The day I left India, it was wet outside. The heavy, misty clouds reached down to brush the dusty ground and make it mud. I could see neither the sun nor the road, just the walled-in courtyard of wet dust and two Indian children wielding a plastic jump rope. They were both wearing sandals that clacked against their heels as they jumped to the rhythm of my voice: one, two, three, four, ek, do, teen, chaar. Anshu was wheezing, asthmatic, persistent. We jumped for an hour: ek, do, teen, clack, clack, clack. Incessant puffing, muddy dust.
Most of us spent the morning pretending that nothing was different, but we could feel it like a presence in the air, an undiluted sadness that was most obvious in our smiles. The process of goodbyes started and stopped a thousand times before the bus began its journey. Breakfast was served, the chores were done, our bags were packed, but we were in the kitchen, playing cards and snacking on naan. We took our bags outside and lingered. We loaded our bags in the bus and lingered. We made our way onto the bus and lingered. Then we left. I started to cry as the bus bumped along the pothole-riddled road.
I wore the friendship bracelets on my wrists for as long as I could, but they eventually fell off. People stopped asking me questions about the traffic and the caste system and the food. The jet lag wore off, my stomach adjusted. I started spending more time thinking about prom dresses and college acceptances, but even as the memories lost color, something remained.
I kept thinking about making Asis smile.
He had been a tough nut to crack: a tiny, brooding, angry toddler. He liked to pout—not sad, but unimpressed. We picked him up, spun him around, tickled him, but he would not smile. Sometimes, he would shout at us in Hindi, but the message came through clearly.
His attitude changed when the bubbles came out.
It was a mad frenzy as he leapt after each bubble, wanting to pop them, watching them float away and reflect the red glint of the Indian sun. And his smile shone too, wide, even reaching up to his dark, pondering eyes. His chubby arms swung wildly and his sulking pout disintegrated into giggles.
I kept thinking about dancing with Dhee Raj.
That skinny little kid could move, sauntering across the room, thrusting his hips, mouthing the words of his favorite songs. Some of the other boys had told me without hesitation that he was the number two dancer at the boys’ home, second only to the legendary Abishek. Dhee Raj called me “dancer” because I liked to dance too. “Hello, dancer!” “Morning, dancer!” “How are you, dancer?” I replied in kind.
Dhee Raj was shy, but his self-consciousness was overpowered by irrepressible joy whenever he danced. He transformed into the cockiest little ten-year-old in all of Allahabad, but when he realized that everyone was watching him, he stopped awkwardly and laughed.
I kept thinking about what it all meant.
Why did I go to India? Was it to help people? Because that’s not really what I did. I had brought a duffle bag full of Band-Aids and aspirin, but otherwise, I just played catch. I’m pretty sure the Great Commission doesn’t command followers of Jesus to play catch, so why did it feel like the ultimate expression of my faith? Why did it feel like the most worthwhile thing I had ever done? Since when did playing outside become a spiritual experience? I didn’t know, but I couldn’t deny that something had changed.
There’s just something about it– traveling across the world to spend time with strangers, immersing yourself in a new culture, being pushed to find ways to communicate that don’t involve language. There’s something about playing cricket in a courtyard and blowing bubbles in the kitchen, something about dancing on linoleum floors that reminds you that the Kingdom of God is here. I felt it in the way Ranjeet said my name, slow and deliberate, the texture of his voice like marbles in his mouth. I felt it when Shubas taught me how to ask for a hug in Hindi, and I felt it when Abishek beat me at tic-tac-toe.
I know now that it’s love. Love unconditional, without barriers or tests or doubts or faults. It’s love that embraces differences, celebrates them and revels in them. It forgets time or place, ignores the impending goodbye, is deeply and utterly present. Love like Dhee Raj loves dance. I loved those boys from the moment I met them, and I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their names or their personalities or their favorite foods, and yet I loved them, from the spot behind my heart. I still do. I had never experienced love like that before.
I kept thinking about the bracelet that Anurag gave me, woven out of pink and blue. I kept thinking about Golshan’s hiccoughing laugh. I kept thinking about incessant tickling and Salindra’s smile, about hand-me-down jackets and cricket bats. I kept thinking about sitting on the roof of a chicken coop at sundown, listening to Shubas sing a song I couldn’t understand and falling in love with each of those moments in turn.
Kelsey Blois is a prolific writer for her age. She is a student at Westmont College getting a degree in history. Kelsey is also a Harry Potter fanatic and an accomplished knitter. Photo by Annie Hasserjian.