This morning I woke up early. As I lay in bed I found myself drifting back to my teenage years and I was flooded with memories of friends and experiences that altered and affected my life so significantly.
My teenage years went by in a flurry of activity but what I remember very clearly and very fondly is that in those early years I traveled extensively and worked closely with a group of friends from my church. We would spend our weekends and holidays with children who had aids or cancer, children who lived in prisons or red light areas and each and every time though we were the ones doing the ‘helping’, it was we who left more enriched and having learnt lessons that will last lifelong. Soon, I found myself keen to travel and work in distant locations in India and anytime an opportunity arose, I jumped at it.
From the plains of Pune in western India to the coast of Orissa, from the regal city of Hyderabad to the North Eastern city of Dimapur in the remote state of Nagaland, I went wherever I was able to go. I began to travel more regularly and it helped that my parents were open-minded and allowed me to travel independently. I began learning about life and in the process learning about myself too. I often teamed up with my local church and began to volunteer to assist in out-reach ministries.
I recall travelling with a group of about fifteen friends into the heart of Hyderabad. The bus driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and pointed us in the direction of a little mound in the distance. We had been walking for about forty minutes when we finally arrived at a small village. Almost instantly, we were greeted by a group of cheery toddlers who seemed rather perplexed by our intrusive entry. Dressed in bright, colourful attire, these children gradually began to usher us into their little huts eager for us to meet with their families. We were here to help them, each of them victims of a vicious disease. Their parents were either ill or incapacitated by the AIDS virus. Medically there was nothing we could do for them. So, we spent the next week playing with the children, reading to them, putting up little skits and plays for them, singing to them and teaching them how to do craft.
Chances are I will never meet any of those kids again. I have already forgotten their names and faces. Many may not have survived. I will however remember how they made me feel in those few days that I spent with them. Their lot was not an easy one. They lived in the most dilapidated dwellings, ate the most unwholesome food, lived in abject poverty and yet radiated a luminosity of spirit that is rare in those their age. Knowing that I couldn’t really do anything for them left me with a sense of complete helplessness, but they had helped me in the process. They had given me a new perspective and an appreciation for the life I had.
Bangalore, Mysore, Jamshedpur, Ooty, Chennai, Pondicherry, Mumbai, Delhi, Lonavala, Khandala, Goa, Guwahati, my travels took me to many places but, no matter where I was the vivacity of the human spirit always amazed me. Everywhere I went, I learnt about life, about the people who lived in those places, their personal tragedies, their victories and accomplishments but most of all, it was their openness to me, their generous and welcoming ways, whether it was a simple snack in a makeshift hut or an elaborately planned meal, driving me from one place to another, helping me find the best bargains or just listening to me as I spoke, each of them left me with a sense of amazement and wonder. I never felt a moments discomfort in their presence. They were and some remain my friends even to this day.