First a bit of background: I arrested the freewheeling spirit and slapped the 'cuffs on its wrists. Me being the judge, the jury, and the toothless janitor shouting "guilty!" in the back of the courtroom in this situation, I felt that the convict was too high on his own good times, and needed a bit of a humbling experience, something to bring him tumbling back to earth from his otherworldly exosphere. [Booming Judge voice] "You are a traveller no more - I know dub thee..."Volunteer!" He needed to give back, and thus I allotted him three months of volunteerism - one in India and two in Nepal.
Sarah and I were confused, and the lack of structure to this whole "volunteering" thing only intensified our sense of discombobulation. We were dumped by a strange man into a small room with bare stucco walls, broken only by a small, barred window. The two wooden structures, presumably beds, were the only items to cover the concrete floor. Somehow we'd found attracted a group of eager little children that spoke no English, and were rummaging through our things like dumpster divers, after generously inviting themselves. Was this the orphanage? And a guardian? An explanation would receive a celebration at this point. And why is this kid using my water bottle to bash in skulls? Come to think of it, the Indian
I digress. As soon as we turned onto the road, we had taken not but ten paces when confronted with the heavy lipstick, traditional sari, fluttering eyelashes, and ripping hand shake of...a man. I was used to ladyboys in Thailand, but this one guaranteed a good time for only fifty rupees! AND my haggling could be considered reputable at this point. Oh boy, here we go.
No we don't - as I stopped in my tracks. Sarah and I conferred later that this was a bad idea, but the image at hand instantly scorched me to the core; that of a child, at the age where they first learn to walk, its back turned to me, head cocked sideways, and naked from the waist down. It's legs were stricken by something that even grim would cringe at: polka dot red sores the center of festering black doughnut rings, the view of which is intermittent as a virtual cloud of flies orbited the wounds with celestial regularity. The scene was completed by the beseeching eyes of a mother, found low amidst the black contained by a crooked frame, the mouth to a soiled shanty crowned with a flattop of corrugated iron. I've seen plenty of poverty before, but rarely have I felt poverty as I did in this moment. All around, ill conditions of existence were norm. We had paused our movement in order to be part of this moment, and were quickly reprimanded for our ignorance of the remote control of life used in India: there is no pause button. Because if you decelerate, then one of the from the sea of a billion is bound to slam on the gas and cut you off. Hesitation will have you eaten alive. We paused once more to shoot the breeze with a friendly man who inquired about the child bouncing along with us. No, we're not married. No, this isn't our child, were just walking with him, wait, why are we walking with him? Before we could answer, the crowd had congregated. Instead of refracting beams of light from the sun, our skin seemed to emit dollar signs. I liken the scene to an utterly shameless tourist act I committed in Cambodia, where I received a fish massage. You place your feet into a tank and have a hoard of evidently starved Nemo's feast on a buffet of delectable dead skin that you provide. Our presence at the center of this crowd was like that of a homeless man's grungy feet to the surrounding fish. I don't really remember how we got back to the house alive. There was a lot of yelling, grabbing, and one crisp image in my mind of a skinny man with a priceless 60's hairdo straight from a thorough
From that first day forth, I kid you not, things got stranger and stranger every single day. It was unreal. I kept telling Harry, "There's NO way that this can get any more odd, that has to be it man, that has to be some type of peak." Then we'd end up making shit paddies with our bare hands. Or getting our ears pierced. Hell, I even managed to attract a stalker. But then there's Ramesh, juggling goat skulls after the previously functioning contents had been slurped out. It goes on and on and on, good God. But I'm getting ahead of myself. By a long shot.
