Chennai, India

Feature Writing

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Mother Teresa's Ashram

Make us worthy, Lord. To serve our fellow men throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands, this day their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give peace and joy.

- Mother Teresa's Prayer

          The rusted yellow gate was locked. A man dressed in a light blue robe, with a hump protruding from his back, unlatched it and we walked through the little opening down a dirt path into their home. The front door had a picture of Mother Teresa painted on it and a prayer surrounded the door. A memorial to Mother Teresa was covered with yellow flowers; it was off to the left hand side of the pastel colored house.
          Knock. Knock. Knock. We waited. An old man with a pair of rusted silver glasses sat on the step of the house. His rusted walker stood in front of him. His smile revealed missing teeth and he clasped my hands as he said in broken English, "Thank you. Thank you. Come in. Come in."
          A young woman, one of the sisters in charge of the house, came out dressed in black and white. She smiled with her hands folded in front of her. We followed her behind the wooden door and into Mother Teresa's home for the sick and dying destitutes.
          The door opened.
          My life changed forever.
          "No pictures of the sisters, just of the place," the tour guide said. He hurried us through the door and no one knew or was prepared for what we were about to see.
          The door opened to the common area. Men sat around the walkways on old wooden tables and laid across benches. Blue rusted gates marked the entrance to every room and reminded me of cages. The men were off to the right hand side of the house and we were quickly redirected by the sister who motioned us to the left. A man was lying on the floor of the room huddled next to the post of his bed. A man with an open wound sweltering with blisters pulled a dirty white sheet over his leg to hide his embarrassment. I smiled as several of the men touched my hands and bowed their heads to welcome me.
          The women and children were off to the left. We walked across the garden and passed a grass patio full of miniature red flowers. Men lay around the garden. We walked carefully, avoiding the limbs of the men who were sprawled on the ground.
          Blue painted bars that were peeling, caged several of the rooms. The women inside reached out their hands through the holes of the caged room. Their black hair was cut short and they called out various things bobbing their heads back and forth with a smile on their face. They were mentally handicapped and tried desperately to catch our attention. They wore dirty pastel colored dresses.
          When you enter the cage-like room you pass down a hall with tables in it, several of the women sat or slept on the metal tables. Some of the women sat on the edge or under the table, hiding their face but holding out their hand, hoping you would hold it or pass them a couple coins.
          One woman grabbed my arm. She talked and talked, pointing to the others, while motioning with her hands to various places in the house. She seemed upset, and I held her hand to comfort her. She noticed my bracelet and bowed her head smiling. I gave it to her. She pushed it back before finally letting me put it on her thin wrist. She sat on the table bobbing her head back and forth as I continued through the room.
          It was humid and the smell of human waste overwhelmed you. The bedroom was located in the back and people slept on cement floors huddled together. One younger woman slept leaning forward on her knees. I pulled my sunglasses on. I started to cry. Before I left, the woman I gave my bracelet to touched my arm and began to cry. She motioned with her arms and talked to me in a shrill voice. She called out to the others in the caged room. I couldn't understand, but her eyes told her story. We walked out of the room and the blue bars were bolted and locked behind us.
          Next, up near the front of the house, were the mentally challenged older children. A little boy sat at the front of the yellow bars his arms hung through the holes and he slept. We waited as the sister unlocked the door. One child was huddled in a corner of the room sleeping on the cement. Several of the children had on rags and drool dripped out of their mouths and onto their hands. They would grab at you and smile. Each child wanted you to take a picture of them and then show them on the digital screen what they looked like. They smiled and bowed their heads grateful after each picture.
          We stayed only a few minutes, but as we left the room the children followed sticking their hands out from the bars. I passed another bracelet I was wearing to one of the little girls wearing a dirty blue dress. Her hands were soaking wet and her black hair was cut short. She took the bracelet and smiled gratefully. It was her only possession.
          The sister directed us through a back door and outside to another house. This house had a slide, see-saw, and swing outside of it. Peeling paintings of Looney Tunes covered the outside of the house, and several older girls opened the multi-colored door to welcome us. "The children," the tour guide said after the sister pointed us into the house.
          A blanket lay on the floor of the first room with two or three little toys and tiny plastic chairs. The children, all ages, up to ten, filled the house. The youngest child only two weeks old had been left on the door step of the house a few days ago by her parents. We walked through the various rooms. One with blue cribs that had dirty white sheets many saturated with urine. The other room housed the younger children. A little boy named Rodney that I carried for the duration of the visit. Every time I put him down he would cry--he wanted to be held. He stared into my eyes and I tried to imagine the life that lay before him. The back rooms of the house had several mentally handicapped and disabled young children. Some of the children had been purposely disabled by their parents so they could beg in the streets. When the parents tire of caring for them, they drop them off at the orphanage. The children played with each other on sheets that were laid out on the cement floor. Younger children chased each other around the various rooms giggling and laughing.
           I walked into the washroom and a young girl about three years old carried a tiny baby. She motioned for me to watch. She could barely reach the table she sat the baby on, and she quickly changed the baby's diaper, replacing the folded white diaper with another. Impressed I smiled and asked her how she knew how to do that already.
          She could only smile. She couldn't even talk yet.
          We stayed outside with the children on the old playground for several hours. I held the children and hugged them giving them the attention so many of them were craving. They pulled at us and wanted us to acknowledge them. Some played with a little red ball. One child carried a stuffed animal around under his shirt so no one would steal it.
          Most of them though would only stare and even if you motioned or tried to talk to them, they would not respond. Nothing could penetrate them. It was a horrible feeling. You want to help so badly but all you can offer is a hug or a smile all they would do is blankly stare.
          "The lucky ones," the tour guide said translating what the sister spoke in Hindi, "They won't be sold. They won't have to sleep in the streets, and they can stay here for as long as they want."
          The lucky ones...what life must be like. I have to come back. I will one day. We walked down the dirt path out of the house and looked at the busy streets of Agra. Children no older than five years old ran across the streets. They begged for money. Where are their parents? They pulled at your arms and motioned to their mouth. If you gave one child a coin, you would be overwhelmed and surrounded by children. Some were without clothes, covered in dust and filth. There were so many. We stood outside the gate of Mother Teresa's house and waved good-bye to the residents who followed us to the gate. The gate was locked.
           The lucky ones, I have to come back. There must be something I can do. There must be something we can do. Those were the lucky ones.
          I have figured out what I want to do with my life.

Holly Vandegrift