Passage to India

Sophia McCarron films some of the boys at Bal Ashram as they color. —Petra Lent McCarron

I didn’t know heat until I came to India. I was packing for a three-week trip and thought it reasonable to slip in a sweatshirt among the summery pants and loose, light shirts. Oh, my New Englander’s folly. As I sit here writing this at 6:30 in the evening, the temperature has dipped to a pleasant 95° from the oppressive 104 that it reached at midday, and my sweatshirt remains safely stowed at the bottom of my luggage, having yet to make an appearance. Earlier in the day, while we were out with the rest of the crew shooting in a village, the water we brought turned to the temperature of tea.

My mom is an associate producer at Galen Films, operated by Len and Georgia Morris in Vineyard Haven, and the company was hired by a nonprofit based in Delhi called Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) to shoot an eight-minute documentary on their Bal Ashram, or boys’ home. BBA takes boys to Bal Ashram whom they have rescued from factories, stone quarries, and other places that employ child labor. Once there, they’re given an education, access to therapy, and the chance to play and have a childhood.

The ashram is about a five-hour ride from Delhi, on a stretch of highway that would test the nerves of even the most fearless daredevil. Drivers dart in and out of traffic and tailgate with inches to spare. Long-haul trucks careen down the highway without regard to the direction of traffic, and cows peruse the median, looking for a spare bit of grass to munch on. I find myself trying to rediscover any religion I may have let lapse and praying for my life.

Upon arriving at Bal Ashram whole and intact, we realized that there was more here than an eight-minute video, and any time that we expected to set aside for sightseeing in the nearby city of Jaipur was quickly eaten up.

They keep the boys on a rigorous schedule that runs from 5 am to 10 pm, and includes activities such as yoga, chores, and classes. There are about 57 boys living on campus, all of whom are former street children or child laborers. They look like happy, normal kids, and barring some visible scars, there’s nothing in their behavior to suggest what they have been through. We have three weeks to document life at the ashram and hear the boys’ stories. As few Americans have extensive knowledge about day-to-day life in India, especially in rural villages, we decided that we needed to give the viewer context of that as well.

I expected India to be a world entirely opposite from Martha’s Vineyard, and in many ways it is. There are houses that make up the villages that were intended to be grand homes. Money ran out, however, and the upper floors are unfinished, with metal support bars reaching up into the sky, holes where the roofs should be, and piles of old concrete lying on the dirt floor.

People live in the ground levels while trying to keep the dirt out of the blue barrels of water distributed by the government. Goats, pigs, and stray dogs root through piles of trash, and sewage runs along the sides of the street. It’s a shocking comparison between these homes and even the most modest houses on Martha’s Vineyard.

Even with this level of poverty, there is beauty in these villages. Young women dress in tunics and loose pants made from the brightest colors, with scarves to cover their heads when the sun begins to bake the air. Older women wear saris with vibrant colors and shiny embroidery. They hang pictures of Hindu gods over their doors, and sometimes there is ornate stonework on the outside walls.

At one point, I went off with the driver to explore the village we were in and shoot aspects of daily life. There is a culture of hospitality in India, and everyone was incredibly welcoming. Almost immediately I was surrounded by a crowd of people showing me around and inviting me into their homes. Even though they couldn’t speak English or I Hindi, they made sure to express hospitality, and I can only hope that I was able to show how grateful I was.

The people at the ashram extended their hospitality to us as well. Every day for lunch and dinner we were served potatoes, dal (a kind of lentil paste), rice, and a vegetable. After about two weeks, one of the cameramen we met in Delhi confided in us that the kitchen made the potatoes especially for us because they thought that’s what Americans liked to eat; all the while we were thinking that it was normal Indian cuisine.

India has shown me how little I know, from technical things such as what makes a good shot, and how surprisingly difficult it is to hold a video camera steady, to people’s different ways of life. With a population of over a billion people in India, there are a lot of differences.

There are aspects of India that are beautiful and light, but there are also things that are dark and full of decay. Children are trafficked through “learn and earn” scams, where traffickers set up fake programs for parents to send their children to, to make money and get an education; once the kids are sent away, they’re forced into bonded labor. But then there are spontaneous dance parties that erupt in the middle of the street with a truck blaring music. There are the people who work at BBA and the people who run the factories they raid. One thing is for sure, it will take more than three weeks to understand this place.