I'll give basic structure before diving into details, as I'm no Michael Phelps...Host family = Ramesh + Mala...I THINK they had four kids, not really sure since there was always some random youngin bouncing around. Cucoo + his wife live down the street...He's the manager of the orphanage along with Ramesh. "Orphans" : Shankir, Surej, Sittaram, Mohan, Kishan. There's a whole throng of others that I could kick my bucket trying to describe, but I'll stick with the main characters in this play. It's too bad actually, some supporting roles are quite juicy when it comes to outlandish features.I'll start off soft: Mala. My momma. Is an Indian woman, which entails more than you'd like to know. It's the early AM, and her bottom lip quivers, with a grand decision before it: to fall, crushed beneath the leaden gravity of the demands of her life, a woman's life, or, to remain proud and strong, to fight the science of her existence and bend that lip upwards against the oppressive force of duty. She chose the latter. Everyday. She is filled with a substance tougher than anything the raw elements could provide. In India, the mother does all the cooking/cleaning, while the grandmother raises the children. Ramesh's mother is a toad of a women, if I may say so, but I'd like to erase any negative connotation that comes attached to the word 'toad' - shes really sweet, hilarious, and probably eats my body weight at every meal. And therein lies the problem. She can't really move, which leaves Mala to do both the housework and the parenting at the same time. You'd catch her cooing to a baby in one arm while executing one of the innumerable chores that comes with the commandeering of four children. One day I remember asking her how old she was. Her eyes became distant, zooming past the grotty yellow walls of the room, and into a space unphysical, where the mind of only an orphan can dwell. As if in a trance, she said she thought that she might be in her twenties...
Ramesh: Oh. No. You absolutely MUST watch this video if you intend to read further (considering this could be a freaking book, I'd understand if you turned back now...but you honestly won't regret watching this, even if you decide to stop reading....)
We actually rented a DVD player and Pirates of the Caribbean just to show Ramesh his lesser counterpart in Jack Sparrow. Just to prove that he's on another level entirely, I think that he watched 10 minutes of it... then went off to get high. Either the humor didn't translate, or he's really an Indian pirate more interested in looting the fields surrounding the orphanage of their copious, and naturally growing, ganja plants. I'm not kidding, you take Jack Sparrow's mannerisms and square them, and you might get Ramesh. You can't even imitate him; hopefully that indicates the kingdom of insanity that he rules from a wobbling summit, the clouds swirling around him echoing with mad laughter. I'll give you a run down. 7am. Stumbles into my room. Still drunk from night before. Rolls a spliff. Proceeds to do the inevitable. Leaves the room. Plays with children. CuCoo arrives. Back to my room. Another spliff. Dumps children on us. Downstairs. However many more spliffs you can fit into the time period before we leave for the orphanage. Hopefully your seeing a pattern here. The problem is, at night it gets tricky. You can't really apply the same formula for darkened hours. Ramesh is actually a very religious man, in that he becomes deeply spiritual once the sun goes down. Therefor he must make a special visit to his temple. The liquor shop. Being the devout soul that he is, I never knew him to leave his duties unfulfilled. Role. Model. My. Hero.
If there's an inkling of humaneness within you, you should probably be asking - why and how does this man run an orphanage? Ahh, my young padawan, you have much to learn, especially of the dark forces of the streets of Delhi. This guy sounds like a nut job, and with how I've presented him to this point, I can't really argue. Yet there is so much more than one can see, akin to the ink deep beneath his skin on his arms, things that run beneath the judgemental layer of first impressions. At first I thought it was a joke. This has to be a joke, right? As I got to know Ramesh, I learned that this man is the domestic form of his old self, a lion tamed, yet still carrying the marks of his free spirited days. Ramesh used to be a street kid. I didn't hear all of the stories, as he speaks shaky English, but I got enough to get an image of the man - the myth - the legend.A 'street kid' is just that, a child that lives in the streets. Objective numero uno: survive. I'll spare you some mind bottling (it would literally put your mind in a bottle harrharr) details and just say that he's been into and around everything that you want your children to never know about. Theft, drugs, murder (I'm convinced that each one of these men has killed someone, and that feeling won't go away), you name it. At one point they were working at the railway station, and were collecting body parts off of the tracks of people who had gotten run over in order to identify them for funerals. They rather enjoyed reminiscing over this... Ramesh showed me the scars on his forearms where police used electrical cords to burn his skin, aiming for his arteries in an interrogation. When you consider the things that he's been addicted to and done, the astronomical amounts of substances that they abuse on a daily basis plummets in comparison. It's not just the history either, it's that Ramesh is a loving father. He cherishes his children, you can see it in the way that he plays with them, and he's sweet with Mala. I can picture them, the street kid and the orphan, the smooth hustler with the hair and moves coupled with the gentle beauty with the soft eyes and laugh. Sounds like a
movie to me.
