Bal Ashram

Last year, one of my favourite events with the girls was their weekly trip to Bal Ashram. Bal Ashram is a home for orphaned boys, supported by Sonoma Ashram in California. On saturday, I was to go with the girls to the Ashram again.

The girls start their preparation at around 4PM, and are crowded into the main hallway by 5PM, ready to go.

“Let’s go girls!” I called out, counting heads. We left the school, closing the gates behind us.

“Didi NO. This way,” Kajal announced, pulling on my arm.

“This way? We can get to the Ashram?” She was proposing another path.

“Yes Didi, come na?” We walked that way, the girls weaving carefully around a cow that seemed unsure of where it was headed. Later on, the gali narrowed. Aanchal, who held my left hand, moved ahead of me, and Neha who held my right, behind. We soon encountered a pack of water buffalo, and couldn’t avoid passing them without touching their muddy sides, fresh from a bath in the river. One of them swayed its head back and forth, frothing at the mouth. The girls shrieked and stepped backwards, laughing.

“Really, girls? We had to take this tiny path with enraged buffalo?” I wondered aloud.

“What did you say Didi?” asked Shambhavi, genuinely concerned.

“Nothing, it’s okay. We’re almost there I think.”

The girls ran ahead to the gateway. Each knelt at the foot of the entrance, touching the ground, her forehead and chest in a quick sequence of motion, before running around like colts in the open space. The Ashram truly is a sort of oasis, with thick grass and palms that are swayed by a perpetual cool wind. The younger girls hurried to join the Ashram boys on the monkeybars in their little playground. The flaps of their kurta dresses flapped in the evening wind, and they laughed before falling off the monkeybars and re-adjusting their clothes, again and again.
The little stars of Little Stars, twenty two semi-orphaned girls, are very particular about their appearances. I’ve remarked them being meticulous about changing their clothes, sometimes unable to choose between which of their three or four dresses to wear. They change their clothes often: for school, for seva, for prayers, for sleep, each time neatly folding and placing the ones they had just been wearing at the head of their beds.
Each girl does her own laundry at the same time as she takes a bath: wetting her whole body with her clothes on, then taking off her clothes and scrubbing them ferociously with the gravelly bar of laundry soap before washing her own body. Kajal jumps into clean pants and pulls a clean tshirt over her head without bothering with a towel. Finished, each girl will throw her sopping clothes over the railings of their room’s balcony. Before leaving the school for an evening at the Ashram or any other event, they crowd around the few mirrors on the walls, brushing and oiling and styling and re-styling their hair applying powder to their necks and faces.
If someone else does their hair and it’s not right, some girls will start to cry, breaking down before taking it out and doing it over. It feels like the end of the world when it’s not right. As abandoned girls, trying to impose organization on a previously only disorganized life, the wrong hair, the wrong image being put out to the world, feels like being set back. The girls are frantic, within their unstable and unmanageable lives, to control the one thing they can: their appearance. Ganga, the youngest girl and most recent addition to the Little Stars family, is almost obsessive about it. She combs, clips, re-combing and re-clipping her short hair every few moments.
Other volunteers that I’ve met here and in other places consistently exclaim about how affectionate orphan children are. They climb all over you, cling to you, love you fiercely onwards from the first day you meet. This isn’t coincidence either. These girls are smart: all kids in these situations are smart, because they’ve survived so far. Consciously or subconsciously, they know that this kind of affection is a need, something they have to obtain from whatever source.
When a girl first arrives at a place like Little Stars, she often won’t talk much or become close with anyone. She’ll wait, trying to get to know a volunteer or adult well enough to trust him or her and subsequently choose them as attendants to their needs for affection. The difficulty is that western volunteers come in and out, most staying only weeks or more rarely, months. Even the local women and men who do paid work in this place have short self-lives, not staying very long. So the new girl will wait to build up that trust, only to turn around and find that the volunteers and staff have been replaced by new people. This then happens again, and again. So an urgency to their clinginess develops: kids need that love, all the time. The girls don’t wait, wasting no time in making temporary bonds with the temporary people in their lives.

I sat down to rest for a bit, cuddling with the more affectionate girls as they came to me. The Ashram boys are bigger and stronger than they were last year. Ankita, Little Stars’ oldest girl and one who is new to me, came to sit with me. She has been in and out of the hostel several times, leaving and returning for reasons unknown to me and in a way, to her as well. We talked intimately about her life and she told me that she wondered if she should trust me with all of her secrets, in a way that only a sixteen year old girl can. The wind blew hard through the gardens and the long grass, and a few raindrops fell.

At 7PM, a bell rang to announce the start of Puja. The children gathered in the Mandir and performed puja in silence and in the clanging of cymbals and bells and the sounds blown through conch shells. The prayer was led by one of the Ashram boys, dressed only in a white lungi and shawl. The kids fidget and brush flies off of one another, but sing very loudly and earnestly to God. They are sincere, ready and willing to pursue any faith that will make their lives easier. At the end, everyone rolls their little mat back up to be stacked neatly in a corner. Each files around the perimeter of the Mandir, touching their heads to the bases of the deities and smearing coral-coloured paint on their foreheads and throats.

Anjela leads me to Babaji’s prayer mat.

“Babaji is in America now.” she informs me. “You do like this?” I also touch my forehead to the edge of the mat, embracing and wholeheartedly performing the puja but feeling equally like I am lying and desperate for God. After the discipline of Puja, the kids run over the Ashram’s lawn and dusty field, and eventually settle in the library. There, an American movie subtitled in Hindi is projected onto a blank wall. With more than thirty children in the ten by twelve foot room, the tempurature climbs even higher, and the youngest ones fall asleep.

I woke them up at 8PM for dinner in the next room, carrying Anjela to her place for the meal. She remained asleep, limbs crumpled over the low table.  Plates made of dried leaves, stitched together by twigs, are distributed. After prayers in Sanskrit, Hindi and then English, a dal and rice mix called khichdi is served with pappadum and dhanya ki chutney. The girls pull their food around in small circles on their plates using their fingers, raising their other hand to call out for more of this or that. I pick up the little ones to wash their hands in the sink after we dispose of the leaf plates, dinner for the Ashram’s one fat, healthy cow. Some girls insist on feeding the cow personally, and offer their used plates to the big black tongue, flattening their palms at the last moment.

A Sumo car, made by India’s TATA company, lights up the open space with its headlights. Shaped like a wide Jeep. We pile into the car: twenty two girls and I, and the driver. Three girls sit on my lap, everyone’s knees and elbows colliding. The car comes to life and leaves the compound. Most of the girls were in the car ten minutes before leaving, waiting for the few stragglers, and some had again fallen asleep. The car ambled through the small lane and then charged onto the main road, competing for space with all of the other vehicles, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, people and animals. At school, the girls call thankyou and hariom to the driver in shrill voices, breaking the hum of crickets. They head upstairs to sleep, and I walk home, watching the night people watch me.


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