I’m sitting in one of the government schools we support with a library and books. The children are seated cross legged on the floor in their classroom, no desks available. They smile shyly and giggle and avert their eyes when I look at them. I ask them about their favorite stories and one by one, they come up and recite poems or re-tell their favorite tale. They’re speaking Hindi and Telugu and I’m mesmerized. They recite with such intensity and such seriousness. The girls have matching onyx braids, plaited and looped to form twin pigtails with strands of jasmine tucked in. Their outfits scream with color – fluorescent orange, deep crimson, brilliant turquoise salwar kameezes and dresses adorned with gold thread and sparkling jewels. The boys sport identical short spiky hair cuts, their spindly arms and legs protruding from dingy short sleeve shirts and navy shorts that are too big, gathered at the waist with a rope or belt. Their dark eyes appear so big in their tiny faces.
After the last recitation, the teacher, a big serious man, calls a beautiful little girl to face me. She’s wearing an orange floor length skirt with tiny mirrors sewn along the hem. He stands behind her and lifts up her skirt above her knees. I’m taken aback. What is he doing? He jerks his head to her legs. “Look.” I see before me two tiny deformed legs, bowing outwards at unnatural angles from her knees. I lift my eyes to the girl’s face and she casts her eyes downward. I’m speechless. I don’t know why he is doing this. I want to scream, “What are you doing? Let the girl be. Why are you embarrassing her like this?” He says to me, “The water is contaminated. Fluoride. Her sister is the same.” This does not make sense to me. I sit there, still speechless, not sure what he is expecting or what is the appropriate thing to say in this situation.
After a minute or so of silence, he says, “You will help her. You will fix her legs.”
I continue to sit there, all eyes on me, all the children, all the school staff. I feel embarrassingly uncomfortable. I stammer, “Uh, uh…” How do I explain that I don’t have the connections to fix her legs? That I don’t know what her condition is, much less what could be done to fix them. I realize that they think I have access to unlimited resources. How do I explain I don’t? How do I respond to this request in a country where no one uses the word “no”? How do I not make promises that I know I cannot keep?
I wish I could say that I responded with a culturally sensitive, gracious response. I wish I could say that the tense silence was broken with the girl understanding that I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. Instead, I, like the girl before me, cast my eyes downward.