It’s a land of beautiful palaces and majestic mountains, of wet seasons and dry seasons, of saris and snakes, of tragic love and terrible customs, of religion and traditions, of wealth and poverty. The poverty was what connected me to a little girl growing up in an India that was nothing like the India I’d read about in books like The Far Pavilions. She was six, half my age, living in a one-room house with her parents and three brothers.
I had seen one of the many ads in magazines for sponsors for children in third-world countries. After some consultation with my parents, and looking at different aid organizations, I choose one of them and requested a child to sponsor. Soon after, I received the package of information introducing me to Nasreen.
In the picture, she is a serious-eyed girl, staring at the camera. Her dark hair is slicked carefully into place, cut in a bob at her ear lobes. She has a small, unsmiling mouth, neat nose, and pointy chin between round cheeks. Her dress is brightly-coloured, yet simple. It does not look necessarily Indian; it could have been something I had worn six years before.
I stare at that picture often, wondering what she is actually like when she isn’t focused on having her picture taken for her sponsor—that wealthy person in a far-away country who sends money so she can go to school and have clean drinking water.
Her letters were always short: “Dear sponsor, thanks for sponsoring me, your loving child, Nasreen.” Sometimes she told me about the games she played, how she liked school, that she helped her mother. I peered at the strange Bengali letters, hanging upside down off the lines, and contemplated how they could mean anything to this child I barely knew. Sometimes she wrote the salutations and closings of the letters in English, and mentioned she was learning English, as well as Bengali and Hindu, at school.
I wrote my letters simply, choosing small words and simple sentences. The agency had warned us that many of the translators had learned English as a second language. I wondered if, after translation, my letters sounded as formal as hers did. We were both children, yet separated by half a globe, strange customs, and different languages. I told her about Canada, about things I did. I didn’t want to boast of my money in the face of her poverty, so sometimes, I didn’t know what to say. What would interest this serious-eyed girl, whose face grew less chubby as she got older, but who never smiled at the camera?
I dreamed of someday scraping together the funds to visit her—for though I had more money than she did, enough money to share some with her, I was an average Canadian girl. I babysat and cleaned house for a neighbour, dreamed of college, wanted to travel. If I could see her—her smile, her family, her home—maybe that would connect us. Maybe then it would be easier to write, easier to understand how I was helping her. The letters from the agency were short and effusive—“Thanks for your recent contribution. Nasreen now has a new sari and a blanket”—but really, it was as impersonal as giving a gift card.
And then the last letter came. Nasreen was sixteen that summer, verging on womanhood. I was twenty-two, engaged to be married, working my first job. I wondered sometimes was the teenage years held for her—did she think about college? Would she graduate as I had, or would she leave school to marry, work, help her mother?
I will never know, because her family disappeared. Without a word to the sponsorship agency or even, it seems, to friends in the area, they left. The agency said this happened frequently, that families relocated to find better jobs or be closer to family. And so, without even good-byes, my strange friendship with this serious-eyed Indian girl was over.
I will sponsor again. Oftentimes it seems that we can do little about the problems in our world like poverty and hunger, but through sponsorship we can touch the life of one child. We can make a world of difference one person at a time.