By Aarthi Gunasekaran
The hot summer sun beats down my back as I walk along the bustling Indian streets, expertly maneuvering around the many cows that cross my path. The scents of sweet jalebi surround me and beads of sweat from along my brow. I am in Chennai, the vibrant city where I was born, a city worlds apart from the manicured lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs in my quintessential Texan suburb of Sugar Land. In this overpopulated country, I've spent weeks teaching life skills to the children of sex-workers and making AIDS awareness presentations. But, today I'm not going to stand in front of teenage kids my age and teach them about prepositions or drug abuse.
I squeeze myself into a yellow and black auto-rickshaw between my sister and two friends. My back is already aching; clearly this vehicle is not meant to hold more than three people. We pass the tall office buildings, old railways stations, the posh Italian restaurant and the run-down tea shops. I feel as though we are leaving civilization. An hour and a half later, we're still in Chennai. But on the outskirts in a quiet ghost-like slum. An appropriate location I suppose. I climbed out of the auto, my back drenched with sweat. "I'm going to need a massage for this," my sister jokes. I hear voices in the wind and turn to face a crumbling white-washed building. A narrow wooden plank rests over the moat-like ditch that surrounds it. A thin woman in a white sari walks out of the house and with a wide smile, she motions for me to come in. I take a deep breath; I don't know if I'm brave enough for this.
Next to me, I hear the orphanage guardian, Florence's, solemn voice. "The children begged me to not tell you that they are HIV-positive." I wonder why, and reading my mind, Florence explains. "They want to be hugged and they think people are scared to hug those who carry the disease." These are children as young as two, children who should be hugged, kissed, and repeatedly told how beautiful they are. The children are running around, playing some form of tag. It is refreshing to see children living and loving life, children unaware of the materialistic world; but alas, their frail skin-and-bone frame is evidence that they are dying slowly of AIDS-related complications.
I step into a dilapidated two-bedroom concrete cell. From the corner of my eye, I see a shy head peek out and quickly disappear. This child never approaches me, yet without touching her, the fear she radiates seeps into my skin. The exact nature of her fear, though, is still unknown to me. Is it the fear of dying? One would not expect a seven-year-old to have such a fear, especially when the child is just learning to live. However, at this modest orphanage, all the children are desperately holding onto the ephemeral moments of life, not knowing when theirs might end.
I feel a tug on my trousers and eight-year-old Raj asks me to dance with him. I smile and join him on the makeshift dance floor. His body moves like a trained professional, his arms and legs in sync with the beat of the music – a broad smile plastered to his face. Minutes later, six little girls join Raj in a rehearsed routine. The synchronization and energy cause my legs to move to the beat as well. It dawns on me, despite the sorrow that looms over this shack, there is still joy. There is still laughter. I ask Raj what he wants to be when he grows up. "Nadigar!" His eyes gleam with aspirations as he explains, "I want to be in front to of the camera! I want to act; I want to dance!" I ask him for an autograph and he gladly scribbles his name illegibly. I leave Raj so that he can choreograph a surprise piece for me and walk over to Florence and ask to see Raj's medical and family history records. Laughing, I show her the small slip of paper with Raj's signature and tell Florence that she had better get an autograph from the next Indian superstar. She grimaces and hands me a faded-blue binder. "Here, look at his family background." I skim the documents: it has all the basic information. Name: Raj, Age: 8, Parents: Living, divorced, Extended family: uncle is a prominent music composer in Indian cinema. My eyes freeze. Raj had a family. He wasn't an orphan! His family was involved with the entertainment industry. He had a way to pursue his dreams. Florence grasps my arms, bringing me back to the present. "Raj's family left him here four months ago. They told him they would come back but…they're too ashamed to have a child who is HIV+. All the questions they would have to answer…it would shatter their image and they are very influential around town." I try to hold back tears as I realize that Raj was living under the pretense that he was away at some sort of summer camp. Anguish fills my heart, and it grows heavier and heavier. Some children are visibly ill, most are orphaned, yet their earnest faces are blazing with youth and happiness. Bollywood music plays from the small thirteen-inch television and they dance like nothing else in the world matters, their worries and anxieties momentarily forgotten.
I'm sitting on the hot concrete floor holding ten-month-old Isaac in one arm. In the other arm, I have his most recent medical file. His tiny fingers wind themselves around my curls and he is cooing softly. I can feel his little heart pounding into my skin, his sharp breaths blow the stray hairs out of my face. He looks up at me with his onyx eyes. The innocence in them makes me shiver. Florence had found him in a basket two months ago with a note: Infected with AIDS. Beware. I want to scream at the top of my lungs with frustrations, "These children are innocent! They didn't do anything wrong!!" I try to dismiss this unsettling feeling in my stomach. Knots are winding and unwinding.
Unable to stay in the orphanage any longer, I leave earlier than the rest of my group. I shouldn't be standing around weeping in front of these kids. As I leave, the children's booming voices surround me as they yell "Please come back soon!" My sister comes running behind me. "You're leaving already?" My pupils are barely visible under the thick coat of tears. A wave of sorrow sweeps through my body, and along with it, oceans of guilt consume my every cell. My feet are rooted to the ground, the dusty warm air fills my lungs as I consider what will happen when I leave this orphanage…when I leave India. How could I face these children? I know ten-year-olds back home who badger their parents for the latest iPod or the newest game console, whereas these abandoned children yearn for a hug, a smile, anything that would uplift their broken spirits. When I return to the wonderful opportunities that await me back in the U.S., these children will still be here, struggling to hold on to life, never given the option to live it in the same way that I will.
"I have to leave," I tell my sister. I feel an immense weight on my shoulders, the weight of responsibility. I can't let Raj and Isaac live like this. I close the orphanage's gate. I leave the white-washed building, cross over the wooden plank and glance over my shoulder one last time. It's a picturesque image. I look past the orange t-shirts and purple skirts, focusing on the brown faces staring back at me. I told my sister that I had to leave, but I know I will be back.