Tag: India

India

Stories

If you are a person who loves stories, which I am, going to an orphanage is like going to the mother-lode.  Every child there has a story. They are sharing those stories all the time, whether you are wandering around a mustard field, or going shopping (where there was a cow in a store) or looking at mango trees and gravestones, or sitting around a fire. One of my favorite things to do was to sit at a bench and watch the kids play badminton, and invariably some cherub would wander over, sit next to me, and begin to tell me a story.  One afternoon I went into the dormitory where Rosey and her friends live and they showed me their books of pictures. These kids don’t have many possessions in their lives, but they have pictures of people who mean something to them and every single child there has one of those albums. (When I went home, I sent them a box full of pictures, which said Fedex box is still stuck somewhere outside Delhi. That is another story.) Most of the stories are somewhat harrowing, as you might imagine, and sometimes the children are sad, but for the most part they are happy and energetic and vibrant and all good things. Partly, I suspect, this is because they are young and resilient. But I have to give a lot of credit to the people who run this orphanage. I’d been communicating with the people at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission for more than 3 years, and reading their newsletters, and I felt I had a good sense of who they were. But I’m old enough (and have read enough Charles Dickens) to know that good people are not always good, and religious people do not always act the way they should. However, from the moment I arrived on the mission, I was struck by the love and kindness with which each child there was treated. There were more than 100 children, which makes for a large family, and yet it felt like a family. You could just see the trust in the children’s eyes. When I left the orphanage, to head back to Delhi and then to home, I had the true sense of having left a part of my heart there. But the stories will stay with me forever.  

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Fires

You’ll notice that in every picture of me from India, I’m wearing a puffy pink coat. That’s because I was freezing the entire time. It wasn’t actually that cold. Probably in the 40s. But there was no central heating. So whatever it was, it was, unless you could get a seat at the fire. How I came to appreciate fires! The central fire, and the hub of all conversation at the orphanage, was in an old mango tree that had toppled over in a storm.  We would all huddle together on a log and watch the flame. (I was huddling. Most of the kids were trying to jump over the fire.) My hair, my clothes, my skin all smelled of smoke. Periodically someone would go off with an ax and come back with wood, which they would throw onto the fire. Time passed in a different way than I’m used to. You could spend hours just chatting with the people who came and went. The coziest fire was in the library, in a fireplace. Here many of the kids congregated in the afternoon. (I should say that I was at the orphanage at an unusual time. For most of the year, the kids would be at school.) Here I played an intense game of Monopoly with Rampal (and we came in second). I was also introduced to a lot of good books, such as the Percy Jackson series. The most exciting fire was in the jungle. One night, we all crammed into a jeep and drove into the jungle, which was only about ten minutes away, but felt like an entirely different world. There was a huge vat filled with curry, that the cooks had been working on all day. Music was blaring. A lot of Justin Beiber. (It struck me funny that the kids used the flashlights from their iphones to navigate their way around the jungle, but ate food cooked over a wood fire.)  Then there was the fire I went to first thing in the morning. At 7:00, music would come over the loud speaker–uplifting hymns. Soon thereafter a girl would knock on my door. “Your tea, aunty.” Then I would make my way over to the kitchen fire, where Maya and some others were cooking the toast. I’d sit there and chat until it was time for breakfast.  When I got back to Delhi, the first thing I did was take a long, hot shower. It felt great, but I missed the warmth, communal and otherwise, from those fires.

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Names

When I arrived at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, I was warmly greeted by a great cluster of children, each of whom hugged me and told me their name. A minute went by. Then came the first question,  “Do you remember my name, auntie?”  As a teacher, I have long known the value of remembering students’ names.  In fact, I make a practice of calling my students by name over and over again during the first few classes, because I believe that if you keep calling people by their names, other people will call them by their names too. They will remember the names, will become friends and the class will be a success. All of which is to say, I desperately wanted to remember each child’s name. But it was so hard. There were so many names to remember, and the names were so unfamiliar and even if I remembered them I didn’t say them right. Rosey and Shane and Gladys were easy to memorize. But then there was Roshni and Khushboo and Jyotika. I spent the first day fumbling around and everywhere I turned was a beautiful child looking at me and saying, “Do you remember my name, auntie?” That first night I thought a long time about the issue, and in the morning I had a plan. I went to breakfast (oatmeal over toast) with my notebook and I asked each child to write down his or her name with some distinguishing characteristic. Immediately they leapt in. Rampal wore a gray hat. Indro had a colorful hat. Ayushi had a puffy watch and Jyotika a scar on her chin. I filled up pages (one of which is in the photo). An orphanage is a communal place, and no one makes a decision on her own. There was much discussion over each person’s distinguishing characteristic. Was her nose unusual? Were eyes a particular color? Did she look like she came from Nepal? After that, every time someone came up to me and asked if I knew her name, I could at least pause and point to the notebook. It bought me some time and good will. By the time I left, I could pick out everyone pretty well, and since I’ve been back I’ve gone over all my pictures and written names on them to be sure not to forget. Just last Sunday, Rosey called me and her first question was, “Do you remember me, Aunty?” Yes Rosey, I remember you and Anthea and April and Raymond and Rampal and…”  

