Our first morning in Sarnath, my travelling companion and I walked into a small cafe next to the Tibetan Institute where our host was studying, and begin conversing with a kind Australian man. He told us that he had come there as a volunteer, to help build a website for the school that the cafe owners ran, a school for beggar children. My companion’s ears perked up. She is currently a student teacher in a master’s program in environmental studies and teaching at Antioch New England graduate school, and is passionate about quality education. She asked if she could visit this school, and for the rest of our trip to Varanasi, we found ourselves adopted by the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met.
The Buddha’s Smile School was founded by Rajan Kaur Saini and her husband Sukhdev Singh Saini. Rajan was from Calcutta, and Sukhdev was from Mumbai. They met and fell in love while Sukhdev was studying in Calcutta. After they finished college, they got married against their parent’s wishes — which in most of Indian society means a lifetime of exile from the family. They moved to Varanasi, a place where neither of them knew anybody, and began their new life. Rajan found a job teaching in a local private school, but they were poor, and lived in one of Varanasi’s poorer neighborhoods. When Rajan came home in the evening, she found many poor street children who had no access to education, and she began teaching them in her front yard. Eventually, they reconciled themselves with Sukhdev’s parents, who helped them buy a small home across the street from the Tibetan Institute in Sarnath. Sukhdev started a chai stall, which grew into a small cafe, serving a diverse menu and geared towards the tastes of the Tibetans and foreigners who are studying at the Institute. Rajan left her job, and began teaching impoverished children on the ground floor of her home full time, supported by Sukhdev’s cafe. She hired a rickshaw driver to pick up the beggar children, and bring them to her home (it is amazing how many children can fit into an Indian rickshaw), but after a few months, she was running out of money to pay the rickshaw man. At that time, a young Fulbright scholar who was studying in Varanasi walked into their cafe. She was sick, exhausted and homesick, and like us, soon found herself adopted into Rajan and Sukhdev’s family. With the help of one of her professors, she found additional funding from the USA to support the school. Today the school has increased in size — serving over 200 children every day, all in ground floor of Rajan & Sukhdev’s very modest home.
I am not a school teacher, and I happened to be down with a cold the day my friend visited the school, so I can’t report my own impressions too far — except to say that the children are well dressed (thanks to a donation of winter clothes from a visiting philosophy professor from Iowa who, by some strange coincidence, I believe I met a few weeks earlier in Delhi), well behaved (even when they are sitting 50 children in a classroom not much bigger than an American classroom’s closet), and seem genuinely excited about learning. Imagine coming from a place where your highest aspiration might be to be a beggar or a day laborer earning starvation wages — and coming to a school where you are fed, clothed, and given access to knowledge and education. Rajan fights to keep these children in school. She walks in their slums and convinces their parents that the sacrifice of a few hours of their children’s time will pay off for them. She teaches the children not to beg, but to give. She is doing what I don’t yet know how to do — giving all of herself to serve others. I don’t know how much of her teaching works, but I do know that her two beautiful little daughters tore apart their home to find gifts to give us. Of course, when I have some money (which I don’t have right now, but that is a story for another day) I will give as much of it as I can to support Rajan’s school. I guess I hope that a few of my brave friends who have read this far into this blog will consider doing the same. I know that in Varanasi, even a small amount of money will go a long way. Rajan is the Ghandi or MLK that her little neighborhood in Varanasi needs to stand itself up. I am not convinced that a foreigner can really make such a difference on their own — but by supporting the genuine jewels like Rajan, I do believe we can began to make a dent.
There is one last piece of this story that I’ve been saving, in part because I do not know how to write about it, because it is too horrible. Rajan had a young woman working as a teacher at her school named Sangita. Last year, Sangita had an arranged marriage, and left the school. She gave birth to a baby. Four months later, she caught fire in the kitchen, and she must have burned, according to the doctors, for half an hour. All of her in-laws were home, but none of them helped her — until at last she called her brother to come help her. She was taken to a public hospital, where her sister attended to her day and night, since there was no nurse to change her bandages. Her entire body was covered with 3rd degree burns. Her in-laws refused to help with her hospital bills or give blood, but her family and Rajan gave blood, and visited Sangita in the hospital every day. Her Australian volunteer friend raised money back home, and was able to move her from the public hospital to a private hospital, where there were nurses, and antibiotics to keep her infections down. She suffered for almost a month. Again, I was not able to go see her, in part due to my own fear, in part due to a miscommunication with my friend, and in part due to my cold, but I will quote my friend’s description. It is worth adding that my friend worked as an EMT on an ambulance for 10 years before returning to school to become a teacher, and has seen all manner of medical emergencies — and should not be someone who has to worry about fainting. She came back from the hospital cold, and told me that she had never seen anything like this. She wrote:
22 days after she was burned, her face was black with 22-day-old, 3rd degree burns. Her lips and nose no longer resembled lips and nose, and her face appeared to be covered by a halloween mask. Her eyes were the only thing that let me know she was human. Two of her fingers on her left hand were burned so badly that all that remained was blackened bone. She was shivering uncontrollably, and looked to be in horrible pain. I am ashamed to say that when I walked into her hospital room and looked at her face I immediately felt nauseous and dizzy. I had to go into the next room and sit down to stop myself from fainting.
Sangita died a few days after I left Varanasi. She told the police that she did know what happened — that she had caught fire accidentally — but human bodies don’t burn for half an hour without some very strong additions of fuel. The fact that her in-laws & husband were at home when she caught fire, and that they never came to visit or offered to help her in the hospital, strongly implies that Sangita was the victim of the all too common practice of dowry burning. Her in-laws almost certainly doused her with kerosene, and then lit her on fire, in hopes of killing her so that her husband could remarry — and perhaps receive another dowry. Her refusal to implicate them in her death may have something to do with the fact that they sill have her four month old son. According to my Sen & Dreze book, there are thousands of these burnings every year in India — the vast majority go unreported. Sen & Dreze also argue that the attention paid to burnings — and the rare practice of sati (throwing a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) — distract somewhat from the larger problem of pervasive oppression of women in north Indian society. Certainly the violence that can be directed at women, as in the case of Sangita, helps enforce their bondage. Again, I am left feeling helpless, and wondering what to do. Again, I feel that Rajan shows a path, albeit a small one, out of this darkness. I will do what I can to support her on her mission. I hope some of you will too.