It’s Not Always Fun And Games

The mango tree that bears the most fruit is the one most hit by rocks. Sister Meena, Mukta Jivan Ashram. February 2018

As a child growing up in India, I remember keeping an eye on the fruit ripening on the mango trees in the neighborhood. Keeping vigilance on their progress was crucial – as soon as the fruit was discerned to be perfectly ready ( not quite fully ripe but had reached its mature size), we children would hurl small stones to knock the fruits off the tall trees. Mangoes that fell were quickly claimed. Unripe mangoes can be eaten at this stage – they are sour-sweet and with a touch of black salt oh! so delicious. Mangoes are also capable of ripening nicely off the tree. So obtaining the haul before others (both human and otherwise) was very important. I have some great memories of ‘capturing’ and gorging on those mangoes.

The lesson from this common practice was brought to mind when I visited Mukta Jivan on February 9, 2018.

As always, I set out early full of eagerness and anticipation. A whole year had passed since my last visit and I was keen to reconnect with the children. Along the way I recalled our first meeting 11 years ago. Time has indeed flown. Some of those children are now young ladies holding jobs and living on their own.

Like a loving friend, Sister Nirmala was waiting outside for me as I drove up. Made me feel so warm and fuzzy to be greeted so lovingly. Joined shortly after by Sr Meena, the current director of MJ, we caught each other up on our news over breakfast.

I was told the that a government inspection of the children and their facilities was to take place later in the day. Sister was worried as lately, facilities like theirs were being closed down for no good reason while government run institutions providing miserable conditions were permitted to operate and children from the closed ones were being relocated there. Sister’s anxiety for the welfare of the children was clearly visible. I came to find out her own health was being affected. Like any loving parent, she was really concerned that her children were at risk.

To say this news of what’s happening due to government bias upset me would be an understatement. I’m outraged and worried as hell. For the past few years, with a growing feeling of unease, I’ve observed a nationalist mentality rising in India. Institutions run by minority groups are viewed with undue suspicion. I’ve been visiting these children for 11 years and I have seen first hand how well they are looked after. The nuns have no hidden agenda. They have given their lives in service of others. At present I’m deeply frustrated that I cannot do anything to help in this matter. But, from my own humble efforts, this much I do know – it’s always harder to do what’s right and good. When I said this to Sister Meena, she replied with the quote above. It’s true! The mango tree producing the must fruit is the one that gets pelted the most. I love that metaphor/insight!

I went on to visit with the children. Seeing their dear, familiar faces is always the best tonic. Their warm welcome, inquiries about my daughter and when she might visit them again was a sweet homecoming.

Some of the older girls had graduated school, trained for jobs and were now working as secretaries and seamstresses. They lived independently but came to visit their Mukta Jivan family whenever they could which included the Christmas celebrations. I could see the Sisters at MJ were so proud of those grown-up girls. It came as a pleasant surprise to me to find out that they also look to match up these girls with suitable young men and a few weddings have already taken place! A couple of those girls were new mothers. I marvel at how invested the nuns are in securing the best futures possible for their girls. They are a full service organization!

I gave the children the many boardgames I’d brought from New York. The games were to provide fun and all sorts of sneaky learning. I also distributed local sweets. Earlier, Sister Meena had gratefully accepted my annual check in support of the children’s music education. All of that money was donated by generous, big-hearted friends. I cannot ever adequately express how much gratitude and love I have for their support and belief in me.

Given that it was a school day and there was an inspection coming up, I did not want to be disruptive and kept my visit brief. I did however chat a bit with the girls and took a few photos ( see below). They even had me record a video message to my daughter Mira. They call her ‘Mira didi’ which means ‘big sister Mira’. Heartwarming right?!

Leaving MJ this time was bittersweet. The uncertainty of the outcome of the ‘inspection’ weighed heavy in my heart. Yet, I was so energized from meeting the children and the quiet strength of the nuns calmed me somewhat. It was now up to the Lord they said. I sure hope the Lord is listening and holds back the stones from hitting these good women.

In the end, it was I who came away having had both fun and learning. I thoroughly enjoyed being with the children and nuns and I learned of some of realities faced by the Sisters who, no matter the odds, strive tirelessly every single day to make the world a better place. Amen to that.

Note that the girls are wearing school uniforms just as all children do in India

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

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