India

My 96-Year-Old Friend: A Reason for Hope

Early this morning as the sun filled my room with light, I rolled over in bed and scrolled through the emails in my phone. One immediately caught my eye–from my baba (host dad) in India. He had received the letter I sent to him and was writing to let me know that both he and aai were doing well. They said they were proud to hear about what I was doing in Haiti and still thought of me when they passed the sweet shop in their neighborhood (naturally my reputation will always be the American girl who loved Indian sweets a little too much). He continued with the pleasantries for a while and then passed along the bad news. Along with the letter I’d sent for aai and baba, I’d also sent one to a woman named Leela. Leela wouldn’t be receiving my letter, he said, because she’d passed away in May.

Leela lived just down the street from aai and baba in a nursing home. They took care of her in the absence of any family members and I got to know her through both of them. After a couple of visits, my roommate and I began to visit Leela on our own. We would walk the couple of blocks to the home, slip our sandals off at the door, greet the friendly men and women sitting on the porch and in their wheelchairs, and ascend the cold tile steps to Leela’s room. Every time we visited we were greeted with a hug and offered copious amounts of ladu and whatever other Indian sweets she had in her fridge at that moment.

Leela was 95 when we met her and over the course of the semester we celebrated her 96th birthday with her. She wore glasses with one lens darkened to aid her vision. She was hard of hearing and much of our time with her was spent comically shouting into her ear so she could understand what we were saying.

And Leela was fixated on a particular book. Every time we visited her, without fail, she would place a copy of this book in our hands and tell us about how deeply it spoke to her: Jane Goodall’s “A Reason for Hope.” She must have had at least a half dozen copies of that same book in her room in varying states of deprecation. Each one well-loved and thoroughly marked with the passages that stood out to her.

“You have to read it,” she’d tell us each time.

I promised her I would and started reading a copy on my iPad those first few months in India.

Once we had moved past “Jane Goodall” as a conversational topic, we would ask Leela questions about her life. She led a miraculous one. Leela grew up in India in the 1920s and 1930s. She peacefully protested alongside Gandhi as a young woman and left the country just before independence in 1947. For the next 40 years she lived in Boston, just 20 minutes from where I grew up. She told us how it was difficult for her to adjust to American culture at first–how people looked at her funny for wearing Indian clothes and eating smelly food. And how she slowly found Americans to be full of kindness. She recounted story after story of people going out of their way to help her, of her traveling all over the country with her friends, of taking every opportunity for adventure that she could.

She said she missed the United States and she knew she wouldn’t return. The land and the people she met there were very special to her. She feared for this generation of Indian young people, she said, especially women. As a girl she felt safe walking on her own growing up in India and now she couldn’t believe how dangerous she’d felt it had become for women in India. That made her sad.

But what upset her most, she said, was that this generation of young people hadn’t found their voice of protest yet. That they didn’t care enough about the injustices they were seeing to take action. Coming from a woman who knew Gandhi personally, it’s hard to take her accusation lightly. What was our cause? What do we care enough about to fight for?

I was sad to say goodbye to her when the end of the semester came and I thought of her each time I opened “A Reason for Hope.” The book moved me too. It took me a little under a year to finish it because I was taking my time with Jane’s words. It was one of the first books I finished here in Haiti this year. And I had written my letter to Leela just a couple of weeks before telling her how grateful I was for her recommendation. Because in reading the book, I figured out that Leela wasn’t disappointed in our generation or the state of the world, she was hopeful for the capacity we each have for change.

I selfishly wish that she had gotten my letter in time. I wanted her to know that I hadn’t forgotten her and that her book meant something to me too. And I felt sad thinking about all those months I thought of her in her nursing home, not knowing that she was no longer there.

Regardless, I don’t think I’ll soon forget her. She’s one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met and despite all of the confusion, anger and war there is in the world, I find it hopeful that she had hope for the future. I think a great deal of her hope came from that book.

In the conclusion Jane writes, “I believe there was indeed a message. A very simple one: Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us, especially each other. Together we must reestablish our connections with the natural world and with the spiritual power that is around us. And then we can move, triumphantly, joyously forward.”

Despite it all–the genocide, the racial injustice, the slavery, the exploitation we see daily in the news and on the internet–there is hope for humanity. And I’ll always remember that hope in Leela. I know that one person can make a difference because Leela is one of the many people who has made a difference to me.

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