Heads up: this post is heavy on the details, but they're details I just don't want to forget.
Today was a Tuesday, and on Tuesdays, I go to burari.
When I go to burari, I don’t bring my camera. But today I wish I had.
Today we got into the auto to go what is usually around 45 minutes into the neighboring district. I pulled out the book I’m currently reading to pass the time. I noticed as I was reading that people seemed unusually loud. “Why is everyone so angry and chatty today?” I wondered. An old woman boarded our auto. She chattered at Rajesh. All of a sudden, our auto stalled in the middle of the road. Two of the four guys up front got out and pushed, and the driver revved the engine and gave it gas until it seemed to pick up again. A couple of people had gotten out thinking they’d need to find another way to get to Burari. They hopped back in. I put my finger in my book and tried to catch some of the Hindi going on. “Just be sure you don’t stop the engine again, or it won’t start!” I imagined them saying. “Why do I always pick the broken auto?” I imagined them thinking. I counted us. Twelve. Twelve people traveling together in a three-wheeled vehicle smaller than my mom’s minivan. I shook my head and opened my book.
We got out of the auto before we usually do because we were going to do a house visit today – all of the students’ parents were going to meet us at one central house, because they all live quite close together. I looked up from my carefully chosen steps in the developing area to see two of my bolder students coming toward us, ready to take us to their neighborhood. They were very excited to see me. The area is difficult to navigate after rain, as the roads are simply not roads yet. I love the whole district, though, because instead of crumbling, everything is being built up. Instead of having become drab and dirty, every house has just been painted in almost offensively bright pastels, and it’s impossible not to be a little happy when you see them in such large quantities, color after color; in between, of course, the moments you look down to step over the boulders or look over to smile at innocently curious wide-eyed children.
When we got to Reena’s house, I was invited inside and courteously handed a glass of soda. The one-room area was the largest of all the students’ residences, so they had chosen it for us to meet in. Soon mothers began to filter in. “This is OmPrakash’s mummy”, they would tell me, “And this is the mummy of Sandeep, and Sangeeta.” They didn’t have to tell me; the family resemblance was uncanny in almost every one of them. I smiled as they interacted – It was like being in class with the students I know. RimJhim’s mother said something sweet and quiet, and then OmPrakash’s mother nodded and addded something, and Reena’s mom burst out with some brash retort and everyone chuckled heartily and put their hands on each others’ knees. I could hardly believe the similarities, as RimJhim is sweet and thoughtful, OmPrakash is a follower but a speaker, and Reena is bold and loud and funny. I chatted with the students as Rajesh talked more with the parents. Everyone wanted me to know what a happy day this was, because I had come to see them.
Students who didn’t fit in the room stood in the doorway, light filtering in over their cheeks and their hair, and I smiled and leaned in to hear what was being said by the moms. They enjoyed testing the amount of Hindi I could understand and respond to, and nearly giggled in delight if I offered up a badly pronounced phrase or two.
All of a sudden, I was being invited to more homes. First we moved to RimJhim’s house. RimJhim is probably no older than I am, but she is married to an older man and has a five year old daughter. They live together with her parents and many siblings. Her mother kept telling me how much RimJhim’s English has improved, with tones of deep thankfulness – almost reverence – in her voice. I hugged her daughter KumKum, drank more soda and ate a biscuit or two, and then it was time to move on to the next house. Her mother followed me out the door, and looked at me through her round plastic glasses with great expressive pools of goodwill and appreciation for eyes. She took both of my hands in hers, shook them once and then brought them to her face and kissed them. I squeezed her hands back and then wrapped my arms around her small frame and hugged her twice before the curious eyes of the surrounding neighbors. I thanked her as graciously as I could manage for inviting me into her home. I squeezed her hands once again and then waved at her and at RimJhim as I walked off to follow the students to the next house.
No other homes were quite as meaningful as that one. Anjali’s family must have commented ten or twelve times about how fair my skin is, and Babita’s family had an adorable baby boy they let me hold whose name was Yesh, and Sangeeta’s mother and sister wept in front of me as I begged them not to be angry with me because I came to their home after I had already spent time elsewhere; they thought I was neglecting them because I didn’t think they were as worthy of my time. One family had a very sick mother, and Ashish’s family thought they were the most deserving of my visit, as his father is the Hindu priest for the whole surrounding area. Ashish and his father are extremely similar in looks and in expression. I felt a deep need to pray for his family intentionally the longer we stayed in his home. They are very proud of their son – and they should be, because he is helpful and bright. Who knows, maybe he’ll be a light of Truth to their family.
After all the families in the area were visited, all of the students decided to walk me and Rajesh out to the main road to catch an auto home. “Julie ma’am, today is most happy day for me. Our families so happy to see you; you – here, in our place!” I assured them many times that I was also extremely happy to have met their families and to be able to be a part of their lives. "Will you come to-MORR-ow, ma'am?" They know I only come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "Ma'am, you come to-morr-ow?"
We strolled together in a place unlike any I have seen – developing into a very urban area but on the forefront of a line of an agricultural industry. We walked away from the housing developments on a narrow concrete path elevated above rich deep green fields on either side, and I watched children driving stubborn goats, wondered at sari-clad women harvesting plants together, and saw a spontaneous plot of jungle planted to cultivate naril, or coconuts. One woman had the largest bag of plants I have ever seen balanced on her head and was managing her sari magnificently as she stepped her way carefully but effortlessly through the fields, just surrounded by the most beautiful vibrant green. I sighed deeply multiple times, taking in the clean air filtered by the seemingly endless fields.
We finally made it to the road, and I hugged each dear girl student close and thanked them warmly for having me, and I shook each boy student’s hand with appreciation. Everyone in the auto was half-smiling at me with one eyebrow up, partially amused at the spectacle being made by the foreigner, mostly waiting impatiently to get where they were going.
They didn’t know what an amazing and tiring afternoon I had just had.
Life here is worth it. People are worth it. But friends, every one of those students needs the Truth to touch their lives. Many of them are thinking, seeking, wondering.
Pray for RimJhim. Pray for Ashish. Pray for me as I go to them, offering the only thing I have to give – the best thing I’ve ever had; the best news I’ve ever heard.
Love from Delhi,
Julie: humble English teacher and proud news-bearer.