A girl and boy eye me from the top of the stairs. We throw mutual sidelong glances and wonder if we are waiting for each other. I’ve come to the Deep Griha Family Welfare Center to sponsor a child, maybe two.
Here in India to study yoga, I am wracked with Westerners’ guilt. I have the means to do something, however small, for people living in destitution here. At the same time, as the citizen of one of the biggest empires in human history, I feel vaguely responsible for global poverty.
Sunjatti, the social worker, greets me, and the girl and boy jump to their feet. Whatever awkwardness I felt about reaching out is erased by their enthusiasm and big smiles. The girl has a rehearsed speech which she delivers with pride and vigor: “I am Trupti. I am twelve. This is my brother, Tushar. He is ten.”
Trupti and Tushar are diminutive; in America, I’d guess they were several years younger, but under her loose t-shirt and the cotton scarf draped over her narrow frame, I can see that Trupti is developed, well on her way to womanhood. Tushar, though small, gazes at me with a curious, mature expression. Both of them strike me as unusually intelligent, open, and hopeful. Their father died of AIDS several years earlier, and their mother has been hospitalized for AIDS, stage three. Trupti and Tushar are luckily AIDS-free and living with their mother’s sister.
We communicate as best as we can in English, fragments of Hindi and Marathi, and lots of gestures. I tell them about my own kids, Meiko, Katja, and Malachi, and tell them I teach yoga, and we jump about and do some poses together. I try to describe Wisconsin and snow, and they tell me about school and their family. We go out for ice cream, Trupti reaching for my hand eagerly as we walk, and Tushar coming shyly around to my other hand. We swing our arms as we walk together. It’s been years since my own kids held my hands. Trupti takes me past the shoe store and shows me her broken sandal. “I don’t want ice cream, I want shoes.” But the store is closed for the long afternoon lunch break.
We walk by their school, and Trupti boasts of how well they are doing. We pass the neighborhood shrine to Ganesha, and they drop my hands, press their palms together, face Ganesha, and bow their heads in darshan. I do the same. Ganesha, the deity of auspicious beginnings, the clearer of obstacles. May we be blessed.
After our scoops of grainy mango ice cream, I leave the kids and promise to visit the following Saturday. They hug me, and I hold their small bodies in my arms. Tushar runs off to find his friends, but Trupti lingers, she hangs out in the office while I sign the sponsorship papers, then walks me to the corner, past the shoe store, which is still closed. She sees me into a rickshaw and waves as I zoom away.
I go through my week: practicing yoga for four hours each day at the Iyengar Institute, sharing a beautiful apartment with some other Western yoga teachers, eating my fill of papaya and pomegranate and delicious, inexpensive meals, and taking time each afternoon to nap, read, and rest. I return to Deep Griha on Saturday. It’s July, and while the rains had let up for a week or so, they’re starting up again.
Hans, a coordinator at Deep Griha, pulls me aside as I arrive. “We tried contacting you earlier this week. I have some bad news. Usha died on Monday.” Usha is Trupti and Tushar’s mother, who was hospitalized but improving, we thought. My throat locks and my eyes well, but I don’t have the luxury of crying right now, as the kids, now orphans, are waiting and eager to spend the afternoon together.
I embrace them, and I tell them I am sorry about their mom. They nod, their eyes unblinking. I ask them about the funeral service, about their family, how they feel. What can they say? They are children, and we barely have enough of a common language to communicate basics. We smile, hug, move on.
This time, the shoe store is open, and we buy the long-awaited shoes, as if I can ease their abandonment with some rubber and vinyl. Tushar picks a pair of practical sneaker-sandals, and Trupti settles for some rubber-soled sandals instead of the high wooden ones with the silk flowers. Tushar asks hopefully if he can also have some socks, and they each get a pair, the shopkeeper measuring their foot sizes by wrapping the socks around their fists.
Between rain showers, we walk to a restaurant. The children shout out for “Chinese! Chinese!” Indians are fond of their own particular style of Chinese food. We end up ordering dosas and idli, rice and bean crepes with spicy potato filling, and steamed cakes with coconut chutney and bean soup. It’s the first time they’ve been to this modest restaurant, so close to their home yet so inaccessible. While we wait for our food, we play with origami paper my friend brought. I fold a tiny “fortune teller,” a finger game with numbers and fortunes written inside. I fill it with hopeful predictions and assurances, as if a toy can take their pain away: “You will always be loved,” “All your needs will be met,” and “You will have many friends.”
This time, on the way back, I slip my shoes off and follow the kids inside the Ganesha shrine. I leave a few rupees in the offering bowl, and we dash exuberantly around the tiny temple, looking at all the statues and performing perfunctory darshan and ringing every bell in the temple over and over. I lift Tushar so he can reach the bells, and he strikes each with vigor. The brass bells clear the humid, stormy air, and we leave chewing on sugary fennel seeds.
I give them a small sack of groceries and soap for their aunt. Shoes, socks, idli — I have so little to give them, and their hopes are so high. “I want to come to America,” Trupti bursts out, not daring to miss her opportunity, and Tushar echoes, “I want to come to America!” I want you to come to America, I want to tell them, but cannot, afraid to make empty promises.
Sponsorship is not adoption, I remind myself. Their home is in India. But it seems ridiculous to withhold something I could give. We have the space, we were planning to host a foreign-exchange student anyway, our kids will be leaving for college . . .
I pull away. It’s afternoon practice time at the Institute. I can only open myself so wide. I have to retreat.
Returning to Deep Griha, Trupti tugs on me, beseeching me to come inside. But I cannot. I leave India in five days. I say goodbye again and again, and finally I know I must separate. They have no mother, they have no father. I am not their mother, I am not their father. I am just a didi, an auntie, barely more than a stranger. My embrace feels inadequate to properly hold them.
I go to the Institute to do my yoga practice. Lying over a bolster, I listen to the rain and spread my arms wide. My heart opens for the suffering in the world, the dynamics of having and not having, the responsibilities we bear for each other and our inadequacies in caring for each other. Finally, the tears flow.