While life is yours, live joyously
The first day in the Orphanage
After a long 9 hours sleep under the ceiling fan, thankfully, with over 30 degrees, I needed a short while to orient myself in the new environment. Feeling a little awkward I then left the room, through the still unfamiliar house, down the stairs. In the courtyard three boys were playing with a spinning top, which they tirelessly rolled up and let jump again, fighting for turns.
As I learned later, two of the boys were brothers: Arjuna, 3, and Ranjid, 5, had come to the home only recently and didn’t go to school yet, first they needed to catch up on the curriculum, since they didn’t go to school the past time. They had been picked up on the street, where they had been living with their alcoholic mother, after one year before their father had taken his life. Arjuna could neither talk nor eat properly when he came to the orphanage.
The other boy, Santosh, 5, had been brought to the home when he was just 1 year old, sick and undernourished, so that he had needed a whole year to recover. Since he had come at such a young age, Santosh became something like the child of Tojo and Leila, and unfortunately because of that also a little spoiled. His school started later.
All three surrounded me immediately, asked after my name, told me their name and showed me eagerly how the spinning top worked. Arjuna and Ranjid could speak no to two or three words of English, but communicating was no problem.
Leila, who was watering the plants like every morning, greeted me smiling and asked if I wanted coffee, ready to let everything drop and make me that coffee. Since it was my habit to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette after waking up, with pleasure, of course. The coffee she brought me 10 minutes later was quite strong for India, typically though it was prepared with milk and sugar after Indian fashion. By far the best coffee I had so far in India. Some days later she told me that an Italian friend of the orphanage had left a Bialetti Moka Express (one of the small silver octagonal devices) in the home some time back. Every morning and afternoon Leila prepared me my sextuble espresso. I asked her about smoking and her hesitant answer made clear that I shouldn’t smoke in front of the children. So I always walked up the street out of sight to smoke.
After my morning cigarette the awkward feeling was slowly over tuned by the high spirits I was in. I talked a bit with Leila about the home, about her and me, played with the boys some more and asked Sunu, who helped out in the home since Tojo’s death, how to get to the close-by beach.
When the boys took their nap at about 1, I packed my camera bag, put on some suncream, filled up an empty coke bottle with the filtered water from the kitchen and thus prepared started my first discovery tour, still in high spirits.
Under the unforgiving sun, 36 degrees, I then walked to the beach (you can’t go swimming because of the waves; most Indians there can’t swim anyway), with my camera in my hand and my t-shirt quickly drenched in sweat. A group of young men, who were sitting under palm trees on plastic chairs, signaled me to come and offered me coconuts when I came closer: “It’s very good for the heat.” They were very curious about Germany and how it was different to India.
We talked some more the next day when I came to visit them, but after that I ventured into different parts of the town and didn’t visit them again, also because Leila had expressed skepticism about my new acquaintances. I didn’t understand why exactly, maybe just mistrust concerning strangers.
So after I was refreshed by the coconuts, I said my goodbyes and walked on the beach and turned back to the home soon, feeling thoroughly exhausted by my little walk in this heat. Leila greeted me, smiling as always, and brought me fresh water melon. After a small nap under the ceiling fan I grabbed the photography books (theoretical and historical) I had brought with me, sat on the floor in the courtyard, under the ceiling fan of course, and started reading. With three boys looking over my shoulder, touching the pictures and illustrations and asking away: “What is this? What is this?”. You can still see all the finger prints where they wildly browsed in the book (wilder when nobody was looking).
At about 4 o’clock the other boys came home from their different schools. They payed their respects to Leila first, already looking in my direction (they knew that I would be there of course) and then came to me, some shy, some joyful, open or cheeky, introduced themselves, asked after my name, and shook my hand more or less seriously. Since they were more familiar with the name Michael, then my French version of it, I was Michael, soon to become Brother Michael, or just Brother.
After the kids had taken their afternoon shower, it was playtime in the courtyard. I played cricket with the younger boys, as I had already started with it earlier with Santosh, Ranjid and Arjuna. For those of you who are not familiar with the sport: Basically it is like baseball, one person throws a ball, another needs to hit that ball with a bat. Bat, balls and rules are different of course. Cricket is something like the national sport in India and the Indian team belongs to the best in the world, not like in the other sports popular in Europe.
