazing architectural feats and pieces of history stood next to crumbling buildings in Delhi and Agra and Jaipur. We watched a Hindu festival of colors and dancing and music in Agra, where children painted our faces for good luck and good health. Joyful celebration was in the air. The Taj Mahal watched over the proceedings, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. One little boy, Biki, drove around with us in our autorickshaw for three days in Agra and told us that he cannot afford to go to school. I have never seen such heartbreak as when he looked at me and told me that school was too expensive, and he, like his father, would become an autorickshaw driver.
And despite all of this, all that I have seen in India, I see only one thing in my mind’s eye when I think about my time in India. That is the face of a little girl. A little 10 year-old girl who lived in Shishu Bhavan, Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Kolkata. This girl was beautiful despite the fact that she had no eyes and no hair, and I felt drawn to her despite the fact that she could not speak and she could not control her bladder. All she wanted to do was sit on my lap and hold my hands. So I let her, and I let her sit there for hours. I let her sit there after she had peed on me multiple times and after she had spit her food on my clothes and my face. Hell, I could have let her sit in my lap and hold my hands forever because I felt like that was the only luxury she had in life - to sit on a stranger’s lap and hold her hands. I will constantly be haunted by that face when I think of India because she reminds me of all the children that I will never see, that I will never help, that I will never feed or clothe or get the chance to love. And when I think of her, my heart will hurt.
So how was India? I don’t know. What was it like? It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or anywhere I’ve ever been before. Do I regret spending my time there? Not in a million years.