Over the weekend, Mom and I embarked on the longest flight of our lives, a 12,000 km 15-hour trip aboard an Air India 777 direct from Chicago to New Delhi. Surprisingly, we both felt that the flight seemed much shorter than we thought it would. We cleared customs and met Shri just outside the only international arrival door. Mom agreed that the flight itself was nothing compared to the two-hour drive from the airport to Faridabad that, even on Sunday afternoon, felt like riding a roller coaster through a cloud of exhaust and dust.
At the first stop in traffic, a haggard beggar pressed her young face and hands against my window. Her ring and fingernails scraped against the glass. Mom could hardly watch.
Mamta, Naysa, and Naima were waiting with open arms when we arrived just after sunset. Mamta was already preparing rajma rice and malai paneer, two of my favorite dishes. I then went over to the convent to say hi to the sisters, who had also been looking forward to our arrival. We talked and laughed and were excited to be reunited. Exhausted by the 28 hour journey door-to-door, Mom and I were in bed by 9.
We were up again by 3:30 a.m. and, after everyone else woke up, walked Naima around the corner to school. Naima also attends the Carmel Convent School now, where 76 of our students across 4 grade levels and 11 classes attend. We were outside the entrance for the youngest children when some of our oldest students, Priyanka, Ankit, Neha, and Kajal, spotted us from around the corner. They waved and jumped up and down yelling, “John bhaiya, John bhaiya!,” then sprinted toward us with smiles from ear to ear.
After giving me huge hugs and an outpouring of optimism, they turned to Mom and did the same. They had certainly been looking forward to the moment as much as we had. Mom needed no introductions.
We went home to wash up and eat breakfast before making the complete rounds of Carmel Convent School, KL Mehta School, and the slum. Mom met Sisters Pushpa, Asha, Sweta, and Namrata for the first time. In every classroom and office, we were greeted with songs and poems and even dances that all the children had learned. It was incredible to see their progress over just a few short months.
Nearly all of the students are making rapid progress. Many are even excelling with almost perfect grades and evaluations. Many of the youngest students have learned to read and write both English and Hindi since April. Some of the kindergarten students are even multiplying already!
We made it to the slum by late afternoon. Children and adults came out from every building to say hello and shake our hands. Many of the men made a point to shake my hand, look in my eyes, and say, “Thank you.” I’d never had that happen before. Some of the children who had never seen Mom before even came up and said, “Hello Mary ma’am!”
Please take a second to blow up the previous three photos and try to digest the emotions of these sisters and our students Anita and Sindu. They live the hardest lives of any healthy children I know. I’ll discuss their situation and circumstances later as they are complex and we have some work to do to get to the bottom of it all.
We also passed by an intellectually disabled boy in the slum who was being held in a woman’s lap while healing from a burn sustained from an open fire.
Despite the difficulties of living in a slum and occasional pockets of extreme despair, life is largely vibrant and enthusiastic. At one point, my shoulder was grabbed by some of the fathers and local men. Despite my demonstrative objections, Mom and I were all but forced to sit down on a bed in the street and enjoy a cold orange soda. A crowd of 30 people of all ages gathered around to watch us sip. I enjoyed mine, as I knew our hosts would be disappointed if I did not. However, I think Mom was a bit overwhelmed by the situation. It’s tough to receive a gift here, especially when you know that person worked for a few hours to be able to afford that soda.
Although the first 24 hours here were as much of a roller coaster as the ride in, excitement was the overarching feeling of the day. In the photo above, Ankit runs to greet us as fast as his little legs will carry him.