Let me backtrack quickly. The orphanage makes money to pay for food, the actual building, and the children's schooling, by making various items from jute cloth, and using recycled fabrics to cover them and sell them at semi-extortionist prices. They can do this because they are an orphanage. But that's hazy as well. There are five children to be considered 'orphans' - only one of them actually is, the other four are brothers who are friends of the directors who are just too poor to raise their own children. There are older boys, or I guess we can call them men as they are in their early 20's, who make the bags. These are 'ex-street children'. Except that they never lived on the streets, rather most of them came from northern India in the mountains, and are here for work, which they found through a goody-goody connection with our oh-so-righteous directors. There is also a 'women empowerment' division of the operation. As you can guess it's not a very empowering program, as women from the local village viciously clamour over one another to get newspapers in order to glue the pieces together to make paper bags, which are actually pretty cool. I tried to make one which resulted in an epic fail, which was only compounded after the woman who showed me finished one in the time it took me to unfold the paper. These are sold for one rupee each. There are 45 rupees to the dollar. If the women work like there's no tomorrow, they can produce around 200 bags a day, earning 200 rupees. I've described this whole enterprise with a bit of western cynicism, as it lacks the structure and regulations that all of you are so familiar with. But once I was involved and actually IN it, I saw how much good it actually does. Yes, it's wishywashy in it's claims, which are geared more toward luring volunteers and donors, but at the end of the day the children get food, shelter, and a decent education, the women have some type of occupation within the home since they can't go out, the mountain men make a living, and Ramesh and Cocoo can support their families as well as their 'religious' obligations. You can call it a hoax, but the bottom line is that everyone is much better off at the end of the day.
Back to Cucoo. He was quick to treat me like a son, always explaining things to me as if I were his apprentice or something, which I guess served as a sorely needed ego stroke. I remember that we were in the paper room, counting paper bags (I'm a good volunteer - helping the corrupt NGO make money by doing work that Ramesh and Cucoo are too lazy or twisted to partake in) when he suddenly got soft on me, opening up and peeling a layer off of that hardcore persona to show a more vulnerable character beneath. An insiders take: Cucoo's father was in military, which he would just brag and brag about because he got to live a lavish lifestyle complete with free booze and all. But it wasn't all glamour as previously presented, as his father used to brutally beat him when he was a child, then sent him off the military school (but not his three other brothers), and told him that some day he would appreciate it. And that actually stuck - Cucoo always admired his father greatly, not just because he provided livlihood, but because of how he disciplined him. And I can see how he wants to be the same father figure for the kids. I never saw him beat them (but I've heard stories that he did when he used to live at the orphanage), but he always displayed a detached form of affection, pretty tough love if you will. He speaks really good english, and could teach them all, but instead he stays hidden in the back paper room, where he remains a mystery, in an attempt to gain respect as the provider and intermittent disciplinarian. He keeps a distance because he wants to be HIS father, the same respected overlord that your going to thank later in your life. I don't know if that's just an excuse to continue the slurred, twisted existence that he's currently engaged in, which if you think about it, is quite on the contrary to his discipline background and apparent devotion to the exalted principle. I do hold a certain amount of respect for the man, which is even more difficult to justify after hearing the chronicles of his mobster era. Same same as Ramesh, but I think Cucoo ended up a bit higher on this strange underground foodchain. At one point he was a male gigalo, and I'd also have to claim that he's probably a homosexual (which had a decent amount of situational evidence behind it), but all this became extremely awkward after Cucoo decided to sneak into our room and read my journal one day. I'm just hoping that he was too high to remember.
Surej: The only orphan of the gang. I took to this lad the first night, as he sat curled up next to me, trying with all his cognitive might to understand the most basic English. This was a struggle, but his persistent efforts and radiant, catapillar roofed grin with the chipped tooth only solidified the image of his name: Surej means the sun in Hindi. Surej is only a bit younger than Shankir, but didn't have the same forward stance when it came to the chicas, as he would rather wander off in his own world, spinning his little dradle and its infinite tricks that he's developed; a simple dude, and that I very much so dig that about him. Not the brightest in terms of intellectual prowess, but he shone a bit more than your average brainiac.
