Busy For Hours

For a place where several hundred severely disabled men, women and children are looked after, the atmosphere in Mumbai’s Asha Daan is surprisingly quiet and relaxed. The nine nuns who run the place clearly wish to avoid ostentation, although they’re effusive when it comes to greetings. “Look around,” they say. “Talk to the people. Ask them how they are.”

The Divine L and I have a brief stroll around the wards, large warehouse-like spaces with neat rows of steel beds, corrugated iron roofs and dodgy electrical wiring sprouting from the walls.

In the area reserved for babies and toddlers, a girl crawls towards us, her entire lower body twisted at a cruel angle, forcing her to shuffle across the floor like some sort of agonised human accordion. She smiles as she approaches us.

In the teenagers’ ward, another girl sits on the edge of her bed. Instead of eyes and a mouth she has deep sockets of warped, puckered skin. We wonder if she’s the victim of an acid attack. She shakes her head from side to side and mutters unintelligible words.

A small figure pops up behind us, a chubby teenage girl with a wide grin. “Birthday, birthday!” she says, giving us an exaggerated handshake.

“Whose birthday?” I ask.

“Birthday, birthday!” she repeats, shaking hands again.

A nun walks past, adjusting her blue and white habit around her shoulder. “She’ll keep you busy for hours with her ‘birthday, birthday’,” she says.

The male ward is particularly affecting, or is that just because we’re culturally conditioned to respond with deep shock to the sight of shattered men, lying still on their beds, their eyes devoid of any sense of purpose.

A breeze picks up: the clouds are about to burst again. All over the place, clothes are drying on metal grilles, but they’ll soon be soaked.

We enter another ward and immediately feel at home when we see several children seated around a table, doing their homework. Within moments, I’m placed next to a bright little wheelchair-bound, nine-year-old girl who’s converting improper fractions to mixed numbers. She’s eager to show off her knowledge of times tables – which is very impressive – and she whizzes through her sums with ease, her dark eyes locked in concentration.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” the Divine L asks her.

The girl shrugs her shoulders.

“I think you’d be an excellent maths teacher,” I say, at which point she bursts out laughing and covers her face in embarrassment.

The rain hits the roof with a force that makes us think we’re surrounded by hundreds of firecrackers going off at the same time, but the children are used to the din and they just carry on with their work.

As we leave, a figure calls out from the distance. “Birthday, birthday! Bye bye!”

“Bye bye!” we shout, and walk through the gateway, hand in hand.


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