I clutch the edge of the cracked leather seat and close my eyes as the van rattles out of the city towards the slum settlement.
The three-hour church service in Ludhiana, Punjab, India, left me hoarse and sticky: hoarse from leading the worship; sticky from sitting on a plastic chair in a packed second-story room with a single creaky ceiling fan.
“I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” The song I led during that morning’s worship is resonant in my mind as we drive.
The van lurches to a stop. I look out the window and see huts constructed out of mud, cardboard, tarpaper, and tires, and a crowd gathered.
I am following Jesus to a godforsaken place, the thought rises and then I shake it. I am curious—and perspiring. Sweat mingles with dust on my skin, beading on my forehead, dripping down my back. I am from Southern California, where the sun smiles. On this August day in India the sun is harsh and unyielding.
We are here to dedicate a school established by local evangelists from my father’s missions organization. During our childhood trips to India my siblings and I had encountered countless beggars seeking alms; however today we are not handing out a few rupees and rushing by. Today my father wants us to really see the poor.
But right now they are looking at us. I fidget with my watch, then my hair.
We file out of the van and into the circle of waiting people. I am of Indian origin, but I feel conspicuously American. I paired my Indian attire with Adidas sneakers because, as my father said, “a slum is no place for sandals.”
As we walk my steps make a sucking noise. The mud is thick and the smell is foul and I see children and dogs relieving themselves side-by-side. I step carefully, afraid that my shoes will sink. Flies hum around my face; I wrap my scarf around my head and with the edge cover my mouth, feeling the cotton between my fingers.
“Namaste,” women wearing tattered saris greet us and run ahead, barefoot. Toddlers with swollen bellies run behind and the sight pricks me. I remember the rich lunch we had an hour before, plates piled high with chicken and lamb, naan, dal, tomato salad and yogurt. I had two rosewater-soaked gulab jamun for dessert. Their stomachs are swollen with lack; mine with excess.
We stop at a blackboard nailed to a siding of corrugated tin: this is the school. A memory of my first grade classroom floats in front of me, the walls covered with crafts and the bright patchwork quilt in the corner surrounded by pillows, our reading circle. It is an image made more vivid by the contrast. Here the children are seated in perfect rows on the dirt. They are clapping and singing in Hindi:
Praises go up and blessings come down.
The women usher us to the only chairs. I watch as the children sing and fathers beam. I recall my reluctance to lead the singing that morning and shame crawls up my neck. I had been too tired to sing, “the cross before me the world behind me,” after a night spent in a hotel.
One boy with a strong voice stands up and reads the story of Jesus healing a blind man, while three other boys reenact it animatedly. When the skit is finished, the children erupt into a medley of English choruses, accompanied by tambourines and a tabla. I have never heard singing more exuberant than this.
As we sing along, me with added conviction, I hear a rustling behind me and the clink of glasses. The women are offering tea and sweet biscuits. “Lijiyae, khayiyae,” they urge us to eat. I look into their dark eyes then the trays. Flies float on the surface of the tea. Green bugs fleck the biscuits. I move away.
“I don’t want any, Mom,” my younger sister says.
“Take it. They are offering you their best,” my mother says, her smile tight.
She takes a glass and a biscuit, then brings the dirty rim of the glass to her lips and sips, bites into her biscuit, takes another drink of tea.
The trays return. I hesitate before taking a glass—one half-empty from the jostling, but I don’t bring it to my mouth. I shake my head no to the woman with the biscuits. Her eyes are kind. I feel the revulsion in mine.
She presses in but the space between us is widening. I shake no again, she turns away and I abruptly turn back to the singing children. The children’s faces are incandescent and their energy would be infectious except I am diminished and immune.
“Will you decide now to follow Jesus?” the song I sang asked me a few hours earlier. That final refusal was my answer: I came but I did not receive.
Lijiyae, khayiyae. Take, eat.
Sneha Abraham is a writer and assistant director of news and strategic content at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. Her work has aired on National Public Radio and appeared in The Huffington Post, Sojourners and India Currents. She was formerly a journalist with The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA.
Above image by Scott Dexter, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.