“Taking off your shoes means the gods are smiling on you, “ said Prakesh.
I had trouble with that. Not the god part, the shoes.
It’s customary to remove your shoes when entering a home or shop in Maharashtra. It’s customary to do the equivalent when entering someone’s abode in Canada, so the fact that I struggled to part with my flip-flops was illogical.
Spock would have a field day with me. What was I afraid of?
Western comfort, which I assumed was a flimsy concept roared in my head. You’re afraid of lice, pieces of glass, fleas from the dog, disease!
Despite the queasy stirrings of my belly, I slipped them off to step inside Child Haven’s office where Kavita waited.
I attempted to blame my irrational repulsion on jet lag. Having escaped it during my Copenhagen and London jaunts, I napped most of the way from Mumbai airport to the location of my home for the next 3 months. Prakesh interrupted me mid-snort to announce our arrival.
‘Where’ is a parcel of land off the highway.
Our arrival felt rushed and surreal, how I imagine a gaudy, Vegas wedding might play out. Two inebriated people in club wear loudly demanding to be reunited in matrimony when they only met 5 hours ago. The chubby, sequined Elvis and pre-recorded chapel music oblige them.
The Child Haven office certainly wasn’t a chapel. Kavita and Prakesh were far from inebriated, but manageress and assistant manager of the home, married a lot longer than 5 hours – 7 years to be exact. They are proud parents of two spunky girls, Priya, age 5 and Supriya, 11 months.
They delighted me immediately, it was the grainy substance on my feet that didn’t.
To give you an idea, the home is situated before Pen, on route to Alibag, a region called Savarsai, approximately 3 hours from Mumbai.
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The Child Haven home itself is a rectangle, non-descript concrete complex. Besides the office, there are my quarters, the girls dorm, kitchen, main hall room, and the boys dorm.
There I was, reporting for duty to assist with 41 children of varying ages and religions. The intern handbook called this “self-directed” work, but I stood in horror realizing that an ink blot of mystery began to form on what this “work” truly is. Would I get some direction at all?
My mind propelled backwards to my corporate days. They were definitely stagnant, but at least I could map out the conditions with my eyes closed.
10 yards to the microwave. Around noon, even earlier, I ate lunch at my desk because I woke at 6 am and consumed breakfast well before 8 am. Hunger pains can hit mid-morning.
I could time with precision when the female contingent complained it was too cold or the crusty engineers griped about the scorching heat. This phenomenon was always blamed on the faulty HVAC system installed when tower 3 was erected.
Everything felt clean, an orderly system even between the piles of projects on my desk. I always kept my shoes on, so did everyone else.
Prakesh’s voice brought me back.
“Auntie, please sit.”
I plopped down on a plastic lawn chair, its scratched, weathered body clearly battered by overzealous children.
Prakesh has the kind of face that invites friendship, open and smoothly lined, no harsh angles to deter or detract.
I tried to ignore my feet and concentrate as he relayed how many children they have, who is in English school, who isn’t. Due to my accent and his, a few words were lost in translation, but we managed to understand one another. It always amazes me how a few shared words can ignite an entire conversation, create a history with a person from a different culture.
He pointed to a picture of Gandhiji, revered father of the Child Haven concept, whose face is printed on every rupee banknote, and forever symbolizes the guiding conscience of India.
I noted two computers, a sputtering PC, and a newer Dell laptop that someone had donated. Child Haven counts on donors to provide anything from clothes to equipment in order to keep the home thrumming with life and have a place for these kids to call home.
Kavita sat beside her husband, conveying a peaceful presence. It was very clear why she manages the home. She struck me as a quiet, but powerful force. The perfect pseudo-mother for these kids.
They offered food and tea, never hesitating to display their generosity. It was an unwavering hospitality that was alien, but welcome.
I sat on pins and needles, reticent to discover what was next. My eyes strayed to legal sized ledger books on Prakesh’s desk. It was obvious that main tasks are still done by hand writing everything, the computers were benign appendages to the whole operation.
No more office washrooms sanitized with industrial cleaner or Starbucks lattes. It occurred to me that I am in over my head.
After tea and food, Prakesh and Kavita suggested a tour of the grounds. I stepped out of the office, onto what can only be described as a concrete patio with an overhang. A main artery where the kids play or pray. Where Kavita will meet donors and visitors.
I stood at the doorway paralyzed. It dawned on me that the children and adults don’t wear shoes anywhere, not indoors or outdoors. Kavita started walking towards the other end of the complex, springing cat like on her bare feet. I almost rubbed my eyes to ensure she wasn’t strolling in a pair of New Balance sneakers. I began to follow, but knew my virgin feet would crumble. Possibly bleed in protest. I was determined to ‘fit’ in, not be a boorish stereotype. The type of traveler who makes everyone cringe or causes their friends to look upon the locals apologetically.
She glanced sideways at me as we walked.
“It is okay to wear shoes here.”
“Really?” My voice faltered with uncertainty.
Her lips upturned in a close mouthed smile. Even though her smile was new, it was familiar and safe.
“It is okay.. ”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to disrespect.”
Her eyes emitted reassurance.
“Noo.. it is okay.”
Relief flooded my face.
My practice is to go barefoot indoors. Any resolve to go commando outdoors remains weak.
Later on, I noticed diligent sweeping and mopping of interior spaces. The kids also sweep the patio area 2 or 3 times a day.
It was glaringly apparent, I have a lot to learn about cultural meshing.
For now, I have to be content with the gods smiling on me half the time.