Even in India, Varanasi is harsh. In one of the poorest and most traditional states in India, the area regularly ranks as having one of the highest crime rates in the country. Children in dirty, dusty, ripped clothes often held with safety pins can be seen picking through rubbish in the streets. People sleep in the doorways, on ramps, on railway platforms, and even on the streets themselves. The city is crowded. Desperately poor slums are everywhere. And yet, the inner light of these residents is undiminished.
Some children are more reserved, depending on the tribe and their standing in the caste system. Even within the poor there is a distinct class structure that even the youngest are aware of. But when I take the time, the reservation can lift and their light also reveals itself. I softly engage the scruffy dark-skinned young girl, her hair matted and wild. Looking at the ground, she holds a younger sibling close to her. Over long seconds her eyes shyly lift until they meet mine. She looks at the ground again but then looks into my eyes again. I see her awkwardness but she holds the gaze this time and the beauty within the wildness is obvious. There is an acceptance, a way of being that allows the innocence of these young children to remain largely unaffected by the harsh reality of their daily lives. Our delivery of relief offers a break from the daily hardship. A moment of softness—of love—and a physical need is fulfilled. Grace embraces them in that moment.
I remember the translated words of one old woman at our last feeding. She came out to see what we were doing. “It is not the food,” she said. “It is the care. You are caring for them.” Sai Maa's humanitarian work is the love of the Divine Mother caring for her children.