The road to Najafgarh is never smooth. Construction is constant. Rules of the road veer toward extreme independence. To my amazement, tight gridlocks form before my eyes: drivers, cyclists, tuktuks – all advance willingly whenever an inch presents itself, tightening the gridlock noose in a form of traffic suicide. Occasionally at those moments I hear the repetitive whoop whoop siren of an ambulance, equally stuck, the sound repeating itself over and over again without ever seeming to shift position.
So it is always like a breath of fresh air when we hit Dichaon road out of town and approach Holy Family. It’s perhaps only a kilometer or two, but suddenly fields are visible, their green expanses a treat. Holy Family itself is a white two-story building, very large by local standards. Forty to fifty girls and a handful of sisters live there full time, though, so perhaps it’s not really so large.
I first met them nearly three years ago at a wedding – a fitting theme. One of the girls was getting married and we were invited along. I took to the place instantly, thanks to those days in Togo, where sisters ran the only hospital around and the priests invited me for lunches any day I was in their area. And double thanks to all the years working with Catholic Relief Services, when I had to reevaluate my stereotypes of nuns and spent hour upon hour in remote missions in the middle of godforsaken nowhere.
So I began visiting Holy Family Asha Niwas (HFAN) regularly – the sisters and the girls – and started teaching English. Those teaching attempts have been varied – some successful, most only marginally so – and in the process we have moved into a different type of relationship. We are now friends, friends of the infinitely complex type that crosses cultures, castes, education, money, privilege, and religion. The girls and I have shared field trips, skits, medical questions, tedious grammar, English games, photos, exam prep, theft, and many requests for favors. The sisters and I have shared discussions, first tentatively, then with growing realization that openness was possible, about politics, our families, the backgrounds of the girls and what to do for them, Indian corruption, the recent rape reports, my trips, their illnesses. I have brought them tea and gifts from Taiwan and Vietnam and they have fed me, unfailingly, every single visit. (The coconut jaggery pancakes are at the top of the list.) I have now been to three Holy Family weddings and seen a baby girl from the first wedding. I have developed independent relationships with the sisters – they have long since stopped being short Indian ladies in light blue habits.
When I leave after four hours there I feel both infinitely inadequate and infinitely fortunate. I can bring but an infinitesimal amount of difference to their educational prospects, something which nags at me and prompts many musings on the lot of girls here and the state of education in India today. But opportunities abound: I am fortunate that I can bring some wider world into their small one and, moreover, I am deeply grateful for the richness that they have brought me.
Follow my HFAN posts to read more about the girls and the sisters.