india, day two: the children of agra

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A woman draped in aubergine and fuschia silk rides sidesaddle on a motorbike. Layers of fabric flutter in the heat like some sort of origami while a man drives, his face bound in white cotton. My guide tells me that in the South this is how men keep cool; this is how they shield their face from the morning sun. For hours we ride in a chilly bus, comfortable, given bottles of water chilled from a box of ice while five children play cards under a car and a steer lays supine under a canopy of trees. All the streets display bombastic ads for Bollywood stars in all their sheen and majesty, and jubilant men clutching bottles of Coca Cola, while men on the street cut open watermelons with machetes and seven women arrange themselves in a tight space in an effort to share a tuk-tuk. This tableaux is not one meant for romance, rather it’s one that evokes a feeling of the unsettling. The juxtapositions in India are sharp, the colors and effulgent light are sometimes an assault, and I’m still trying to unravel my sense of smallness against a country that is so utterly large.

We drive through a city of one hundred and sixty million and I try to do the math on this. I think of New York and multiplication and the numbers don’t foot. I can’t create any sort of realistic comparison between where I am and where I’ve come. There is so much land here, oceans of it, and the poverty is palpable. How must I look riding by in an airconditioned bus while men sleep in the street and a woman and child live in a space that can’t be more than one hundred square feet? I feel like a single syllable, a note held for two long. A sonnet, so small.

After a day spent in Agra Fort, where our guide tells stories of a Shah and his harem of 300+ women, and how sometimes some of these women were imprisoned for a few days at a time. The Fort is pristine, majestic, and beautiful — such a stark contrast to what lies outside, and by the time we make our way to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, all I want to do is lie down and fall into a deep sleep.

I’ve written at length about all the ways one can be a mother, and while I am sometimes described as nurturing and caring, I don’t feel the maternal gene. While for some the idea of having a child brings immense joy, it only creates discomfort for me. While I’ve a desire to preserve a child’s world by making it as magical as I can, as much as I am capable, I’ve no ache for a child of my own. I’m not made for it. In this orphanage, we spent most of our time with babies, infants and small children, and while I was enamored of the women for whom holding a child felt as natural as breathing, it took me a good hour to pick up a child {a little girl} and hold her. Where do I place my hands? Will I kill the baby? Will I drop the baby, etc? For a few hours I played with children for whom a permanent home and family is a very bleak proposition, and felt a deep affection for them, not because I desire a child but because I want a better world for them.

What we need versus what we want. A vision of abundance versus the starkness of poverty. A small child who holds my iPhone and expertly swipes it, gets frustrated with the lack of Internet service, and says the word, Instagram, perhaps one of the only English word she knows. I think of the constructs of size: big and small. I think of the smallness of a child’s hands and my inability to make any of the numbers work.

I think of home, and am wondering if I can carry home some of this music and complexity home with me.

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india