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India

How I happened to go to India this past January is a long and convoluted story involving tragedy, triumph, stubbornness  and one very sweet young woman at an orphanage who I’ve been sponsoring for the last 3 years. Since I first began communicating with her, Rosey has been gently suggesting that I come for a visit, but getting to India is not an easy proposition. She lives in an orphanage 300 kilometers to the east of New Delhi, near the border with Nepal. To say that it is remote is putting it very mildly.   At first I planned to fly from Delhi to Pantnagar, which would have taken me somewhere close. But that plane only leaves 4 times a week. And it’s often canceled, which, in fact, it was. So then I decided to take the train. When you are going to India, many people have advice for you, most of it harrowing, so when I got to the train I didn’t know what to expect. (I should say that I had hired a guide to drive me to the station. He deposited me in my seat and said, “Don’t move.”) Fortunately, almost all the signs in India are in English. I knew that Haldwani, the stop I was getting off at, was second to last and that it was 5 hours away and that one of the men who runs the orphanage would be picking me up. With Rosey! Still, it is a little daunting to be a middle-class woman from Westchester, NY, with all that means, on a train going into the heart of India. The fabulous thing was that they kept serving food, and I kept eating it. There was cereal with warm milk. There was a very tasty vegetarian thing. Also very tasty desert, and tea. The Indian tea is the best tea I have ever had. Finally we got to Haldwani. It is not a metropolis. I stepped out and looked around and saw no one who looked like Clifton, from the orphanage, who I knew to be very tall, white and Australian. There was no one who looked like Rosey either, who I knew to be very small, beautiful and Indian. I felt a little like Cary Grant in that scene in North by Northwest when the cropduster is coming after him. I felt the teeniest surge of panic, except there was no way out. The next train back to Delhi would not leave for hours. So I followed the direction in which other people were walking and then I said a prayer and then lo and behold I heard a very tall Australian man saying, “Susan?” I had been found. And what an adventure I had. which I will relate tomorrow.

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My reading list

It will probably come as no surprise that my main concern about my trip to India is, what to read on the journey. (There was other stuff to think about–visas and shots and so on, but the books were my major preoccupation.)  I have a 6 hour flight from New York to London, followed by a 8 hour flight from London to New Delhi, followed by a 5 hour train trip to Halwadi.  I will have a notebook with me, of course, and I plan to take lots of notes and I’m also hoping to work on some important plot points for the book I’m working on now. But. I need to read something. When I flew to London last year, I read The Nightingale, which, as far as I am concerned, was the perfect airplane journey book. I picked it up, blinked, and was in London. I read an amazing book about India titled Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, which would have been a perfect book, except that I’ve already read it. The list of Indian writers is obviously long, and I’ve read many of them.  I loved Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, and I’ve been wanting to read the sequel. Arundhati Roy has a new book out that looks most intriguing. Then, of course, there are some books that might be useful for my own work, such as one by Harold Schacter about a female serial poisoner. This is a great temptation, but I am hesitant about showing up at an orphanage with a book about poisoning. Then, one of my fellow Gotham teachers suggested a book that sounds perfect. It’s a murder mystery set in New Delhi, by Tarquin Hall,  titled: The Case of the Missing Servant: From the Files of Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator. It has wonderful reviews and it’s also supposed to give great background information on life in New Delhi. So perhaps, when I step off the plane, I will be a little prepared. Thank you, Shahnaz! Problem solved.  

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Traveling to India

This week I am going on an amazing adventure. I am going to India, and not just to India, but to a remote part of India which is 330 kms due East of New Delhi, just on the Western corner of Nepal, in the State of Uttarakhand.  To get there, I am flying into the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, spending a night in a hotel, and then taking a 5 hour train ride to Halwadi, where I will be met by a driver, who will then take me another 2 hours to the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, which is near Banbasa. There I will meet up with Rosey, a young woman I’ve been sponsoring for some years, and I will spend a week at the orphanage where she lives.  The orphanage is a working farm, as well as being a school for children in the neighborhood, and so I suspect they will plant me in the library and ask me to read books to kids. Perhaps I will teach a few writing classes! I think it unlikely I will be harvesting grain, though who can say? Life takes strange turns.  There is so much I am looking forward to about this trip. First of all, I am looking forward to actually seeing (and hugging) Rosey, who has been an important part of my life for several years now. I’m looking forward to seeing the night sky. Can you imagine what that will be like? I’m curious to see the wildlife, though perhaps not too much of it. In the past few months they’ve had several pythons show up, and I’d rather not see that. The orphanage is not far from the Himalayas, so perhaps there will be a chance to see that. Most meaningful to me will be the church service they will have Sunday morning. Sometimes, in my own country, I feel like people lose sight of the fact that faith ought to be a source of joy and hope. I suspect that in the shadow of the Himalayas, surrounded by good people and a hundred or so very active young people, I will tap into that joy.

