Leaving, by Radha Bhatnagar, 2018-2019 Operations and Health Fellow
There is a hill across the way. It is the last hill I see before I go to sleep and at night, the hill is so tall and dark and the lights so bright that it seems to be an extension of beautiful night sky. The lights become magical entities. Half of me sees them as stars, distant and gleaming. The other half of me knows that with each light is a home and a hearth and a family.
When we first came, that hill had almost no lights. There were many villages, but the only things you could see were the two or three bulbs of the lucky and the fires of a few. Now, the hillside is speckled with light. An initiative happened that updated each house with solar panels. And when I look upon this hill, I am reminded of how quickly things change. Our organization has grown in number, since the beginning of my stay. We have started community health programming and women’s development initiatives. We have undertaken a big collaboration with a government school. And as my time wraps up, my mind wanders to the inevitable: have I left this village better than when I came and have they left me all the better for it? I have no doubt that my professional work was helpful and impactful in some way. I find it deeply meaningful and I have helped the organization grow sustainably, as well as growing professionally myself. At this point of my fellowship, the heart and the mind are more focused on the personal and so I will delve into some of the connections I have made here.
The first friends are always the kids. While they do house and fieldwork, too, they are more carefree. They have more time and they want to spend it with any new person. My relationship with all the children started off with simple games. A child pretends to cut off my fingers and I deftly hide them away. I slowly approach with hands extended until I pounce with the ferocity of the tickle monster. These were the games I played and soon I became known for them (you can ask Lucy and Nick how annoying it became when kids were constantly approaching us to play). The light playfulness turned into small conversations. It turned into little day trips--to the river, to the snow, to other villages-- with slightly older kids and constant hand-holding with the smaller kids. Wanting to dance and to run and to sit together. It became apparent that something had changed when I tried to play the tickle game with a young one. He was a nursery student known for being very disruptive and naughty. I loved him because he was trying his hardest and he was just a small kid with big troubles who needed more attention. The goal of the game is to run away from the tickle monster and instead he began to run into my arms, not letting me go. We had played this game so many times before, but each time after he just wanted to be held. By the end of my time, some of our other students would give me so many hugs and kisses, it would make my head spin. They, all of them, are brilliant, fun, and adorable kids. Children who cared less about caste than their parents do and who will do so well in the future. And no matter how much little ones can try your patience, whether accidentally or otherwise, each moment was a precious one.
The kitchen staff are your second friends. They are the ever hardworking, thoughtful women who make sure you eat enough and drink enough and sleep enough. Their immediate and apparent kindness is what builds that first connection. And, as I spent more time with them, it became so much more. In truth, they are the real teachers of my Nepali. It is through their everlasting patience that I learned, word by word and phrase by phrase, as much as I did. And as my Nepali got better, our conversations moved from the simple and the everyday. It became talking about our families, our lives, our pain. We have danced together and laughed together and cried together. They taught us about the village and shared gossip and even confessions. They constantly and secretly spoiled us with the best foods. It is difficult to put into words what their company, their trust, and their love mean to me. They are my own sisters. And because of this, I wanted to give something back to them and I started an adult literacy class. It was then that I could see just how brilliant they are. I had always known they were brilliant in the non-academic way. Amazing at their jobs, filled to the brim with common sense and home remedies, extremely resourceful. They had never been to school or held pencils, really. People had told them all their lives that they could never learn and they didn’t have the minds for it. But as soon as I put one into their hands, they ran with it. They learned and remembered everything and wanted to have class as much as possible. I cried when I saw one of them write her name quickly and confidently in a meeting, when she read a sign for the first time. They are genuinely some of the best people I know.
Another set of my own sisters is my nearest and dearest youth group girls. At first, the relationship was stiff. I was a facilitator and they were students. Over the nine months, I got to know them all individually. What they believed in, their quirks, their personalities. They are the poorest of the poor in the village. Of caste, they are the lowest of the low. “Untouchables” who aren’t allowed into temples or to bump into someone’s water container, because it will spoil it. We know of an “untouchable” man who built a house for a high caste family. He had to build it from the inside out, because once it’s finished, he wasn’t allowed to enter. Lucy and I never bought into this, of course, but it is so ingrained in who they are, that they are always very careful. When Lucy and I felt close enough to them, we asked if we could hug them. I asked if I could kiss them on the cheek. From then on, it changed. They were unguarded. Goofing off in front of us, telling us intimate stories and their dreams. I began to visit their house ungodly often, sometimes with an excuse and sometimes not. We just sat and talked and danced. When I was leaving, I cried so much. For those of you who do not speak Nepali, there is a word, “raamro.” I have never known a word to be so easy and so frustrating. It means nice, good, pleasant, beautiful, smart, amazing, brilliant, extraordinary and literally any and every positive adjective you can imagine. I wanted to tell them all how brilliant and hardworking and beautiful and wonderful they are. How proud of them I am. How much I believe in them. How happy they make me. And all I could say was, “raamro.” I cried because I love them. I cried because I will miss them. I cried because I couldn’t tell them exactly how much they mean to me and I cried because maybe they were trying to do the same. In the end, they ARE “raamro.” They are ALL of the good things wrapped into one and they are my sisters. One of my last interactions with them was so beautiful. We all just sat together, talking and having fun. Then they told me they had something for me. When I say these young women are the poorest of the poor, I mean it. Their families can’t afford food. They all wear tattered clothes because, even though their parents and aunts and uncles are all tailors, they can’t afford to use the thread and the time for themselves. One of the youth brought out a red powder, tikka, to put on my face. Another pulled the clips from her own hair and asked that I please take them as a small gift. Yet another had bought me two packets of coconut biscuits and said, “Khannos. Raamrosanga jannos, laamo yatra hune. Please eat. Please go nicely, it will be a long journey.” I cried again because these were some of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received in my life.
As I leave Oda, I know that my family has grown. With regards to making lives better, I’m not sure. They have certainly made my life all the sweeter and all the deeper. I think and I hope that with every smile, with every pain shared, with every beautiful moment, their lives are just a tiny bit better. I have learned after being here that the heart only grows. Nothing ever gets replaced. Love just grows, and the heart along with it. I now have a larger, more unconventional family than I could ever dream up. It will be difficult. Those who I have made the closest connections with are not easy to contact. They don’t have phones or they don’t have nice ones. Some can’t read Nepali, let alone English. I know where there is a will, there is a way. And I know that I will see them again. For now, I carry their hearts in my heart and I know they are doing the same.