This is a guest post for TRAVEL BLOGGERS GIVE BACK, a unified movement of bloggers giving back by posting stories about their favorite charity organizations. Join us on Facebook, and please help spread the word!
Lurching along the dirt road, I gaze out the window at the town of Cuttack in northeastern India as the car bounces over potholes, sending plumes of red dust billowing behind it. The small villages we pass are as familiar to me as if I had been here only last week. The shacks that line the river, their plastic or tar paper roofs held down with rocks. The smell of curry and incense hanging thick in the air. The tiny shops and vendor stalls selling sarees or pots or clocks, the mangy dogs and cows nosing at piles of trash, the rickshaw drivers pedaling through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. People seem to fill every square inch of space. It is exactly as I left it a year ago.
Passing out of the town, palm trees and a river glittering in the afternoon sun glide past my window as we approach the orphanage I have returned to visit. Questions ricochet silently inside me. What will the kids look like? Will they have grown much? Changed? Will they remember me? Then the driver pulls through the gates into the ashram. The large open space in the middle of the compound is empty, no one there to greet us. I realize they are not yet expecting me. We get out of the car and start up the little pathway that leads between buildings to the interior courtyard.
One by one, they begin to spy us; I see little brown faces peeking out around corners and through bushes. Slowly the ashram comes to life. Word of my arrival spreads and dozens of grinning, jumping children surround me on the path and pour into the courtyard. Within seconds I am engulfed by a hundred barefoot kids grasping for my hands and clambering over each other to smile up at me.
“Hello,” “Welcome,” “Good Evening,” they say. Small arms reach up. Children run up to show me small things I had given them the year before – stickers, crayons, hair clips. They display these cherished treasures; such simple possessions, so proudly owned and taken care of. They ask for nothing from me other than being here. In many ways they are just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging.
They had been imprinted on my soul forever.
* * *
I never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.
It wasn’t the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn’t the warmth of the people, their gentle and inquisitive nature, their open hospitality. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness when I left.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the streets, the railway stations, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets where they are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked into child labor if they’re lucky, brothels if they’re not. This holocaust is waging a silent war against millions of Indian children. The perpetrator is poverty, and its foot soldiers are AIDS, malaria, gender and caste discrimination, unclean water, illiteracy, and malnutrition. While there may be no Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin behind it, make no mistake – it is a holocaust all the same.
In my journeys over the last six years into the orphanages, slums, clinics and streets of India I became immersed in dozens of these children’s lives. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give.
I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. Home is a fragile concept – far more delicate than those of us who have always had one can imagine. When a person no longer has a home, when his family is taken from him and he is deprived of everything that was home, then after a while wherever he is becomes home. Slowly, the pieces of memory fade, until this new strange place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day he realizes he is home.
The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India is a non-fiction narrative that gives a strong and hopeful voice to its most vulnerable citizens, told through my eyes and experiences with them over the course of three years, as well as the amazing adults who work tirelessly on their behalf. It follows my journey from my first visit, where I fell in love with the children, through my realization of the complex and intertwining issues that caused them to become orphaned in the first place. The reader is taken along as I travel throughout the country, researching and discovering – but most of all, getting to know many amazing children and the stories of their lives.
The stories told in this book do not belong to me. They were given to me as a gift, often because I was the only person who had ever asked. The final vision that emerges is one of hope, strength and tolerance that comes from these children.
The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India is available for sale through Amazon and other outlets. The author, Shelley Seale, is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, CNN and other outlets, and can be found vagabonding around the world whenever possible. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.” She can be reached at www.shelleyseale.com.