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Passage to India

Yesterday I got my visa to go to India. That means, on Jan. 3, I will be catching a plane to Delhi, and then another plane to Pantnagar, and will then drive (or better to say, be driven) for two hours to Bambasa, which is where the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission/Orphanage is located.  (The picture below is from their Summer Games.) There I will finally have a chance to meet Rosey, a young woman I’ve been sponsoring for the last few years. She’s just turning 17, speaks fluent English and dreams of being a journalist. She’s also endured some very tough things in her life and she’s a very inspiring and loving spirit. I’ll be there for a week. Usually they have visitors help out with the farm work, though I can’t imagine I’ll be of much use in a rice paddy. Perhaps I can give some writing lessons. Or help with the library. Rosey has promised me I will not be bored and I believe her absolutely. Only a few weeks ago, they found a python on their grounds, and I believe there’s been an elephant wandering around. Rosey said they’d teach me how to cook some Indian food, and her friends are dying to see my daughter’s wedding pictures. One of the things that has surprised me, though maybe it’s not surprising in this day of the internet, is that they are all very savvy about Western culture. They’re up-to-date on movies and Rosey adores The Hunger Games. What an adventure this is going to be!    

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Rosie

Some years ago I was working on a novel and needed to set a scene in an Indian orphanage. It wasn’t a big scene, but I wanted details to bring it alive. So one afternoon I went scrolling around Indian orphanage sites and one thing led to another and I wound up sponsoring a young woman named Rosie.  Rosie lives in a small village on the very northernmost part of India, close to Nepal. So she is physically about as far from me as it’s possible to be. And yet one thing I’ve discovered, as we’ve exchanged letters every month or so, is that we have so much to talk about.(Her English is excellent. Far better than my Hindi. I was taking Hindi classes for a while, and she was so supportive of me. Praying for my success, though those particular prayers were vain.) She is fascinated by the arrangements for my daughter’s wedding. She loves all the details about the dresses and the food. She’s also very well-read. What I find surprising is that so many of the books she reads are the same as the ones American girls her age are reading, such as Hunger Games. She is in some ways so similar to the girls I know and in some ways so different. She works on a farm. She had a terribly difficult beginning to her life. She’s had experiences I will never understand. But somehow this beautiful shining spirit comes through. For years, in almost every letter Rosie has sent, she’s asked when I will be coming to visit, and I always say I’d love to come, but it’s just so difficult. But this year, for my birthday, my oldest son said that if I wanted to go to India, he’d go with me. Joy! So, it’s going to take a lot of planning, but in a year or so you will be getting a picture of me on a farm, hugging my dear young friend. How about you? Where do you dream of going? (Note: If you’re interested in where Rosie lives, you can check out the site at www.indianorphanage.com)

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Atmosphere and Authenticity

Setting the scene… in my case Switzerland. How much is too much; how much is not enough? I have several friends who don’t ever finish their great American novel, often because they keeping digging in for more detail, more perfection, just more! (Even more editing, which often means ‘less,’ then they need ‘more’ again. Argh!) There is no magic formula to finding the balance between setting the scene and overburdening with detail, a writing reality that I am contemplating today as I develop several minor characters. (Confession here….. they develop in situ, meaning the draft is well underway but the characters are shifting as the plot develops). Because Switzerland draws residents and visitors from around the world each of these characters very deliberately comes from a different country and a different culture.I have the good fortune to be in India for the moment and am concentrating on a character from that country. I’ve visited India many times and have a sense of ‘my man’ but each time I speak with someone a little detail is added, or a detail is questioned. It is easy to slip down the rabbit hole and have more backstory than is necessary and I feel myself asking: is this enough?  In the end, the magic formula is likely all the details that we as writers think of before mentally paring to just enough for the reader to visualize. This allows the reader room to insert their own experiences and dreams. That said….. maybe I should go speak again with my hosts, learn a little more, and add a few more details to ‘my man’!  Follow me at www.traceedehahn.com  

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