My eyes are stinging from the chlorine. I duck below the surface of the pool and the intense Bollywood music fades away and it’s almost serene. Then I feel the tiny, bony hands of Ashwini grab my hair, and not so gently, she begins to pull me to the surface. The base from the three large speakers behind us vibrates through my head as I wipe my eyes clear of water and see Ashwini’s mischievious grin. “Kane Sir, come on”. On the pool deck to my right, seven nuns wearing wet salwar kameez dance in a fast moving circle under powerful sprinklers. Ashwini grabs my hand and the two of us run through the sprinklers, past the nuns and up the stairs to the top of a big slide.
Regular followers of DWP stories know Ashwini’s background and that she is a DWP success story in the truest sense. (see DWP blog post Ashwini and Bhoomi ) A rough and tough, scabby and tortured young girl who was abused by the women she lived with in the slum community and ignored by her incompetent, sad mother, Ashwini has the survival skills of a street fighter. Seven months ago DWP helped to secure a placement for Ashwini in the Nava Jyothi home for girls only a few miles from the slum. At 13 years old, Ashwini is only now starting to show her true potential, thriving in the safe and loving surroundings of her new home where she is encouraged to learn and to begin to trust others again including the other girls in the home who are orphaned or have been rescued from their homes in Mumbai’s red light district, where their mother’s earn a living.
Since my return to Mumbai a month ago, I have visited the orphanage twice, chatting with the Sisters and hanging out with Ashwini. DWP has continued to support both the home and Ashwini, donating regularly to help fund the day to day needs of the forty girls living there, and providing a Marathi tuitions teacher who arrives every afternoon to tutor Ashwini who has only attended one year of school. The tutor is available for any of the other girls who need help with their Marathi lessons. (Marathi is the language of the state of Maharashtra) While providing what is necessary, DWP also likes to throw a party! A few weeks ago the head Sister told me about the girls’ excitement for anything related to water and with June temperatures soaring near 4o degrees in Mumbai, the Sisters and I made a plan to take the girls to a small water park outside the city.
When I arrived at the home before 8 a.m. this morning I saw Ashwini happily playing with friends and it made me smile. My first two visits with Ashwini since my return to Mumbai, have been awkward, both of us feeling shy and I was nervous about today. Upon noticing me enter through the gate, Ashwini looked up and saw me and a smile creased her face. Her friends giggled and she playfully slapped them before she jogged over to me. We “high-fived” and I asked her a few questions that I can utter in Hindi. ”How are you?”, “Are you studying?”. Without hesitation, she quickly answers me in English. I step back in shock as she laughs and says, “What happened Kane Sir?” I ruffled her hair, which is thick, coarse and clean; the rough and rake thin girl always covered in dirt who I met in the slum two years ago, has been replaced by a modern, confident, groomed teenage girl, and I feel like a proud but nervous father.
By 8 a.m. the Sisters and the girls quickly filled the seats in the bus and soon all 50 of us were chugging down the freeway out of Mumbai. The journey to the water park took two hours and while I sat by the door watching this mega city of millions fly by in a blur, the girls and the Sisters kept themselves amused by singing every Hindi pop song ever written.
A few minutes after getting off the bus, the girls were changed and splashing in the pool and the Sisters weren’t far behind. I have been a part of two large events at the orphanage, but I still assume the Sisters will be sterotypically subdued, and well, stern and maybe even boring. But, after watching the Sisters cannonball into the pool fully clothed, and then dance-walking to Hindi hip hop on the pool deck, the stereotype is once again happily washed from my mind.
With two large pools, a kiddie pool and two slides to play on, and a background of mind-numbing, loud Hindi music the stage was set for a fantastic day. By two o’clock in the afternoon, my shoulders were pink and I was exhausted. The Sisters and the girls slowed down just long enough to eat lunch, quickly gulping their food so they could get back to the pool. Their trip back to the pool was halted by the sight of a passing Gola (snow cone) vendor’s cart, and a spontaneous donation by a local family, who, after learning that we were from an orphanage, decided to purchase all forty girls a Gola. The girls, now high on synthetic sugar, were back in the pool, beating the heat by splashing and dunking each other. I stayed in the kiddie pool watching the younger ones but could not keep from watching the sheer joy of the Sisters as they danced through the sprinklers for hours on end.
At the end of the day, a local family who was a relative of one of the Sisters, invited all fifty of us to their home. Walking through the lane ways of the small town, we arrived at a beautiful, old, one level home painted a beautiful blue, set among palm trees, mango trees and pineapple plants. Ushered inside, we filled every room and keeping with typical Indian hospitality we were offered water, followed by sliced mango’s and dried snacks. The Sisters were given fresh, hand picked pineapples from the garden to take back to the orphanage. Thanking our generous hosts, we were on our way again, snaking through intense Mumbai traffic on the way home. While everyone in the bus slept off the afternoon’s festivities, I sat in the doorway of the bus watching the frenetic Mumbai street life pass us by in a blur of diesel smoke.
I thought about when we first decided to place Ashwini in this home and how I worried that the Sisters would be too strict and straight edged, not allowing Ashwini to be herself and slowly adapt from her life in the slum where she tried to care for herself and two year old Bhoomi, to a life full of rules and constraints. But these sisters run the home with love, care, and a whole lot of fun while teaching the girls life lessons and ways to become independent and contributing members of Indian society. If there were more homes like this (where impoverished, orphaned, forgotten girls could call ‘home’) the world would truly be a better place and I feel so thankful that Ashwini has been given a second chance at life with these wonderful women to guide her and love her.
DWP’s days are often filled with tough decisions and heartbreaking stories of pain and suffering and I revel in days like this. The gift of frivolous fun is contagious and not easily forgotten and on behalf of all the Sisters and girls of the Nava Jyothi home, we thank you.
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