arriving at kasturba knowing you’ll have to leave again is like falling asleep knowing you are going to have a nightmare; you resist it but eventually it happens anyway, the sweet of sleep and the agony of the dream.
as i arrive this particular day, ten girls are practicing karate in the courtyard. their karate teacher left last year so they are led by sabhina and nisha, two older girls who have taken over the shouting of the numbers as the girls punch the air and kick the heat. their beautiful faces are sweaty, focused, concentrated on their own strength. my eyes well with tears as I sit in the school listening to their energetic voices through the hideous pink curtains. there is a bag of used hospital gowns on the desk; white with blue squares, that have been donated to be used as karate robes. somehow this saddens me deeply; that girls who push themselves practice in the merciless heat without instructor or class should be reduced to wearing the discarded gowns of the dead and dying.
i have asked each girl to tell me their story; their kahaani. i want to have their words tucked into my soul so i can see them when i’m home and missing the bright eyes and poignant optimism of these children whom fortune has frowned upon. some of them have already written them down in hindi as an exercise by the school, but i want their voices, their smiles, their beauty. i haven’t told them that i am leaving again; that i don’t know when i’ll be back. i don’t know if it will hurt them, but i know it will break me.
at dance class last week i learned to let go. my father has been reminding me of the buddhist mentality of action without attachment to outcome. i have been trying to practice this, but it’s difficult. i want to make their lives better, but all i can do is come sit in a circle with them as we roll our shoulders backwards and reach up to pluck imaginary stars from the sky. anyway, last week i came to teach class and i soon realized it was impossible. the air crackled with energy and distraction. several other staff members were at kasturba conducting various business, and the girls could barely sit still, let alone concentrate on isolations and rhythms. but, as we dispersed after a failed attempt at order, two girls, takkaluma and soni, came up to me and said in their barely-there english, ‘disco dancing, didi?’ and they made an attempt at what they think ‘american’ dancing looks like (imagine john travolta had he been born in bollywood). inspired, i ran to my ipod (blessedly there was power at the moment) and put on ‘this is your night’ – a rollicking disco-style song, compliments of the ‘night at the roxbury’ soundtrack. ‘this is your night, dancing free into the morning light, together forever, for this is your night, and everything’s gonna be alri-ee-ai-ee-ight…’ and there in the cement room, we danced. it wasn’t class, it wasn’t technique, it wasn’t ordered or organized or structured. but forty girls and i flung ourselves around the room in pairs and trios, tossing our hair, jumping wildly, grinning ear to ear and bubbling with pure, unadulterated bliss. it was joy; sweaty, barefoot, filthy joy, set to the unlikely soundtrack of a will ferrell movie.
they are coming in now, the girls, done with the afternoon’s karate. their faces are flushed and they splash themselves with water from the hand pump. they glow, each and every one. my heart aches with protective love. i would stay here forever, just to prove my love, how it aches in my belly and behind my eyelids. but i can’t. i have my own family, my own life, my own home. how i wish i could take them with me. in one of the stories in front of me ruhi writes, ‘for me, kasturba is a place where i can laugh, sing, dance, and study.’ i run my fingers over her words. she has the best smile, ruhi. it lights up the room.
i am already planning my farewell speech; telling them that i will respond to every letter, that i will be back in a year or two, that i love them all dearly. i feel like it isn’t enough, but i know it’s all i have. these months have flown by too quickly, with too few classes and too few quiet evenings spent braiding hair and drinking chai. but i’ve stockpiled hugs, sweet looks, and heads rested trustingly on my shoulder in embraces. i remember these moments, so tender and safe and loving, and i close my eyes.
parting is such sweet sorrow. was it shakespeare? it’s a lie, a bitter lie. it’s not sweet at all. it’s just sorrow. bihar is a long, long way from california. when i am here and my life is on the shores of the pacific, i can reach it with tenuous, fragile fingers: the questionable bihari internet, postcards dripping with watercolours, phone calls at $3/minute. but without these advantages, of money and technological logistics, the distance is tenfold. bihar is a long, long way from california.
i am coming back; i know this. maybe next year, maybe the year after. with my boyfriend, sam, or my girlfriend, erika. i would like to bring my parents but every note home that i write that involves ‘six kinds of shit’ ‘187 mosquito bites’ and ‘food poisoning with a squat toilet on a train’ makes that less likely. but who knows if my return will be in time – in time to see ‘my’ girls before they leave. in time to wish them well. more are leaving every year – off to their lives; their schooling (hopefully) and marriages and children, and, too often, prostitution.
my beautiful students, goodbye for now. you will probably never know how much i love you; translation only goes so far. but your stories are flying out into the world to make it better and safer and brighter and more colourful. and you are my angels, every one.