What touched my heart in India? It all did really in different ways and at different times.
The warm smiles of the Serving Charity staff when we first arrived, the chai walas serving us tea in the morning, the rickshaw drivers running in their bare feet, the children surrounding us and asking for rupees or food. One of the most striking things was the amount of colours to be seen everywhere -the beautiful and vibrant saris and shawls, the fruit stands, the temples, the houses. The cars and buses and rickshaws were decorated with orange and blue and yellow and the streets were strewn with flowers, signs of a people who pray and practice their faith. And yet all these beautiful colours were found among piles of dirt and garbage. I’m not sure if garbage cans and toilets existed in some of these places. When my sister was visiting India a few years ago she said she could not tell if it was beautiful garbage or dirty flowers, and I now understand why.
There were many poor people sleeping on the sidewalks and getting up in the cold morning – no bathroom or shower, just some cold water and soap to wash on the street. These are among the poorest people in the world, and are found in the slums, in the dirt, on the streets. It was the coldest it has ever been in India, and they were not prepared for it. So many people were begging not only for food but also for some clothing to stay warm. The number of people in desperate need was so great that I could see how one could get used to the scene. How one could stop caring.
I guess that’s why no one saw her. No one took a second look. No one stopped. Except us.
It was at the train station in Varanasi and we were on our way to Allahabad when we noticed a woman lying next to a pole in the middle of the entrance. I didn’t see her at first and when I did I could not tell if she was a man or a woman – she was huddling with a shawl around her face, crouched in a ball on the ground, trying to stay warm on one of the coldest days in India. Her body was thin and weak. She was dying.
By this time in our stay in India we had become accustomed to people stopping at staring at us, which is of course what happened. Thousands of people had passed her that day, but only when we stopped did they pay attention. One man tried to help us as we pulled warm clothes and food from our bags to give to her, but most other people just watched.
I remember when I first saw her face. It was covered with dirt and mucous, and had an expression of hopeless and suffering. Unlike the beautiful saris and women we saw all around us, she was dressed in rags and her hair was matted to her face. Her legs and arms were so thin we had to be careful not to break them as we put socks on her bare feet and gloves on her shivering hands. Every once in a while she made a small noise in pain or gratitude, and we kept attending to her the best we could. Abbas fed her some Nice Times cookies (I couldn’t help but think of our soup kitchen back in Toronto), and Nina tried to talk to the law enforcement officers who were standing 10 feet away, watching. As one might expect, they did nothing. I suppose they had gotten used to the scene just as many had gotten used to seeing people sleeping in the streets. How dangerously easy it is to get so accustomed to our surroundings that we forget to see the people around us.
After we had fed her and given her water, warm clothes, and most importantly love and compassion, the man who had stopped to help, carried her to a taxi. She was small and frail in his arms and was suffering from the pain of being moved, but we managed to get her in the taxi. Abbas gave the man some rupees for the ride and the hospital bill before we ran to catch our train and continue our journey.
We will never know what happened after that, if she is still alive or if she passed away. But it was incredible to show love to a stranger dying on the street – to do the very work Mother Teresa spent her life doing, and to do it in the very country she did. To let that woman know she is loved and that she is a beautiful child of God.
To show her that she deserves to be treated as such and be shown the dignity befitting a human being.
To let her die with love.
And as I think about this incident, I can’t help but feel sorry – not only for that woman, but also for all those around her. All those who saw, but ignored her. Who, like the guards, had become used to such scenes and had given up caring. Maybe they feared missing their train or thought it was her fault she was on the street, but in their thoughts they had forgotten that one of their own people was dying a horrible death right in front of them. They couldn’t be bothered to stop and help. They had begun to see her as garbage, and had forgotten the brightly coloured flower that lay behind the tattered clothing. If only they had taken the time to look.
How often we feel the same about the people on the streets of our own country. And how often people die without love or are treated as less than human. A little letter, a nice smile, some small gift, would make such a difference in so many people’s lives. I know our small act of kindness made a difference in hers. And what’s more, it changed the people around her. They would not have stopped if we had not reached out to her. Love is contagious, and when we offer a small action of love, others will follow.
And this is the greatest thing India reaffirmed in my heart.
The material poverty is great in that country, but there is also great love and great faith. It is the poverty of love and the lack of God in my own country that saddens me. The young people who turn to drugs, alcohol and sex – who seem to have so much, but suffer so greatly for want of something more, something greater. They see themselves as garbage, and need to be shown how beautiful they really are. I asked the Serving Charity boys to pray for the youth in rich countries – that they may also have love and faith. This I know we need greatly.
The SC boys had grown up in the slums of Calcutta, but we learned so much from them about suffering, death, love and joy. They had lived their whole lives among the garbage on the streets, with their families or by themselves. But they shared a special love and innocence, and a special friendship. And such great spirits they had! They were not afraid of helping the poor – they themselves understood what it was like to sleep in the cold on the street. Perhaps they had seen someone die like that woman in the station. But they did not forget. They did not stop caring. Though they lived in the slums, they were the most colourful of flowers. If we could only share in a little of what they have; if only we could see the poor and unwanted as bright colours that bring joy to the world; if only we could continue reaching out to those around us with a pure and innocent love, we might fill this world with a beautiful bouquet!
I will always remember them by their smiles and their joy, their innocence and their love, and I can’t help but realize how powerful were the three simple words they would say before we had our morning chai:
Cheers to life!
Here are all the photos of the Serving Charity Trip with the SC Kolkata Boys.
Click here to see the photos.