Intimate recollections of a volunteer vacation in India

Jeb Butler lives and practices law in Atlanta, Georgia. His work focuses on representing individuals who have been harmed by others. In late 2012, Jeb took a volunteer vacation to India with Globe Aware.  He relates his observations, insights and enthusiasm in a recent presentation to the First Baptist Church of Shellman, Georgia and through a series of blog posts. Enjoy!

As Nutan concluded class on our last day, I leaned against the back wall and checked once more that Mamta was present.  I wanted to make sure she got a copy of the “School Book.”  She was there, sitting in her smudged white dress, paying strict attention to the teacher for once.

The School Book wasn’t much.  It contained numbers, written in Arabic numerals alongside their Hindi and Rajasthani spellings; tables for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; the months of the year, the days of the week; a map of the world; and a map of India.  I created it on my laptop early one morning, asked the other volunteers to contribute to it over breakfast, then had the hotel print copies while we were out teaching.  It would be, as best I could tell, the only schoolbook these children had.

The forty copies I’d asked for weren’t going to be enough.  We’d distributed twenty-one copies to the older kids the day before, but Mamta—who was old enough for those older-kids’ sessions, but still young enough for this younger-kid session—hadn’t been there.  Now, as I counted the heads seated on the dusty blanket spread across the floor, I saw we’d be five or six copies short.  No matter—some of these children were too small to read anyway.

Nutan started to conclude and the kids started to move around.  As Mamta turned to stand I tapped her on the shoulder.  “Wait,” I whispered, holding my palm out to her.  “One minute.  I have something to give you.”  Her face was a question.  I gestured as if passing a gift to her, then motioned again for her to sit.  When Nutan finished, I moved toward the aluminum chest that held the remaining School Books and gestured for Mamta to follow.

Nutan knows that Mamta is one of my favorites.  Mamta’s face is expressive but matter-of-fact—she can warm your heart with a smile or instill guilt with a scowl.  She’s smart, assertive, and charismatic.  She is also mercurial.  Sometimes she needs discipline, as when we were playing “music” in a small circle and Mamta kept taking other kids’ instruments.  I warned her twice, provoking eye rolls, then confiscated her instrument, provoking a scowl and some nasty-sounding Hindi.  I leaned forward, mimicked her scowl, laughed to show gentle mockery, and kept the instrument.  That appears to have been the right move, as Mamta and I were friends after that.  Mamta would approach me before class to hold hands or slap high-fives, and I liked it when she did.  In retrospect I think Mamta wanted affection but didn’t know how to ask for it.

I opened the aluminum chest and pulled out the stack of nineteen School Books.  Nutan, who noticed what I was doing, explained in Hindi to Mamta what the School Book was and that I wanted her, in particular, to have one.  I turned, stack in hand, and gave a copy to Mamta.  Her expression was uncertain as she figured out what this was.

You cannot hand an item to one child in a classroom without every other child in the room rushing forward for the same thing, and I was immediately surrounded.  Little children with little open hands, reaching, jumping, chirping “sir!,” “sir!,” “sir!”  (This is especially true if some of the children have experience as street beggars.)  I held the stack high so the children could not reach them, and moved across the room so I could set it down on a high wall and use both hands for distribution and crowd control.  Kids who had no idea what the School Book was and would not have cared about it if they had known desperately wanted a copy.  I distributed to the older children first, then to the younger ones, trying to place each copy in the correct hands without another hand grabbing it first, trying to ensure that siblings had a copy to share, trying to ensure that larger children didn’t come back for a second copy before the smaller children got one.  In the midst of it all I saw Mampta pushing into the crowd, reaching.  I was not going to give her a copy because she already had one, but she was reaching for my empty hand.  As I turned toward another kid to hand out a book, I heard her say “thank you” and I saw her face—an appreciative expression—out of the corner of my eye.  I kept distributing the school books, figuring that I’d have that conversation with Mamta in a few seconds when I was finished.

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Intimacy does not come easy, but it is worth chasing.  If the point of traveling is to experience and learn about something new—as opposed to merely doing the same things in front of a new backdrop, or snapping photos of Wikipedia-ed landmarks so you can prove that you’ve been there—then intimacy is irreplaceable.  If yours is a people-oriented trip, it is not enough to see them in restaurants, hotels, and the street.  You’ve got to participate in their daily lives.  If yours is a nature-oriented trip, it is not enough to see the terrain from a train window.  You have to shoulder a pack and live in it.  Those are not easy things to do.

At intimacy, volunteer vacations excel.  Had I come to India without GlobeAware (my volunteer vacation company), I would never have met any of the children.  I would not have entered a slum.  I would not have gotten to know Nutan.  I would not have experienced the closeness of the slum, the smell of the people, the sounds of an upstairs neighbor walking across the sheet of tin that constitutes the ceiling.  With GlobeAware, I could join the camaraderie of the children, feel their small hands in mine, hear the happy shouts of “tri-an-gle!” as I hopped across a dusty floor.  I could ask Nutan frank questions about her arranged marriage and I could feel the way that India is changing.

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As soon as I handed out the last School Book I looked for Mamta.  She was gone from where the circle of kids had stood and gone from the schoolhouse.  I stepped into the schoolyard, but I did not see her.   I stepped through the metal door into the dirt paths of the slum, scanning for the hip-height girl in the smudged white dress.  She was not there.  I wanted this last goodbye with Mamta; I wanted her to know that she was special to me; I wanted to know that I meant something to her.  I left the group and walked to her house.  Nothing.

I never found her.  Since then I have often remembered her, and Nutan, and the other children, and I regret that my last interaction with Mamta brought no more closure.  I wish I had not turned away when she came to say thank you; I wish I had not ignored her outstretched hand.

Fulfillment is meeting an outstretched hand.  I hope that one day, Mamta can read this post.  But I am thankful that, through this volunteer vacation, we were at least able to brush fingers.



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