“So, you want to get her married?”
The air outside the orphanage hung still, hot and dry around the yellow cement buildings. It was the kind of heat that makes your skin sizzle and ache for a cloud burst, or perhaps any clouds at all. 106°.
Inside, the children were sleeping away the afternoon — the line of cribs holding the tiniest of newborn babies, all stretched out on their backs with supple legs bent and mouths slack — while the older girls curled up on the cooler tiles of the shaded hallway upstairs.
We sat in the company of the Shri Shraddhanand Anathalaya ashram’s superintendent, a different woman than the one my mother met almost 16 years ago when she came to India to take my sister home. At six weeks old Nika’s mother had brought her to the orphanage and signed over papers releasing her for international adoption. The girl was young and unmarried, two strikes against a female in this country; the third strike comes if she happens to find herself with child. She couldn’t keep taking care of my sister. We didn’t know much else and were wondering if that, perhaps, a dog-eared folder labeled Case #7307 existed somewhere in an old metal cabinet.
We did know that before she left her in the orphanage’s care, her mother gave her the name Kshanika — an exquisite Marathi name, we were told — meaning ‘a fleeting moment.’
Sitting in a chair across from us was the resident doctor, a man with eyes wide set, smoothed graying hairs combed across his scalp and a stern, erudite English accent.
“We could send a pundit,” — a Hindu holy man responsible for the marriage blessing and sealing of the marriage vows — “to the States if you wish,” he continued.
Oh! No no no no! I protested. A misunderstanding. No marriage today, no thank you Sir, just a simple visit, that’s all.
Nika is of marriageable age in India, after all. The paperwork which we inquired about just happened to be the same documents necessary to have a Hindu marriage arranged, so the confusion on his part was understandable. The papers potentially could have told of her family — and perhaps caste and cultural origin — and may give details of her time and place of birth. From this her astrological chart could have been drawn up and an auspicious marriage match made, if we so pleased.
“Oh, she’s not? Then the records are confidential,” the doctor told us.
It dawned on me that maybe the cards should have been played differently: maybe if we had fibbed a little bit (Ohh yes…marriage, right, yes, definitely maybe in the future…a prospect horrifying to Nika, who’s greatest concern at the moment is making it through the 11th grade) we could have absconded away with them…
…If there were any records at all.
He told us that stringent record keeping hadn’t started taking place until he arrived on the scene about 10 years ago. The chances were slim-to-none that they still had a file on Nika at all.
Well, it would have been a nice perk but digging through files wasn’t the sole purpose of the trip. From the time my siblings and I were all little things, my parents told us that we would someday come back to India. This trip has been a long time in the making, for sure. It has always been vaguely talked about (“when we go back…”) so to have it begin to actualize was a bit surreal. My mum was thrilled at the Nagpur visit/visiting me/India-in-general prospect (always the chance for an adventure and a Super 8 motel and she’s on it); my dad, not so much (“Can you just come home yet? These past 9-months have been the longest five years of my life.“). With them came my aunt Holly and our friend Christine, both great sports with lots of traveling under their feet.
And we finally made it! I initially was a little unsure of the prospect of our entourage — my mum, sister, dad, aunt and friend — breaking down the orphanage doors. Is this weird that we’re going back? Is this voyeuristic? Is this kosher? Do people do this? So just Nika, my mum and I went. But, when we got there, our qualms subsided when the superintendent told us that they get a few visitors (“former inmates” he called them) every month — from Australia, Italy, Canada, he said — who come back to visit. That was really nice to hear.
Escorted by the superintendent, we roamed the halls and courtyard a bit. The girls upstairs showed me their sewing machines and handicrafts they were learning how to make. We saw the kitchen where all 160 mouths are cooked for. We didn’t get a chance to see the room where Nika once stayed, as they’ve moved the children of that age-group to a new annex. Women in the nursery were walking around with the babies or patting them in their cribs while curious heads poked around corners. Over some chai, as we always do here, we sat and talked for a while.
I wouldn’t have ended up on this grant in India had it not been for Nika. She was a big inspiration for me coming to India. My little sister — through all of our screaming matches, nail painting, pant stealing, and iced-coffee drinking — has been such an important person to me… and this fact is even more precious now that I’ve had a chance to live where she once did.