There is nothing more satisfying than having an extended family. And by that I do not mean just an extra aunty, uncle, grandmother and distant cousins. I include in this also non-blood-relatives who I come to consider my family. Having lived in five different countries outside of my birthplace Trinidad — USA, England, Italy, France and India — for a period of time ranging from one month to five years, I have amassed a large extended family of sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, mothers and fathers. But nowhere has the expansion of my extended family happened so rapidly as it has in India. In India I am Priyanka didi. Priyanka because it is the ‘Indian version’ of my name and didi because it is what all Indians call women or girls near to their age. It means sister.
I have lived the last three weeks of my life utterly overwhelmed. Before coming here I was warned of parasites that incapacitate you for weeks on end and can drain you of all life. That left me sleepless for at least one night in London. I was also told that it is very cold in Delhi in December and January and there is no insulation in homes because of the deathly hot summers, so inside is colder than outside — I thus bought my first fur-lined onesie. I was also told that the poverty is so apparent and the many limbless beggars so ravaged by hunger and despair that it can harden your heart in an instant, desensitising you. Many people warned me about disease, danger, prowling and aggressive men and the fog like a curtain over the sites and sounds of the chaotic city of Delhi which is so modern it is hardly Indian, yet so covered in manure it hardly looks modern. I got nothing but warnings. As a result I was stricken by anxiety for the three weeks that led up to the trip.
However, a week before leaving I was given a verse from the Bible that prepared me and gave me absolute confidence within the short few seconds that I took to read it. It is from Exodus 23:20: ‘Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared.’ All worry and fear was stripped from me in an instant as I read this. I know I am repeating myself but I truly want to paint a picture of my vanishing anxiety. I knew from then on that my awesome, wonderful God had gone before me to prepare everything in India for me. When I got here I realised that that could not be any more true. What an amazing bit of preparation He has done. Where do I start?
I arrived at the Indira Ghandi International Airport at 8pm and was picked up by the parents of a friend I became acquainted with only in April of this year. They greeted me, an absolute stranger, with hugs and drove me to their flat in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. Note that I had not looked at a map before coming here, I did not know where anything was or what anything was like in this city. I had read Shantaram and No Full Stops in India and watched Blood Brother, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The BBC’s World’s Greatest Markets — Delhi episode, Lunch Box and Unreported World: Mumbai, none of which explored Delhi enough to make me familiar with it. But Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, quickly became my home. On entering the door of their flat they handed me a phone with a SIM card and enough money on it to last the length of time I am in India, showed me my very own double bed beautifully clad in an Indian quilt, told me how to use the shower so that my washings could be more heated and luxurious than most of my London experiences, and sat me down to my first Indian meal — the very staple rice and dhal. My friends mother Liz quickly became someone I would only desire to be very best friends with as she loves adventure and chatting so much that our outings to the best markets in Delhi, the malls, the movie theatre, Old Delhi and anywhere else I want to go, are always enjoyable. I knew in my heart that I didn’t need to research Delhi like other travellers might and there Liz was, showing me everything I couldn’t have found myself.
But Liz didi is more than just the blessing of an instant friend and mother. My primary reason for coming to India was to give myself whole heartedly to serving people — anyone who is in need and could specifically use my help and skills. I particularly had an interest in serving orphans after watching Blood Brother, working with slum children after reading the very evocative and highly intriguing exploration of Indian slum-life that is Shantaram, and helping a small church in its outreach and congregation building. But this was another thing I didn’t prepare in advance. I hadn’t signed up with any organisations or researched volunteering opportunities, I simply went there with my hands open wide. Liz didi was the source of three couldn’t-be-more-perfect opportunities that started me off on my Indian journey of loving people. She invited me to volunteer at an orphanage called Udayan Care, to help with the kids club at her church, Dwaar Delhi and to join her in teaching kids in a slum school near her house. Here’s where God’s preparation really began to dazzle me:
Liz didi only started volunteering with the school the week before I came to India, so all of the time I was reading Shantaram and yearning to witness life in a slum and give my love to its people, God was preparing this opportunity for me and Liz. When Liz emailed me to ask me if I could help from 9-1pm at least once a week I said: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Every day please. I would gush way too much if I began telling you what it has been like teaching there. I haven’t been there too many times as the school went on vacation but I have been able to draw with them, teach them math, storytelling and English, and get to know and fall-to-the-ground-roll-around-and-scream-with-elation love many of them! I have never properly taught in any school much less one where the children were educated well below the average child of their age. But when I got there it was as natural as a cow mooing. They learnt, they grew, they knew and they high-fived me after. I took pictures of them — they REALLY love the camera, I did ballet with them, I played random games to get them to stop hitting each other on the head and I just chilled out with them while they ate their chipatees during lunch break (chipatee is basically fried dough, the cheapest but least nourishing thing one could eat). I am Priyanka didi, their English and storytelling teacher and their big sister. My extended family continues to grow.
The day after I landed I visited the Udayan Care head office and was introduced to the very inspiriting lady who started it, Kiran Modi. All I said to them was that I love stories and teaching kids how to write and tell stories. They quickly ushered me into Kiran’s office and sat me down in front of her. There she began to tell me what I was doing and I yet again marvelled at the spot-on preparation skills of my Almighty Father. Kiran asked me to live in one of the orphanages outside of Delhi, to gather the amazing stories of the girls there and to come up with the design and content for a new newsletter and newspaper written for the girls and by the girls. SAY WHAT? Heck yeah. I spent four days in Greater Noida, took a rickety bus for 45 minutes with the ice cold wind cutting across my face from every poorly-sealed window, and thus came to know the beauty of these intelligent, mature, all-rounded and shockingly well-educated girls. I won’t go into details here but this project has given me the very great privilege of discussing my plans and designs with the head of communications and the founder as well as meeting and sharing stories with the very lovely Shefali Duggal, who works closely with Obama and has been called the ‘most powerful’ woman in California. So within the space of two weeks I was didi to the girls in the orphanage, eating with and getting to know them, didi to the founder of a top NGO in Delhi and didi to the ‘most powerful’ woman in California. My extended family continues to grow.
In between that time I went to visit the leader of Dwaar Church to talk about the website and how I could help with improving it — because I had mentioned to Liz’s husband Tim that I have done work on websites and newsletters before. I told him a bit about me and he said — wait, do you think you could help me write the life stories of people from the church to put onto the website as we have a page for that but we haven’t had a chance to update it, like, ever? DUH?!?!? Please. I’d love that. A few days later he emailed me a list of 21 names of people in the church and sent me on my way to interview them all. Not only do all 10 of the ones I’ve interviewed already have unique and interesting stories, but I have made a connection with each as a result of speaking to them. My extended family continues to grow.
Then there’s the football coaching and singing carols through a dilapidated town, eating Raj Kachori with a sweet young girl who now calls me her life teacher, playing five hours of games on Christmas Day with twelve sweet people, being fed by person after person, sharing my faith most intimately, dancing to Hindi songs with over twenty gorgeous teenagers and being gifted (for Christmas) with the best books for learning Hindi, a language which I never imagined myself able to speak but can now converse in and even read and write because of these books.
If I haven’t made the Exodus 23:20 verse apparent and real to you in this blog then either you need to read it again or I have done you a great injustice in not properly describing this utterly flabbergasting experience I am having in India. As we speak, my extended family continues to grow.