As bats they used (I was appointed ball thrower mostly) either small plastic bats, the flip-flops of the men in the home or sticks. As balls we used the mini mangoes scattered all around the courtyard, which dropped down from the humongous mango tree spanning the whole space every few minutes. As time passed, the mangoes grew bigger, juicier and sweeter. More dangerous as well; you don’t want a fully grown mango to fall on your head. You can eat the small mangoes with the peel; they are a little bitter, but very tasty with salt. The small ones were collected regularly, were cleaned, cut open and put into salt for some time. Then they were left to dry on the rooftop, after which they stay good for quite some time.
Later I talked with the ‘big boys’, who were all extraordinarily friendly, accommodating and also diligent: almost all want to go to the university later. (Two of them are studying by now: one of them Economics, the other Sociology).
As the sun was setting it was then time for milk and cookies, like every afternoon. The boys sat in a circle in the courtyard and one after the other went to the big milk pot with their aluminum plates. One of the older boys poured the milk and Robert, the help, gave them their cookies.
After they finished washing their plates, they fetched their school papers, sat themselves in the main room or on the porch on the ground and started doing their homework, all overseen by Shakti, the other help. I joined them with my photography books, study time for me as well, which led to a lot of merriment among the boys. I asked them to show me their school books to get a feeling for what they were doing there. The main classes of the boys were English, Tamil, Sociology and maths. Not only on this evening they asked me to help them with their homework, regardless of if I could really help.
After learning came praying, about half an hour usually. It was a Christian home, since Tojo as well as Leila are deeply religious. It’s noteworthy that a lot of the charities in South India are run by Catholics, not seldom also by nuns.
For the praying the boys sat in a circle in the main room, some boys outside on the porch; Leila sat on a chair outside the circle. Even though I don’t believe, I joined the boys without thinking.
First the boys recited general expressions of faith together, all in Tamil. After about half of the time they rose to their knees and each boy prayed a personal prayer for their own well-being, the one of friends and family and for their goals. Thankfully I was skipped during this part.
At about half past 8 it was dinner time. The food was distributed like the milk. Since I had already eaten in the kitchen with Leila and the helpers, like at lunch already, I sat on the small wall and read some more. Like almost every evening, or midday, or morning, rice with different kinds of sauces, sometimes vegetarian, more often with chicken or fish, was served. During the meals I noticed during the first days that the others were looking at me kind of askew after I finished eating, until I realised how much less I ate than the other men. How much fucking rice they put on their plates! Leila once told me I’m a “poor eater”. Except that I’m not, usually.
After dinner two boys walked Raki, their beautiful, but a little bit crazy golden retriever. Other than that teeth were brushed and then it was sleeping time. I smoked a last cigarette on the street and then made my way to my room, wishing good night to all sides.
I hadn’t gone to sleep so content and joyful for a long time.
Every afternoon, after the worst heat of the day had passed, I packed my bag and ventured into the narrow streets of the village, armed with my camera. Usually I walked for about an hour and then came back sweaty and tired for my afternoon nap.
I always walked deliberately slow; I had more than enough time, and calm enough I was too. Most of the time I also didn’t have any goal, I just followed my intuition and the light. The reactions of the Indians I met on my walks were quite extraordinary. Firstly I drew attention because I was white of course, which often resulted in giggling to laughing, and also some skeptical faces. But sometimes I had the feeling my big camera drew even more attention than my white skin. Everywhere people asked me to take pictures, “Take a picture please?`”, of the child, the neighbor, the colleague, of themselves. Most of them didn’t even want to see the pictures afterwards –
When I actually wanted to take a picture of my own initiative, the people were usually delighted and held still as long as it took. If the people could speak some English, I normally lingered and talked a little bit.
