I am six years old. I live in a Hare Krishna ashram in Seattle, in a creaky house with wood floors and big windows. There’s one shower, a toilet and a big kitchen. I have my green hunting sleeping bag with ducks on it and my suitcase full of skirts, saris and headscarves. Socks and underwear too. Some of my friends from Dallas are here. I’m happy to see them. They show me around and we play outside in the yard, while my mom talks with the ashram teacher. I remember her from Dallas too. I don’t like her. She’s mean. I know my mom is going home in a few days and I’m staying, but I’m not happy about it, so I watch her closely to make sure she doesn’t disappear.
As I get settled into my new ashram, I easily make new friends. I love them. They’re funny and we laugh a lot. On the first night, I am shown my space on the floor and I lay out my sleeping bag next to the other girls. After dinner, we all go to our assigned sleeping bags, lay down and listen to the soothing voice of a women telling krishna stories and singing songs. My mom is in the women’s ashram close by and knowing that helps me fall quickly asleep.
So far, I like it here. The trees are pretty and smell like candy. There’s a huge mountain I see up ahead on our walks and the hills that make me dizzy. There’s a park nearby with lots of trees and winding stairs. It feels like fairies live there. I like having my mom and baby brother here too. He’s so cute! Everyone loves him. I tell everyone about him and because I’m big enough now, Mata let’s me push his stroller.
After a week, Mata tells me she is going back to Miami. I don’t want her to leave me again, and I cry. She hugs me tight and reminds me that we’ll talk every Sunday and that she’ll write me letters and send me packages. I’m not okay with her leaving, but all the girls in my ashram are going to the playground, so we walk together, holding hands. Shortly after we arrive, I see a white van drive up and a door opens. She looks at the van, then at me and tells me it’s time for her to go. I hold her hand tight. I don’t want to let her go. I don’t want her to leave me here.
I start to shake and cry loudly, as she tries to comfort me. My head is spinning and my eyes are hot. She leans down and hugs me once more and walks away. My chest tightens and I want to throw up, but instead I scream as loud as I can. I want her to hear me and take me with her. But she doesn’t. She gets in the van and drives away. My teacher reaches out to touch me, and I push her away. My screams turn to sobs. I can’t breathe.
Satya, an older girl who is 8, takes my hand and walks me to the playground. We sit under the monkey bars and she holds me for a really long time. Satya feels like a mommy and I lean into her until I catch my breath.
She tries to reassure me. “You’ll get to talk to your Mata on Sunday. It’s okay, Radhe. It’s just a few more days.” It’s hard to hear her through my sobs. My heart feels hard and empty.
The weeks go by and I settle into my new life. I lose two front teeth, learn how to braid hair and how to do a fish braid. Sundays are body care days, after our braid train, we proud brag about our new found talents.
Ashrams are divided up by ages. In my ashram, we all 6 years old, and most of us have been separated from our families. On any given night, there are sounds of one or a few of us sniffling under our covers. Several of us are occasionally still wetting our beds at night.
One morning, after several of us younger girls wet our beds, we are rounded up, given buckets of soapy water and wash clothes, and told to wear our pee-soaked underwear on our heads as we clean the floors. This teaches me to never pee in my bed again.
During the week, we’re allowed to play in the big park. The big girls and little girls get to go together. I love going to the park because I can get lost in the trees where no one can yell at me, and no one can see me but the flowers and bugs and the bees. It reminds me home.
While the park is fun, I quickly discover the walks to the park aren’t fun at all. Our headmaster yells a lot, and makes us lay on the street in obeisances to her. The street is dirty and smelly and wet. She angry and hear little eyes and pointy nose makes her look like a witch. I giggle quietly. She pouts and shouts and threatens us with her saffron stick, that if we don’t obey and lay our bodies down on the street and stretch our arms out in surrender to her, we are offensive and will have bad karma. I’m scared, so I do it. I’m also embarrassed because I’m wearing a long skirt, a headscarf and tilak on my forehead. Tilak is holy mud if you didn’t already know that. I don’t look like the other kids at the park. None of us do, but least we’re all together. The karmi kids get to wear shorts and pants and don’t have mud on their faces. I want to hide. This makes me want my mom. I want to go home, but I can’t. So I lay on the street with my friends until we’re told we can get up and keep walking.
In the ashram, Sundays are special. They are for phone calls with mata and pita, and the Sunday feast. That means we get to eat halava, gulab jamuns, sweet rice and puris, to name a few of my things.
One Sunday, a week after the bed-wetting incident, I went up to my ashram teachers room and placed my regular collect call. “This is Radhe, your daughter” I say. My parents accept the call and at the first sound of their voices, I feel relief and in an instant, burst into tears. The sound of their voices made me feel safe and I tell them I miss them and want to come home. Quickly the phone is taken from my hands and Moksharupa says “Radhe is fine. She’s just a little upset, but she’s okay. We’re taking good care of her.” She hangs up the phone.
LIAR! I can’t believe she takes the phone out of my hands and hung up. LIAR. The tears fall hard. This is my only chance to tell them what was going on and I miss it. I’ll never get home now.
From then on, every call and letter I write is monitored, my letters are reviewed and rewritten, omitting any mention of missing parents or wanting to come home. And I am never again allowed to say or write “I love you” or “Love, Radhe” at the end of my letters.
The hollow ache and pain of feeling powerless is overwhelming.
No one knew what was really going on because none of us kids were allowed to tell our parents. As long as our communication with the outside world was monitored, we were all stuck
It would be another 24 Sundays before I would have a private conversation with my parents.
By then, everything would be very different.
To be continued…