…It has been seven months since I departed India and yet I feel in many ways as though I never left. The constant din of automobile horns, pounding of factory machines, chants of salesmen in the streets, and clanking of billowing tuk-tuk engines create a unique atmosphere that cannot be forgotten. The air is thick with pollution and inhaling occasionally takes noticeable effort. It is very cold at night, to the point of needing fleece and a wool hat inside my sleeping bag.
I arrived in Delhi at 11:00am on January 10. After 28 hours of flights and airports, an hour of customs and immigration lines, and a 90 minute taxi ride from the Delhi airport, I finally arrived at Mamta and Shri’s home. Their daughters, Naysa and Nayma, were standing in the middle of the street with flowers in hand. I stepped out of the car to kneel down and hug them when they extended their flowers and harmoniously sang “Welcome to India, John Bhaiya!”
I unpacked and organized my belongings, set everything up as I had it before, and then joined two new volunteers, Amy and Bethany, for Mamta’s great cooking.
Then, off to the slum we went. I was immediately recognized by hundreds of children and adults in the slum. Many of the adults even came forward to shake my hand and welcome me back.
I had wondered many times what the reaction would be to my return. However, I did not predict or even consider the reaction I actually received. Everyone I had interacted with before in the slum knew that I was coming and the day that I was supposed to arrive. No one, therefore, was surprised by my arrival.
Interestingly, many of our students seemed initially hesitant to approach me. They would peek their heads around a corner, see me notice them, and run away with big smiles on their faces. It was as if many of them were playing a game of hide-and-seek.
Only then would they come closer. They ran up to me and stopped just in front of my feet. They made no attempt to touch me but looked directly up into my eyes with massive smiles and said “Hello, John Bhaiya!”
Neha ran to get something to show me. Before I left last May, I had given a picture of my family and me to each of the students. Neha’s family framed the photo and keeps it in plastic covering on the wall of their tiny dwelling. She was so proud to show me she still had it.
Manish and his mother Dolly were out in public prominently sitting along the main route through the slum. Manish has continued to receive treatment during my absence. His venous malformation does not appear to have grown, which is cause for celebration. I wish that we could do more but at this time surgery is still not an option here. I will take him to a physician soon for closer follow-up.
Mithlesh and his family have had a very tough time since I left. His father Narayan (center) was diagnosed in September with Grade IV Glioblastoma Multiforme, a very aggressive malignant brain tumor. He has undergone surgery and many rounds of radiation treatment at government hospitals. He remembered who I was and thanked me extensively for coming back. However, he can no longer remember the names of even his own family. His family, consisting of about 40 individuals, has pooled their money to support the tremendous expense of his medical care. They have spent all of their meager savings fighting for his life.
All of the students ask me if my friends Heather, Natalie, Crystal, Rehan, Dina, Jess, Yeonui, Merril, Win, or others are coming too. They ask for each of you by name and still have many of the gifts you left them. I tell them that you will not be back this year but perhaps in the future. Then they wobble their heads, smile, and continue on.
Ajeet was very excited to see me and anxious to tell me about multiple awards he has received at school. I asked him more about them and he sprinted away. He returned a few minutes later with his “Certificate of Honor” for a listening skills test and two gift-wrapped pencil boxes as prizes, both of which he placed back in the wrapping paper after showing me.
School is still out for winter break and will resume on January 16. Our students do, however, have a special class every morning during the break. Their class had already ended on this day so our students had returned home and removed their uniforms. Without their school attire, they are largely indistinguishable from other children in the slum (other than the girls’ red headbands, which they seem to wear all of the time and help me spot them from hundreds of feet away). Somewhat to my amazement, our children are fitting in with their peers in the slum with hardly any problems.
In the next post, we will join our students in their winter uniforms to their special class. Our children have learned a truly incredible amount in the last year and I cannot wait to share their success with you.