It was almost the same in the city. Two or three times I took the scooter to Pondicherry in the morning. The drive was about 20 minutes, which I enjoyed thoroughly, since it was always like a small adventure in itself. I especially enjoyed the honking if the situation required it; and most Indians think it is required very very often. The people in the city still strongly reacted to me, but since there are more white folks around, not as much as in the village. And even if still a lot of people wanted me to take pictures, the enthusiasm was considerably less. You can check out the photos from these trips in my Pondicherry Photo Series.
I grew accustomed to the life in the orphanage very quickly. After a few days I also didn’t miss my computer anymore, so no internet, no movies and no games in the evenings, so I was reading and writing, in my underpants because of the incredible heat. Apart from my photography books I had brought Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I had read when I was younger and which was one of the most important books I had read until then. After only a few pages I had to stop reading it though; it was just too dark, too pessimistic, and I was full of joy and enthusiasm. Instead I took Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi out of the book shelf in my room, which starts in Pondicherry and depicts it very fittingly (Martel has lived there for 2 years). It was a much more adequate reading for my mood and circumstances. Particularly Martel’s reflections on religion are really worth a read.
My daily routine only varied a little bit during my time there. After getting up at about 9 some yoga for really waking up, then to Leila downstairs, coffee and cigarette on the street, then breakfast. Leila prepared me a special breakfast (the kids and staff ate the same rice with sauces which they ate for lunch and dinner for breakfast), most often different kinds of bread, often Naan and Chapati. I would have struggled with the food seriously if it hadn’t been for this special treatment. It was hard enough at lunchtime often to summon my appetite. Indian food, to make it clear, is delicious and also diverse enough, but the spices; the spices are used so plentiful and are so strange for the European body, that it rejects it almost if you have to eat it all the time. At least it was like this for me, family and friends. It gets easier after time though. The food was also quite basic of course in the home, which didn’t make for much variety. But I succeeded in eating only Indian food for these four weeks, against the efforts of my friends to accommodate me with everything I might need.
The kids went to school between half past 8 to 9 o’clock, so that I normally met them only when they came back from school at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. After breakfast I usually played with the younger boys, Ranjid and Arjuna were always in the home. Other than that I spent a lot of time reading on the porch in the courtyard, where it was very quiet at this time of day, when the young ones weren’t playing that is. Like Martell wrote in Life of Pi: “There’s no peace like the peace of an inner courtyard on a sunny day.”
After lunch I went on my daily discovery tour, after that a short nap, physical training in the sweltering heat of my room, shower and by then the other boys were usually already back. Often we played volleyball or cricket together, other than that they had to do their homework and domestic duties (cleaning mostly).
There were other small things happening every day, like Sunu bringing a sack full of donated vegetables; from Asian eggplants (the little round ones), to tomatoes, beans, potatoes to chillies to vegetables I didn’t know. The sack was emptied on the porch and then sorted. One part was brought to the kitchen, the other Sunu brought to Snehagram, the old people’s home belonging to Snehalayam (more about that later).
With money from our trust a new roof was built over the kitchen while I was there. The old roof out of palm trees was replaced by a tin roof, which made the room on the roof accessible also during the rainy season. For a few days the whole courtyard was scattered with palm branches, which Sunu and the boys threw down tearing apart the old roof. I helped the other boys on the ground to put the branches on different heaps, which were designated to be used as fire wood.
Every Sunday was Playday. Which means the boys had to study less than usual and had most of the day for themselves, which they used for playing and drawing mostly. The often went to a close-by open brash field, where two goals stood and played cricket or football against another orphanage, which lay right at this field.
On my first Sunday I went with them to play football against this other children’s home, during midday under a truly unforgiving sun. After 5 minutes I felt like collapsing, but on and on, with as much water down the throat and over my head as possible. I had brought a bottle of filtered water with me from the home, but after some time of running around I didn’t see it anymore, so I asked the boys. After a short while one of the boys came running with my bottle, which miraculously was full again. I suspected that they filled it up with tap water, but I really needed something to drink, so down with it. The next two days I was really sick, feeling like shit.
We lost unluckily, despite our great football skills. Two Sundays later we played cricket against them, in which my boys were much better; they were much more interested and had more training, from the courtyard. Cricket was really great, not very exhausting, but quite intriguing. Finally I could understand why cricket is national sport in India and why the kids everywhere play cricket on every corner.