Mohan: I hate to do this, but the reality is that this kid is defined by one thing that absolutely no one will let go: he's slow. I get flashbacks of his furrowed brow just inches above the crinkled paper, his eyes so intent on the sloppy letters that you'd think he was trying to decipher some otherworldy code, when he was really just trying to make sense of his own handwriting. I'd oust all my energy into this tyke trying to teach him the basics of english, but give him two minutes and that cursed brain chemistry of his would have unraveled all the knowledge stitched into his mind. Great kid though, and I think the reason why he didn't pick up his lessons was because that might entail him having to drop his dreams. As soon as the camera was out, his eyes would get big for a moment, then he would automatically go into cool mode, trying to act candid even though his little eyes were just imploring you to exercise that trigger finger. "Eck photo me, me me, eck photo" - I took a bit more than just "eck photo" and we both loved every minute of it.
Kishan: Give him a millisecond of your attention, and he's ready to wax
This brings me to another reason why I fell in love with Lakshya - fun. For the first time in my travels, I was surrounded by people my age in volunteers, and children, and that combination is one with an absolutely enchanting product. I don't want to make it sound as though traveling is serious, it's actually light and freespirited, but I feel as though during such intense introspective and stimulating extrospective experiences I had lost sight of the main goal of my life, which is to have fun. And now I had Harry, an absolute nut job (I almost said nob jockey... mm yeah, I just did) (sidenote: British humor trumps all), Sarah, a gone little chica with soul to share, and Yoshi, who is from planet Japan; not to mention all these other characters and kids. I found myself crying from laughter for the first time in what had seemed like a long while, and it felt like I was tasting my age for the first time after developing a bit of a drinking problem from the wells of adulthood. We were just running around this concrete block of an orphanage, without many props or ability to community through spoken word, and so the place quickly became a hotbed of creativity, mostly in the physical sense. Were throwing kids here, swinging them there, making farting noises, being dirty, playing with the resident cow, and engaging in whatever whimsical nonsense came up in the moment. This environment wasn't programmed to allow moments of loneliness, as there was always a child pressing upon you, a grownup teasing you, heck, even the atmosphere can be considered a player, as it was constantly turning your boogers and loogies black and your throat sore. But this constant excitement had it's downsides as well. I began to feel the gravity of expectations every time I entered or stayed at the orphanage, as if I had to keep up a standard of stimulus. This was uncomfortable for me, especially since I had just been exposed to the positive effects of introversion, and wanted to continue having revelatory personal experiences. At times I felt as though I wasn't doing my job if I didn't constantly have my entertainers hat on, which began to grind on my conscience, especially since I was constantly on a stage in this sense.
I'd like to focus quickly on the language barrier. You'd think that this would have been a massive nuisance, and at times it was frustrating, but I think I might have been better off with it, because the people that I couldn't really communicate with very well, I could observe, and thus learn much more of their true character. You can't trust anything that anyone says here, but I reckon if you watch closely, especially when they aren't aware of your scouting eye, then you can come to trust the reliability of the things that they do.
Sleeping at Lakshya: Blankets on concrete = "bed." Then things got hard. Mosquitoes kamikazied in fits of reckless passion; I felt like I was the driver of a farm tractor stuck in the middle lane on the autobahn, such was the continual, and sometimes symmetrical, buzz at the porches of my audio intake. Except that these cars wanted a piece of my shiny red paint, and would do terrible, unforgivable things in order to play a bit of bumper cars to swipe it away...Then the rats. First to the right, tearing the schoolbag, then from the above, where there seemed to be a
I think there was a certain point where madness began to flirt back, it began after I had spent a couple of nights at Lakshya, in the form of ex-street boys in their early twenties, the kind with enough suppressed sexuality to their level of physical maturity to rival the pre-pubescent orphans themselves. I know that I've expanded my comfort zones and all, but it was slightly alarming in retrospect to think that I didn't really have a problem with the Indian man with that level sexual maturity tickling me in bed and joking that I was his girlfriend. At one point the topic of marriage lay spread eagle upon the scene for everyone to survey. There were moments when I questioned my sanity, but there were moments when I such real things for these people, things too real to discredit to delusionality. I remember the first thing of significance that I noticed once I got to the orphanage was that everyone called each other 'bhaiya' or 'didi' - brother or sister. Whatever occurred beneath those cracked roofs, I know that these people are my brother's and sister's and that we are all together in this crazy thing they call life.