I came to India thinking an old bearded Wiseman would come to me and teach me about life and who I am. However, my guru wasn’t old, nor a man, but a seven year-old, dark-skinned gypsy girl with a dirty pink t-shirt, short-cropped hair and a huge smile.
She skipped up the dusty beach road to my friends and me with an armful of bright beaded jewelry and asked, “where going?” My first thought was that this was merely an attempt to sell one of the colorful necklaces hanging from her arm, but she put the necklaces in a bag and followed joyfully, talking in very broken English.
“Where from?” She asked.
“America, Where do you live?”
She giggled, pointed toward the Tamil Nadu backwaters and said “Me live Poonjeri!” After a moment of silence she asked, “Where going?”
“Right there,” I said, pointing just ahead to Sea Waves Guest House. “What’s your name,” I asked.
“Me name Jodika.”
“How do you spell that?”
She turned up her little arm showing a barely visible henna tattoo and pointed to each letter: “J – O – D – I – K – A,” she read aloud.
“Well, Jodika, we have to go to our room. Maybe we’ll see you later.”
She put her five fingertips together and moved her hand back and forth to her mouth as one would if eating. She said bashfully, “baby eating?” and pointed toward her home. I felt obligated to give her some money, but just said “maybe later” and went upstairs.
Jodika and I crossed paths often. She’d see me walking through town and run to me, her little bare feet skipping over cow pies in the rough rocky road, and open her arms wide for a hug.
“Hey friend! Where going?” Before I could answer, she’d put her little hand in mine and join me as I wandered around town. It was strange yet inviting having a little gypsy sidekick. She was so unique and vibrant that she brightened my day more than I was used to.
Jodika had the freedom—and appetite—to eat with a friend and since I did too (and had a pocket full of rupees) our bond grew over veg curry and fried rice. She would watch me eat and copy me, fumbling with the fork and knife to impress me. She’d wipe her mouth after every bite and say thank you when she finished. One time after eating, she took me to the cooler and showed me clay cups of ice cream. When I bought her one and opened it for her, she offered me the first bite.
I was struck in the heart. Being selfless to each other made my day and hers. It became so clear: anyone can make a difference. It’s really easy.
Late on a hot sunny morning , Jodika, her sister Nandini and friend Ramia took my friend Raj and I to Poonjeri to see their home. We were sweating by the time we got to the end of a dirt road in a field of tall dead grass. There were rows of simple block cubicles similar in shape and size to storage units back home. But their storage unit sized home was for people, not for storing stuff they didn’t need.
I stepped into the doorway of the dirty concrete cubicle. An old woman wrapped in a colorful blanket sat on the floor in silence. She didn’t knit or play Sudoku. She just sat. The room was the size of a small American kitchen with a smaller side room not much bigger than a king size bed. There was no kitchen or bathroom, no furniture, no running water. A hole in the dirt between the pigeon coop and hen house was where they cooked over a fire.
The girls sat on the floor. Jodika took out old schoolbooks to show us she could write. The others showed us piles of special camel bone jewelry they’d made. Easily distracted, Jodika quickly put away her books and took a green and white beaded necklace from the pile. She came to me and carefully put it on my neck. “Me gift giving!”
Again, I was struck in the heart. It was the most special gift I’d gotten in a long time.
Then Jodika pulled out a little metal box. She opened it and began sifting through photos. She pulled out a photo of her family and a portrait of her mother. “Look, me momma. Me momma die.”
My scarred, cold heart got warmer and softer every minute I spent with her. As I looked around the cubicle, I found myself thinking about my lifestyle and the culture I know. Looking at little Jodika and her life in India was confusing and thought provoking.
In America the average home has clean running water, carpet, themed bathrooms complete with toilets, so much food in the refrigerator that some spoils before we get to it. Those who can afford it drive their cars to warehouse sized stores to buy anything they need – or don’t. Kids go to school for twelve years and the fortunate ones go to college and on to a career with health insurance and a retirement plan. Then they can afford their own houses, cars, toys and storage units.
Yet, as many of us are coming to find, “more” and “easier” are not necessarily fulfilling.
Later, I thought hard about the difference between my little gypsy friend and me as a little boy. When I was Jodika’s age, my parents had been divorced a few years. I lived with my mom. We were on welfare and she worked multiple jobs and wrote bad checks to pay overdue bills. Too often things weren’t working out so we moved to a new city. We lived like modern American gypsies, if you will, moving place to place, struggling to make ends meet, in search of “more” or “better.”
I had a mom, my own bedroom with a bed and a Nintendo, went to school and ate at least something a few times a day. Yet for most of my adolescence I thought I was disadvantaged. I felt like a poor outcast.
Jodika was disadvantaged, didn’t even realize it and dealt with it. Jodika’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was a few years old. Her father is an alcoholic. She sleeps on the dirty floor of a concrete box or on the dirty beach. Rather than school, Jodika and her siblings have to beg and sell necklaces to unwilling tourists so their family can eat rice. She didn’t envy others or feel poor. She had no reference of social class or prestige, no reality T.V. or advertisements teaching her what social standards she had to meet to “be cool.” She wore that beaming smile and dirty shirt and wasn’t bothered about a diet based on rice, sleeping on the beach or calling a concrete cube home during the tourist season.
I was curious about Jodika’s hopes, so I asked her (translated by a friend).
Jodika, what is your biggest wish?
“I want my father not to drink, to not be around fights and for my house to be clean. I want nothing else to make me happy. …It would be very nice if my mother were here. I want that more than anything else.”
What was supposed to be a few days photographing the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, south India became three weeks of life lessons with a wonderful little gypsy girl I wanted to adopt.
On my last day, before the tuk-tuk pulled up to take me away, I knelt down to Jodika’s level, looked into her eyes, rubbed her short hair and said:
“Jodika, you make me happy. I will miss you.”
She looked down at the street for a moment and was quiet. I thought she didn’t understand me, but she looked back up to me and said “Me same,” and gave me a hug. It would be the part of the movie that shows seven-year-old Jesse hugging a wise old guru. A tear of joy, of sorrow, of love and pain, of every emotion came from my eye and landed on the dusty beach road where she had first ran toward me, smiling with the sunshine.