HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA
I heard trilling laughter and the thud of small feet running in big boots. Then an elfin, pink, pirouetting imp danced into the room, smiling, laughing and wanting to be everywhere at once.
Sangita had whirled into my life. The name for this teeny three-year-old should be “Happiness,” because she exudes it in every gesture.
This child is lucky to be alive, so she savours every moment of her existence and everything in it. My glasses case was an item of wonder. So were the books she was now gingerly stepping around.
She welcomed and responded to every hug. She knows only too well the hard realities of no love.
Sangita and I met at the Tonglen Charitable Trust Hostel in early January 2012. I’d come to start organizing the Hindi and English books that I had chosen and purchased in Delhi.
This hostel is located about one hour from Dharamsala McLeod Ganj. (Tonglen Charitable Trust was founded by Tibetan refugees, to thank India for welcoming and supporting Tibetan refugees.)
The hostel was set up for poor and needy children from the Charan Khadd slum village near Dharamsala. Up to 100 selected children receive education, as well as food, clothing and shelter through Tonglen.
Previously, these children only attended school part time and worked begging, scavenging, picking garbage or shining shoes.
Some parents allowed their children to be given sponsors and hence a future beyond that of a beggar. The hostel strives to provide a well-rounded education to include music, sports, as well as a library.
That is when Hands of Hope Books and Basics for Kids in India and Nepal stepped in. We offered to help set up a library with donated money. We purchased books and some library shelving. The hostel kids assisted me in getting the books onto the shelves.
Books in boxes. Books in stacks. Books being checked and entered into a register. Round-eyed, Sangita watched us solemnly, but with an ever-ready smile as we processed almost 1,000 books.
Then, she’d look at one or two children’s books, giggle at the pictures and wander off to find lunch.
The task of book organization progressed over the month. None of this could have been done without the help of seven older teenagers from Charan Khad.
The two Nishas – Nisha Devi and Nisha Kumari – entered the Hindi books into the register. Talya, a volunteer from Australia, entered the English language books and little Sangita inspected our progress.
Did she think that someday she might be like these older sisters? Both Nishas cuddled her and made sure she was warm, drawing her close to the charcoal brazier to warm her hands, and wrapping her pink poncho around her. At lunch they made sure she had enough food.
Sangita was brought to the hostel after she’d nearly died. Now, with the worst behind her, she exuded happiness.
She’s three now, but Sangita has been treated at Tonglen health clinics since she was 10 months old.
She was not developing like a regular child. When Sangita reached 18 months, she was 2.5 kilograms. But her father denied that help was needed.
Because she was being used for begging she had to look starved. She almost died.
With a drunk father and a mother worried about losing her income, Sangita almost ended up being thrown into the river.
The Tonglen medical clinic persuaded the mother to go to the local hospital with Sangita. She was barely able to eat or drink.
In the hospital she gained half a kilogram, but she was still in a dire situation. She was 19 months old and in extreme suffering.
She could not stand. She could not walk. She only slept.
Sangita was given medicine and began to recover and gain back her indomitable spirit. Then, forces moved in to intercept progress.
Her mother complained she couldn’t make money without her. She needed Sangita for begging again. Tonglen had to return her to a dire situation. Inevitably, Sangita got sick again.
Finally, Tonglen was permitted to take on the job of caregiver and hired a woman for the job.
All the kids loved and cared for Sangita. She started to talk and walk. She loves to dance, and dance she did every day for us, calling us to a much welcome lunch.
She’d then check my jacket pockets for treats such as peanuts and stand or sit next to me, close to the charcoal brazier, warming her tiny hands and chewing peanuts with delight.
After lunch she’d oversee us going back to entering books in the register, or shelving, or stamping. Then, when she got cold, she’d seek out the charcoal brazier, someone’s lap and an extra shawl.
The library at the Tonglen Charitable Trust Hostel opened January 26 – India Independence Day. The children are attending school and Sangita continues to progress.
To her, life is a gift. And she doesn’t want to miss one moment of it. That includes being read to.
Hands of Hope Books and Basics for Kids in India and Nepal has been providing basics and establishing libraries since 2007. This summer they are walking into a remote Himalayan village in northern India with books. For more information, call Liesel or Rosemarie Briggs at 668-7082.