Ginger and I landed in Bangalore early Saturday morning. The first sight I had of India was twinkling lights in the dark from the plane. The airport is modern and clean. We made our way through passport control and customs with an extra security check after landing, similar to El Salvador. On the other side of customs we found the representative of the travel office, who located our driver. We got into his new taxi, and we were off for Chamarajanagar.
The driver said it would take us maximum of 4 hours to get there, but we started at 10 of 7:00 am and weren’t there by noon. Two reasons we were delayed were speed bumps – apparently every few yards, and also that we stopped for a “coffee break”. The Indian restaurant we stopped at served us a crispy brown pancake with a vegetable paste inside and two sauces. It was a cozy family type restaurant on a veranda with bamboo trees creeping into the seating area.
It took us a long time to even get out of the city of Bangalore, which seemed to go on and on forever. There were shops and people, but the cityscape was most remarkable for the large buildings that seemed half constructed, and gave a sad, forlorn quality to the scene. The poverty, manifested in small shacks and storefronts with dingy signs and flimsy construction, reminded me of El Salvador. In fact, except for the local writing on some of the signs (most were only in English) and the occasional Hindu god, it could be mistaken for El Salvador with one exception – the newer buildings though prematurely shabby were on a much larger scale.
In one charming observation from the car, I saw two school girls, dressed in neat white uniforms with navy scarves, facing each other and playing the clapping game that I have seen in the U.S. and at Love and Hope.
We drove through countryside with fields of rice and sugar cane, and then a city calling itself on a green sign”The City of Sugar”, after that, other cities, and then the big city of Mysore. After Mysore, the countryside became more beautiful. A lovely mountain range in the distance framed a green landscape, which up closer was made up of red dirt dotted with trees. We finally arrived in the small city of Chamarajanagar, which resembled the outskirts of San Salvador, or even a huge Nejapa, with its small, dilapidated shops and dusty dirt roads. One important distinction from a Salvadoran city was the bright colors of the women’s clothing. Even in the impoverished areas women wore magenta and chartreuse saris, lighting up the dusty dirt streets in a dramatic way. The driver got directions from some men on the corner and turned down a dirt road. Much later, we arrived at a pleasant cluster of recently constructed houses that were the Deenabandhu Trust buildings.
Prajna came out to meet us. She is a beautiful young woman who left a high paying job working at Cisco Industries to devote herself to orphanage work and began to work here full time. Now she is the primary administrator, along with the man she calls “Uncle”, G.S. Jayadev, the founder, who is in Bangalore at the moment with his ailing father. Professor Jayadev teaches zoology at a local university but has written many books on multiple subjects, and founded the first orphanage here twenty years ago. Prajna told us that the children at the home come from a variety of sources, though most of them are not actual orphans but rather are children of parents who cannot care for them for various reasons. Those reasons include extreme poverty, mental illness, incarceration, and single mothers working in the sex trade.
Our first introduction to the children was at lunch. The children in the “boys’” part of the home (occupied by boys, their caregivers, Prajna, and a small number of girls who live either with Prajna or with another woman caregiver who lives in a house in this section of the compound) were seated in a large empty room on mats, ready to eat. They were being served from large metal pots by some of the youngest boys whose current job was that of server. This job, I later learned, has special meaning here in that it is considered a gesture of giving, and in that sense, self enhancing. After being served, the children chanted a prayer. Just as I remembered from Love and Hope, the chanting of the prayer was animated and highly rhythmic. It seemed to organize the children both in their independent self-regulation and in their position as part of a well-regulated group. I mentioned this to Prajna, and she noted that before their lessons she leads them through a brief breathing exercise to help them prepare for studying. The meal was a delicious vegetarian meal of some kind of curry, chapatti, curd (yoghurt), and bananas grown by the children. The bananas were unblemished, ripe, and unusually sweet. After their meal, the children all take their big metal dishes and cups to the washing up room and wash them with water, then stack them in place in a large open rack with wooden slats.
Prajna told us that the two youngest children are 4-years old, a girl and a boy. The Trust dedicates itself to the care of these children until they – especially the girls, Prajna told us – were economically self-sufficient. Some of the children have gone on to high level study and training, but Prajna assured us that the Trust was satisfied if the children grew up to be independent, happy young adults in less high status employment. Prajna took us on a tour of the buildings that house both the 77 children who live at the orphanage, called the “ashram”. The boys live in several free-standing houses, with one house parent in each house. The 16 younger boys lived in one of the houses with one house mother. In the two other houses, 8 older boys lived with one housemother. The girls live in a new building that is a pride of the Trust. It is painted green and also obtains a significant amount of its electrical energy and heat from solar panels in the roof. An attractive, airy building, it includes multiple sleeping spaces and living spaces separated by internal staircases and corridors. Many of these passages are open to the air, so they are not only lit by sunlight, but they are cooled by breezes. Even in the winter, the temperature is warm by Boston standards, and the encircling mountain range drains the moisture in the air, so that it rarely if ever rains.
photograph by Ginger Gregory