Coming Home from Nirmal Hriday
Today brings home new insight about the sanctity of our neighborhood Missionaries of Charity Convent. I see two pairs of sandals on the single step of the reception room, and enter to find Sister Felicitas concluding a conversation with a young man and woman. They turn toward the door, visibly pleased with the blessing she has given them. Sister Felicitas bubbles over, as usual, and confides that the two, young professionals, are of differing religions (the girl’s dress indicates one that many would find restrictive), but that the young woman is especially desirous of marrying a Christian. An earlier ‘match’ was not successful, because the boy’s parents would not allow it. (n.b. Though adults, Indians whose marriages are being arranged are commonly referred to as “The Girl” and “The Boy.”) This is a new ‘friend’ she has brought along, to show the work done here, and, evidently, to find, from his response, that the young man has a tender heart. I tease Sister F. that she is running a dating or marriage counseling service, at which she laughs outright, assuring me that anyone like them or myself who are interested in coming to see or help with the work must have a good heart, and, as for match-making, well, we don’t know much, they came, they can come and talk some more, we will see. It's all in God's hands.
There’s a young girl’s call from the u-shaped ramp outside, that slopes up to the children’s rooms. I think it might be my erstwhile ‘student’, grown taller, but the calling girl points downward and I see a head of black hair, just above the railing. ‘Come down,’ I gesture,in a typical movement that might suggest ‘Bye-bye,’ instead, to an American. The owner of the hair scoots down the remainder of the ramp with amazing speed, and here is “Most Precious” (meaning of her name), all smiles and resplendent in a worn but still grand gold satin dress with brocade bodice and a faux pear locket, colorful bead decorations clipped in her hair, being lifted, kicking with delight, into the reception room.
We grin at each other while I try to coax her onto a chair, but she scoots against a wall until Sister F. suggests we sit out under a tree, MP on a concrete bench (“She is used to it, but not you.”), myself on a plastic chair from the reception room. All smiles, MP denies that she has studied since I saw her eleven months ago, tsks that ‘someone’ has taken, and then discarded, the notebook and marking pens I gave her last winter. I remember that her ‘locker’ is unlocked, and open, in a room shared with a dozen other special needs children.
No matter. I read MP the book of Millions of Cats, that I’ve brought along, translating it into broken Telugu for her benefit (both her Telugu and mine have improved!). MP expresses amazement and delight, answering my questions eagerly as we look at the pictures together. There’s plenty of scope for me to study MP’s condition, bones softer, spine no taller (not quite one and a half hand-spans), face a little more serious, albeit joy and curiosity evidently continuing, since last winter. Another Sister, English speaking, greets and asks when I arrived in India this year, and tells MP to listen carefully and learn some English from me. This Kerala Sister is nonplussed when I tell her we have been talking and reading in Telugu, questions me about it, and is happily surprised when I report that MP has followed the story well.
I tell MP it’s her turn to tell a story to me, but she shrugs and turns away: “I don’t know any.” I quietly suggest that she too could illustrate and create stories just like Wanda Gag, author of MILLIONS OF CATS. Telugu praise hymns flow from a loudspeaker upstairs and, although she will not agree to sing, MP’s body sways and I can hear her singing along softly as she gazes at one of the elder inmates, slowly walking with a walker, across the compound. We share a few bits of chocolate, mine consumed immediately while MP holds the small piece in her hand, prolonging the relishment by licking slowly, ignoring my advice to eat it all at once and save her dress.
Eleven o’clock, her lunchtime, comes and goes. Finally we call her caretaking peer to come and carry Most Precious back upstairs. ‘Okay, bye, see you next time.’ “Bye—ee,” follows me out the gate. I wave. MP’s bright eyes and mischievous smile will go with me throughout the day.
Bright sun notwithstanding, I decide to walk the few blocks home and save my auto-rickshaw fare today. The first block is shady, the traffic sparse but brisk, and I pick my way between it and a muddy right-of-way. I notice that the CAKE LAND sign is actually only a small part in the center of a large 7-Up advertisement almost as large as the bakery itself. Mr. Obama, do we really need to sell the Indians more than they need to sell to us?? A youth guns his motorscooter past, flinging an exuberant, “I love you!1” as he passes my left American ear.
The corner across the street from the bakery sports a broad pile of debris, finally swept together after last weekend’s culmination of the Diwali holiday. Branches trimmed from a palm tree, food wrappers, miscellaneae. An emaciated, tallish, gray-haired man pauses in front of the pile, reaches into the waist of his garment, hardly more than a loincloth under a worn, tired-green shirt, and carefully pulls out a crumpled plastic bag, container for any useful or edible things he might find there.
A few steps further on lies a tiny pile of spent silver firecrackers, another vestige of the holiday past, vigorously celebrated with lights and fireworks throughout the town. (That night resounded no less than a war zone, unlike which it yielded to a happy, peaceful silence by midnight.). Much of this very long, sunny block, across from several apartment buildings, is fronted by a concrete curb, knee-high metal fencing, and a double row of flowers and shrubs, some of which may, with care, grow into trees. This is the back of a large compound belonging to a Lutheran denomination. Three gates lead in to a driving school, the backside of a large church which, some hope, may one day be rebuilt as a cathedral, and the bishop’s residence. Nirmal Hriday is, in fact, a section of that land, donated by the Lutheran Church to the Missionaries of Charity. A far sounder ‘investment’ than others of the church’s expenditures and deals unfortunately storied and perpetuated about town by Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike.
Power poles are also concrete, as is that bearing a doorless switch box, interior and switches open to the elements. At the t-intersection is the corner meat market, an open- wooden-doored, five by seven foot, corrugated metal box only large enough for the butcher to wield his knife and cash box, with today’s raw sides and animals hanging in front of him in the doorway. He runs a brisk business, but now it’s nearly noon, and most of his customers have come and gone home to cook their fare. No, all Indians, not even all Hindus, are vegetarians, although my husband and I are finding a vegetarian-based lifestyle more and more to our liking, and bodies’ health, every year. The meat that we do enjoy once or twice a week, mutton, chicken, or shrimp, comes from a larger, though hardly more hygienic, shop in the town’s meat bazaar. Rigorously sharp-eyed-and-nosed shopping and careful preparation are musts. Any of these meats cooked in gongorra, a regional sour green leafy specialty, are mouth watering even to contemplate.
Next follows the perimeter of the Lutheran English Medium School, which enjoys neither the sanction nor the funding to clear the weeds and prop up the sagging fence that run along the roadside behind buildings, half of them occupied, half of them fallen into disrepair, whitewashed walls bedraggled by recent rains. Here a rumpled, white-clothed man squats, looking studiously toward the weeds, but I know now not to look, and what he is really doing. He straightens himself and stands as I pass, eyes ahead.Actually, I am wearing very dark eyeglasses that clasp my chunni to my head against the punishing noontime sun, which is definitely pouring on the heat. Few cars pass, several flat bed rickshaws carrying little more than a rope or hopeful tool, and plied by lean, determined looking men, heads wrapped round with a towel, and several motorcycles pass quietly on this shady stretch. Here’s the nondescript gate of the English Medium School where I will volunteer in the afternoon, and traffic is cooperatively nonexistent as I cross to our lane. The macadam is breaking up; muddy pools inches deep reflect bushes and trees, as I pick my way around them on drier patches of mud, and cross again to our gate.