Looking Back: Who am I helping really?
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
“Although an act of help done timely, might be small in nature, it is truly larger than the world itself.” ― Thiruvalluvar, Thirukkural (Tamil literature, 3rd century B.C.)
Our family had been in Mumbai for a year and I wanted a closer glimpse of the girls Greg and the team had rescued. I offered to teach art to the girls at the government remand home once a week for six weeks. My sister in law, a professional artist, was volunteering along with my brother Jona for six months. Together we gathered up our children, Jill's son, Elijah, and my four, and endured the 100-degree heat, the two hours of traffic, the fussing of the children until we pulled into the concrete-walled compound of the government home.
Several tin-roofed shelters dotted the 4 acres. Passing the first few buildings that housed poor and destitute women, we entered a concrete structure with two large rooms and fifty rescued girls. With only two bathrooms and no beds, this was more of a holding pen than a home. The rooms were completely bare, devoid of furniture or any comforts.
It was 11 am but many girls were just waking up. Some were standing up from their mat on the ground, others lay curled in a fetal position, and their dupattas (scarves) pulled over their heads. They stared at us, some expressionless, others watchful, curious, angry, or simply waiting. Wearing floor-length nightgowns, they drifted listless, brushing their long black hair.
As Jill and I set up for the art class, we caught our first glimpse of Onima, a twelve-year-old girl just rescued from a recent raid. Hair unkempt, dirty, she flitted wildly about. She had not fared well in the hands of her brothel keepers. After several attempted escapes, she was caught and beaten each time. When she saw the art supplies, she rushed forward, wanting to join the group.
Some girls had real artistic talent and ability. Others were scarcely able to hold a pencil. Meanwhile, the girls passed our babies back and forth, pinching chubby cheeks and stroking their skin and blond hair. The children did as well as could be expected in the melee of girls and the avalanche of attention, but they were overwhelmed quickly, and the art came to a halt.
When I spoke with the Superintendent later, she asked point-blank, “Mala, what are you trying to do, really?” I was a bit stunned. Wasn't it obvious?
I floundered a reply, “Just trying to help these girls.”
“But, you have to travel so far, you have these four babies” Her disapproval was clear.
“No,” I tried to argue. “Art, being creative, it heals them, you know. Its therapy, the girls need it.”
I won, of course, and succeeded in finishing the art course.
My sister-in-law was even more direct. In a moment of frustration, (she was pregnant with her second and experiencing complications), “Why are you doing this?” her voice rose in exasperation. “Is it just to make yourself feel better? ”
The challenge pricked. Drifting off to sleep many a night I wondered, 'was she right?' 'Was this all about me?'
I finally made a decision, ultimately grateful for tough love. This was not my time to personally help rescued girls. I was in Mumbai for a total of five years and never went back to teach art at that home. Yet the girls I met during those six weeks, Onima, Vijaya, and Jamila were all girls that I would see again when I started an aftercare home years later. There was a time, just not that time.
I turned away from the pain of rescued girls and embraced the work of my children and their homeschooling. The time would come when I would have the opportunity to try and balance the two worlds again.