By Damara Shanmugam
I first visited Sri Sri Sri Balagangadharanathaswami’s school for the blind on my maiden trip to India in 1993. I was so taken by the beautiful, bright faces of the children that I made an inner commitment to return someday and stay with them for awhile. I returned in January, 1996, accompanied by 15-year-old Neesha Alahan from Hawaii, USA, ready to help in any way we could. Apparently there had not been many volunteers at the school before, and certainly none from America. It was clear from the start the teachers and aunties were already doing a fine job of taking care of the children.
At pre-dawn prayers they sat us up in front of the children. Uncomfortable, we moved our mats to the back and sat with the children, wanting only to be a part of them, not treated like special visitors. This broke the ice, and they let us help serve the children breakfast. From then on everyone gradually learned to trust and accept us.
The days were long, and we learned how to serve 500 meals a day without the benefit of refrigeration. American teachers simply would not believe the daily responsibilities of their Indian counterparts. Neesha spent many hours sitting on the steps of the school combing and braiding the girls’ hair. Not speaking Kannada, there were awkward moments at first, but we found a common language singing Sanskrit bhajanas.
Two weeks later we left the blind school with tears and promises made. I kept one of those promises when I returned to San Diego and shipped over 800 textbooks in English Braille to India. I was given a Brailler typewriter, and each month I send a lesson on Hinduism.