I don’t know why she did it. I was too little to remember; I just know that she did. She left me in the middle of nowhere, with no money, no belongings and no one to turn to. At the age of six, I had been abandoned by my own biological mother, left on the streets of India, all alone. It took me a few days to realize she was not coming back. Fear, hunger, anger and incredible loneliness are what I remember today. I starved for days and sometimes weeks. Getting a meal became very challenging. Finding a safe place to sleep was never easy.
I lived on the streets, begging for food. Some people were kind. Some were violent and angry. A good day would be a street vendor taking mercy on me and giving me some fruits or finding a tree in someone’s yard with fruits. I would steal the fruits and run and hide. Sitting on a sidewalk next to a giant water fountain and eating sweet mangoes is an image I remember so vividly, because it was one of the things that gave me a lot of joy. I was beaten by a street gang and left bloody and bruised. With no access to medical care, I limped along and still have three dysfunctional fingers on my left hand. I see them every day, as a reminder of where I came from. From then on, my only concern was making it out alive another day. Weeks went by until a woman took pity on me and decided to give me shelter in her little hut in the slums. She gave me rice for meals and a roof over my head, even if it was just a tin roof secured by thin wires. I felt safe and cared for by her, and for me, that was enough.
Then one day she took me to the home of a couple and left me there. I was there for several months. The man of the house was a very heavy man. He left every morning and came back in the evening. The woman gave me chores and asked me to leave in the mornings and come back in the evenings. In that time I saw many men visit her — it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how she made a living. Often,the couple would go to festivals and things, leaving me right outside the home, bored and with nothing to do but to wait for them to come back so I could go inside and rest. I did everything I could for the family. I had a home and food to eat and a place to sleep, most of the time. After some time, the couple could no longer afford to take care of me and took me back to my original caretaker.
I was then taken to another home where a mother and two sisters lived. This mother hardly ever gave me food. She had a huge vegetable garden, but she would force feed me flower petals. At night she made me sleep by the gate of the house on a concrete patio with no blanket to keep me warm. The sisters put peppers in my eyes and hit me with a stick. There were many such things done to me by the three of them. I didn’t understand why. I still have scars from injury to my scalp. At one point I had a deep cut, six inches long on my right leg, eventually developing into a severe infection that almost took my life, the scars from which still exist. The caretaker found out about the infection and all of a sudden I found hundreds of people surrounding me. I was taken to a doctor who stitched me up without anesthesia. I screamed in excruciating pain while all these people stared at me. In front of these people, all of a sudden, the mother and three sisters were so sweet to me. That day she gave me the best meal that I had ever had in her home. I was then again taken away by my original caretaker.
My caretaker promised to take me on a train ride to a city. I was so excited for my first time on a train, to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. She told me to wait in my seat while she got off to get some water. I waited for what seemed like forever, but she never returned. This could not be happening to me again. I was so shaken I didn’t even realize when the train left or where it stopped. Once everyone got off, I sat there without a clue what to do. I told the ticket collector what had happened. Thankfully, he took me to the police station in New Delhi, my apparent destination. My next stop was an adoption home somewhere in the city.
The orphanage had hundreds of kids. It was a safe place where we were given two meals a day, clean clothing, and a place to sleep, but not much else. If we asked for more food or did something wrong, we would be taught a lesson But they did make sure we were healthy.
While in the orphanage, I saw couples come looking to adopt a child. Almost always it was the little babies who were chosen. Every time someone came, I prayed that I would be chosen next. At some point, I lost hope and resorted to believing that I would spend most of my life in the orphanage. Thankfully, I was wrong. A year or so later, I got news that a family was interested in adopting me. When I was shown an album with photos of my adoptive family, I burst with joy knowing that soon I would have a mom, dad, and two sisters to call my own. In the album, my little sister to-be looked so cute and chubby. I was so excited to play with her. The older one looked just as old as me. I hoped that she would like and accept me as her brother. Looking at that album everyday is what kept me going for another year in the orphanage, until my adoption came through.
My adoptive father came to take me home a year later. He was so loving and caring, and so happy and excited to see me. He immediately took me in his arms and told me all about my to-be family. The day he took me he discovered lice in my head and gave me a shower — it was the first time I used shampoo and conditioner. He gave me new clothes and toys, including a remote-controlled truck I couldn’t part with, even when I was asleep. We stayed with his parents — now my grandparents — in Bangalore. My grandmother made me the best food I’d ever eaten, and told me stories at night until I’d fall asleep. My grandfather took me shopping and introduced me to new people, sharing stories and advice about life in the United States.
