last week, i sustained another huge loss. however, the background story is important in understanding this loss, and not many people know it. but when i wake up in the morning and think of this person and the people who are mourning her, i am always taken back to a time eight and a half years ago when we first met. so if you're able, come along for the ride.
late february, 1999: i am in delhi, india, with sweat running down the back of my legs, and tears running down my cheeks in dusty rivulets. i am living with an old anglo-indian woman in a tiny asbestos-tiled room off of her living room, which has been arranged for me by a kind woman at the centre for kids with autism, where i am volunteering. an excitable newscaster on tv is delivering the news in hindi, which sounds as though it is a made-up language. i can hardly believe that a language that sounds so little like english is understood by everyone but me.
i know that this is where i want to be, where i have chosen to come and volunteer, where i must be for at least six months (or else i will lose face in front of my family and friends! and what about the expensive indian visa and plane ticket and immunizations?) but i feel so isolated, so singular, so different and alone. each day i awaken, plug in the heating coil to place in my bucket of water for my bath, nod and smile at the young servant girl (who makes me very nervous with her toothy grin and quick, erratic movement in the kitchen) while i guiltily eat my breakfast of sliced bananas topped with curd and the big-crystalled sugar that i've come to like so much. when i am dressed and armed with my extra stick of deodorant (which i will need later in the day, when the temperature soars to 48 degrees), i negotiate my way through throngs of cows, street sweepers, vegetable vendors, begging children, and professionally-dressed indians to flag down an autorickshaw driver, who inevitably charges me triple the amount i should pay, laughs at me, or takes me the scenic route to the centre. often, he does all three.
i am the only non-indian in the place i volunteer, which is what attracted me in the first place. i didn't want a 'sanitized' experience...i wanted the real thing. i wanted it to be hard and challenging and different than anything i could experience in canada. i wanted to know what it felt like to be the only one who is something - foreign, white, not brown, canadian, etc. now that i am here, i am desperate to see another white face, to hear canadian english spoken, to have something in common. to not be so white and so different. the shame i feel as a result is thick, hot, and oppressive, much like the incessant heat.
everyone speaks english, so language is not at all a problem. further, the women with whom i work are really great - half of them are christian, and the other half hindus - and because the centre is small, they are quite close-knit. they welcome me, and in the beginning, defer to me as 'the expert' on kids with autism. i realize (more quickly than they do) that this is absolutely not true; that in fact they have more expertise on autism than i ever will.
sometimes, in between supervising the kids' playtimes, lunches, and completing observation reports as they are being tutored by the centre's staff, i excuse myself and go to a hot, dusty, empty room and cry. i haven't had a hug in what feels like weeks, and although everyone is kind, and inquisitive, and caring...there is still a division. i am 'other.' even though there is no language barrier, there is definitely a communication barrier. it is not entirely safe for us to tease and make jokes with each other, because we haven't sussed out who we're dealing with. i feel inadequate, like i'm a huge disappointment, because i don't have the knowledge and experience they expected of me. i am the furthest i can possibly be from all the people who love me, and my schedule is such that the 11.5 hour time difference makes it hard to connect by the phone, and the frequent electrical blackouts and the lack of internet cafes and their distance from 'home' means that my email use is limited. never mind the prohibitive expense of international communication, the fact that my landlord doesn't have outgoing long-distance (this is very common in india - in fact, you usually have to go to an 'STD/ISD' booth, and no, don't be funny, you don't need a condom to use them) or an internet connection, and the fact that i am so overwhelmed by the sheer number of human and animal bodies that i would rather sit in my sticky, hot room and hope that my parents and best friends have suddenly become able to read my mind from halfway across the world...
so i am laying under a mosquito net in my room, trying to cry as quietly as i can, with rivers of salt coursing down various parts of my body. it is not hard to feel those feelings again, today, as i write this...and i want to remember them, to honour them, to validate them. (i have a different perspective now on those first few weeks in india, both because i survived it, and because i think it was an instructive experience on what newcomers to our country must feel like. it was a lesson in compassion that i wanted, and needed, to learn, and i am grateful for that.)
* i will continue this post soon, starting from march of 1999. it's interesting how this is taking shape...i really didn't think i had so much to say. but i am going with it. so stay tuned!