Note: I am entering these lengthy posts unedited so as to assure that I produce them and don’t get caught up in an unending cycle of edits. Please read them with this in mind and I promise to apologize only this once.
Despite spending as much time as I have around my nephews and niece and the various Burner children that are flickering to light like tiny candle flames all across Austin, I still don’t seem to have as much of a grasp of how to interact with them as I did when I was a teenaged babysitter. Most of my discomfort comes with having to be a disciplinarian, or trying to understand the expectations of the adults watching me interact. Learning to not only deal with children, but love them, was one of the many transformative elements of this experience for me.
Everything that’s been said about the safety of looking through a camera lens is true. A nice little filter, it serves both to make the image I am viewing more abstract, as well as take my focus from the subject being viewed and turn it towards how that subject is being framed or lit. Never was this distance more striking than in Punjab where I was looking through that filter at people fresh from extreme personal tragedy. After the first few interviews I forced myself to look up regularly and take a moment to soak in the reality of the situation, to feel the tears and the averted eyes. I was still new to the environment itself and had very little time to process my surroundings let alone the people standing before me.
The first few days of interviews were quick and intense. We captured the essence of the stories and then jumped quickly to the next location and began again. It was physically and emotionally challenging but, again, the camera helped give me some distance. Then came the first day of workshops.
We brought 14 children from 6 different families who had lost a father to suicide to the estate where we had set up camp. The day was filled with new experiences for them. They played on swings and a slide, most for the first time in their lives. I had to stop the camera and show them how to use the teeter-totter before their butts turned blue from the alternating “wham! wham!” of the seats hitting the ground. I showed them how to use their legs like springs through a combination of miming and handwaving, much to their delight.
Of course the camera itself was a fascinating new experience, and they wanted to look through it and play with it. It was hard to convince them that I wasn’t there to be played with too, especially being a gorrah (white person) and having a strange little braid (ghuttini) coming out of the top of my head. I managed to keep them at bay for the most part, and they resorted to performing for the camera until I turned away enough that they gave up and became themselves.
That evening, after a long day, we were waiting for a driver to pick up the remaining kids. The sun had long departed and my camera was put away leaving me defenseless. We started having Jasbir and Gursev sing songs they knew and somehow, inexplicably, they managed to turn it into an excuse to teach me Punjabi. I’m not even sure how it happened, but suddenly I was surrounded by little kids sitting on my lap, wrapped around my shoulders, and peering at my notebook as I wrote out each number they taught me.
Ironically the group included two of the very boys, Gurpreet and Jagtar, I had thought would be the hardest to deal with. Outside they ignored adults and frequently ran off to find new ways to injure themselves. Now they were both intensely focused and very sincere as they repeated each number for me and gently corrected my pronunciation, nodding and grinning as I got it right. In that moment, due to some combination of feeling their physical affection, uninhibited trust, and sincerity, something inside me snapped and I saw them in an entirely new way.
Each time I went to see the families the familiarity and trust grew. The kids would shout, “Meester Kai!” until at last I responded with a sharp look or two, finally breaking out in a crazy gesture or wild dance move that brought waves of laughter. I would then return to what I was doing as though nothing had happened and they would eagerly try again.
On the bus ride into Delhi the bus, despite bouncing harshly over endless ruts and potholes and careening from left to right at the most inopportune moments, became an irresistible dance space. With Punjabi Bhungra music blasting from the speakers and the bus’s red, green and blue interior lights ablaze, the kids took turns spinning and bouncing in the aisles and, inevitably, dragging me from my seat to join them. Over time little Jagtar (the youngest boy) began singing quietly with me and the older Jagtar and his brother Gurpreet started cuddling up next to me as the night grew late and the bouncing bus lulled them into sleep.
When we reached our final destination, the golden temple in Amritsar, Gurpreet held my hand whenever I wasn’t holding the camera. This is a kid with no parents but for his 12 year old sister. Through some natural encoding in all of us he found me as a father figure and trusted me. He dragged me to see the giant goldfish. He babbled incoherently about everything around us. He insisted that he was, “the UNDERTAKER!”
There were definitely other kids that I connected with. We taught everyone to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in English and Sher insisted that I sit with him until he had it down perfectly. His sister Salma hassled me endlessly and was first to insist that I take the dance floor. Naresh was the oldest and experienced the biggest transformation. He came into his own as a leader for the children, slipping smoothly from comedian and playmate to confident speaker. I feel certain that he will become a powerful voice for and to his community.
It was so difficult to leave, and harder to imagine that I might not see some of these kids again. Worse still, I can’t be there to protect them from what will inevitably confront them as they continue to fight their way through a world for which they are under-prepared and stripped of defenses. I think the confidence they gained from this trip has great potential to get them moving in the right direction to take control of their lives but the abysmal education available to them and the sheer difficulty of getting enough to eat will be hard to overcome. I will be sending support money through a local activist who has been working on these issues for many years. I will also be sending them letters that they may one day be able to read in their english classes, along with recordings of my children’s songs and photos of my life in Austin. I still have no interest in having children of my own, but maybe I just picked up a few more nieces and nephews.