Once I arrived, I met my adoptive mom, and couldn’t stop using the word: mom. It had been years since I’d used that word. My mom gave me the biggest kiss and the warmest hug. She was so happy and excited to see me and told me how they were desperately waiting for me to come home. Soon I would learn that in addition to being loving and caring, she was also very firm, strict and to the point. My one-year-old sister Aanya and nine-year-old sister Eesha were anxious to meet me. Aanya loved me right away and followed me everywhere I went (It got irritating at times, but felt good to have someone wanting to be around me). Eesha was more hesitant. It took her a while, but eventually she grew to love and accept me as her brother, and she soon became the sister I looked up to. She was a social and outspoken individual with the courage to stand up for what she believed in. I strived to be like her. Only later did I understand how hard the transition had been for her — from only child to the oldest of three.
My mom spent every waking hour of my first months in America teaching me English and preparing me for my first days in school. I was angry at her for making me work so hard when all I wanted to do was have fun. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much those efforts helped me adapt to a new country where few people looked, acted and talked like me. As I did in India, I often roamed the streets or the backyard, upsetting my mother.
I remember how Eesha always defended me when my mom got mad. If she took away my phone or grounded me for a week or so, Eesha would stand up for me and tell her that two days of punishment were enough. “We’re just kids,” she would say.
I got bullied in school every now and then; in elementary school I was bullied so badly I ended up with a small bruise on my head. When my mom found out, she took it up to the school and made sure it never happened again. My mom always stood up and faced whomever she needed to in order to protect us, even if she ended up embarrassing us every once in a while. One year in middle school I got shoved into a locker by boys I didn’t even know. Once again, Mom handled it and the school took action to make sure it didn’t happen again. Being attacked like that from behind, not having done anything wrong, made me lose my confidence for a very long time. But my mom was always there to help me build it back.
As a family we travelled a lot, to several states and countries. My father loves taking us on adventure trips; for a long time, we camped almost every year, and he taught us to raft, swim and build campfires. Once, we went rafting, and my mom and Eesha fell into deep water with the boat above them such that it was hard for them to swim to the top. Mom thought it was her last day on earth — she told us afterwards that she’d started having visions of how she wanted her kids to be taken care of. Eesha, as always, was fearless and helped others who had fallen get back on the boat.
I was soon to experience another major loss in life. On February 4, 2018, my big sister Eesha slipped and fell and lost her life after several months in a coma. My sister was gone from this world before I ever got a chance to tell her how much I looked up to her. I regret not telling her a lot of things I wish I had. My family and I were changed forever. My parents, two people who stood up every time they were beaten down, suddenly looked as if life had been sucked out of them. My dad went from his social, cheerful self to being quiet and reserved. My mom, the woman who never stopped helping me and my sisters build strength and confidence, lost all of hers. I saw her struggle to keep going. Aanya stopped talking to all of us. For a while, I almost felt like I had been abandoned, once again.
After the incident, I had conversations with my mom where I would ask her the questions gnawing at me: Why did this happen to us? Why do bad things keep happening to me? Will life always be sad for us?
One day, something changed. I don’t know what got into her but it seemed like something pushed my mother to get up and take charge of her and our lives. I know she still secretly cries, but I also know she really tries hard to keep going. Our grief is ongoing, and we continue to learn to cope with this loss. We’ve decided as a family that we will get through this together. We keep getting knocked down, but we keep moving, hoping one day we will all find peace.
After she passed, Eesha came to me one day while I was brushing my teeth. I don’t know what she was trying to tell me, but of all the people in my family, she came to me. Maybe one day I will make sense of it.
I have grown from the tragedies that I have faced in life. I now have an endless drive to help others. With my sister being in the hospital for over 2 months, I have witnessed a hospital staff working day and night to provide the necessary care to patients and their families. I have seen the compassionate nurses trying to give hope to helpless families like mine. Rather than staying angry and dejected, I’ve decided to serve those in need by choosing a career in the medical field. Through my medical education, I wish to bring peace and comfort to ailing patients and their families.
I’ve started meditating and taking spiritual classes. Spiritual growth has helped me deal with and accept that which I have no control over. I now spend most of my time going to work, going to the gym, meditating and spending time with my closest friends. I am learning to find joy in the little things in life.
My parents taught me three important things in life; one, to get a good education — the most important thing to help you gain independence. Two, no matter where you are in life, take time to make a difference in the life of at least one person. Three, there may be times when, despite doing everything you can, you will be knocked down on your knees and disappointed. But never run away from situations, and never give up hope. As long as you live a life of honesty and integrity, you will always find something or someone to lift you back up.
Today, I’ll start working on this second lesson by funding the education of a seven-year-old girl named Luxmi, who currently stays at an orphanage in Punjab called Jyoti Sarup Kanya Asra (jyotisarup.org). As we all know, education can change a life, so I plan to support her education — from now until she goes to college — in the hope of changing hers. Those interested in donating $30 or more can make a check out to “The Pink Foundation” and mail it to 4493 River Chase Dr. Troy, MI 48098. Donations are greatly appreciated. I have hope that one day I will go back to India to help keep kids from dying of illnesses that can easily be treated. But for now, this is a start.
Om Pattabhi is an incoming freshman at the University of Michigan.