After dinner that day, we went to the Mahabohdi stupa and then had some chai. Dick-sir is very much respected in Bodhgaya. He sneaks rupees to the beggars and sends tea to the odd saddhu. The teachers want to know what he said about them. Tailors, shopkeepers, stall holders all straighten and brighten when Dick-sir is around. A few of them have kids who go to the Maitreya School. The proprietor of the internet shop bought me chai when he found out that I was doing some work for the school.
During one recess, a swamp of rambunctious 10-year-olds taught me to count in what turned out to be very poor Hindi, their faces full of glee and cricket madness. India was playing Pakistan in a 5-match tournament. One of the kids was wearing a school tie. The school tie was a discarded policy, one deemed ridiculous in the Bodhgaya weather. However, some of the kids insist on wearing them. It made them feel grown up and important, said one. The young male teachers, apparently also liked to look dapper every now and then. For reasons unknown, Vivek appeared one day looking very dashing in a blue blazer with shiny gold buttons.
On Thursday, I went along with the video crew when some of the kids were doing their weekly round at the Gandhi (as in Mahatma) Samanway Ashram orphanage. It was as ridiculous as it was heart-warming – dusty impoverished kids teaching art to dirty, runny-nosed destitute orphans. There was no evidence of shoes or chirping. The smiles are not as spontaneous here. I wondered at the human capacity to accommodate dirt. And suffering. What is the optimal amount of dirt and suffering one can accumulate without succumbing to it? Here in the state of Bihar, despite efforts of various NGOs and temples, the evidence is abject poverty and unemployment, daily black outs, shortage of water, lack of sewage and sanitation. Check out a video of this ashram here Samanvay trailer.
There aren’t enough orphanages in India. Is it better for the child to be in the street or have a job? A lot of children in India work. Those are the lucky ones. You see them as servers in shops, as apprentices, as stall holders in train stations. If they didn’t work, the rest of their families would starve. I wonder about our first world sensitivities regarding child labour. A western journalist has written a book “India in Slow Motion”. Among other things, he investigated the closure of the Kashmiri carpet factories who used child labour. There weren’t any recourse after the kids were put out of work, no school, nor alternative source of income for the families. There’s still a war going on in Kashmir. But western do-gooders patted themselves on the back for having ended child labour. It might have been better to introduce regulation. As a Kashmiri said to me, “children need to live too”. Clearly child labour is not a good thing, but how bad it is depends on what the alternatives are. What does it take to maintain a simple, healthy life with dignity? What does it take to live awake, engaged, at peace? How to have a low environmental footprint, be in control and happy? There is no romance in poverty, despite the books and poetry that have been written about it. How not to be overwhelmed, neither to be indifferent?
Vanshri, the teacher with the golden voice, taught singing. She has a bright smile that faded too quickly and a laugh that lasted too long. A young widow with a small child, life is not so easy. Her face haunts me.