The Woman Who Smiled

I remember driving across a great expanse of darkness thinking, “This is what the poorest state in India is like? It’s not so bad.”

I looked outside the SUV and envied the simplicity of their life. There were no streetlamps, no neon signs. Lightbulbs swayed in the cool wind of the autumn night.

In the silence I pondered the past three years of my life. The shame of living a lie washed over me.

Gopal Ji barely said a word as we drove. The muscles and tendons in his arms bulged as we crashed through potholes in the unpaved road.

We arrived to Sunderpur just before 3 am. Sunder-pur means beautiful place in Hindi. It is a leprosy colony. Over 300 patients and their families live in Sunderpur.

Gopal Ji insisted in carrying our bags to our rooms. Our whispers echoed through the concrete halls as we walked.

When we woke the next morning we were taken on a tour. Our guide was the head nurse. She was eager for us to see the hospital.

We waived to the guard as we passed through the gates. The red and yellow paint chipped off the arches and walls.

We entered into the men’s wing of the hospital. Winces tore at our smiles as we greeted each of the patients. Our hands pressed togehter (namaste).

I glanced away from their wounds and forced myself to look into their eyes. In the abyss of their pupils I saw a reflection of myself: from my body draped Indian clothes only Westerners can afford, my white skin was without wound, my uncracked lips parted to my straight teeth.

I swallowed the urge to escape through the nearest door. There were so many of them. My smile closed and my words slowed to a murmur. I nodded my head and pressed my hands togehter (namaste).

In some of the beds, yellow maggots crawled in the wounds of their green mattresses. There were flies everywhere.

We exited the men’s corridor and walked across a balcony that faced the fields surrounding the hospital. Men and women knelt with bundles of grains strapped across their back. The golden sway of wheat whispered beneath the wind of winter’s approach.

Our guide walked us towards the women’s wing. There were women whose heads tilted high. They smiled and nodded in defiance of the disease that peeled away their limbs. There were women who kept their heads down and never looked up.

We were walking through the last corridor. “It’s almost over” I thought.

A nurse in Hindi called out, “You forgot someone!”
We turned around. Our eyes scanned the room. We saw her: a young woman in the back right corner. She waved at us, inviting us closer.

Her fingers and wrists were gone. One of her arms rounded into a shiny ball of skin at the elbow. The two black holes of her nostrils were the only part of her nose that remained.
Her cheeks caved in. Her ears were missing and her lips collapsed into pale wrinkles around her mouth.

She smiled. She smiled with all of her heart, a proud and toothless grin. She waved her arms and nodded her head, put her elbows together, and said “Namaste!

We left the women’s wing and I realized why she called out to us. She was happy. She was proud. Without her hands, feet, ears and nose, she shined like the sun. She wanted us to see her, to witness the love that lives in suffering.

The part of her rooted in riches had withered away with her limbs. The part of her that reveled in beauty had been eaten by rodents. Yet, through healing, something new was born.

Despite her suffering, a light remained. In the glowing hope of her eyes, in the beaming truth of her smile, there—in the presence of all her pain—lived love.

To this day I wonder if my suffering has healed in such a way. I wonder whether lies still hide beneath my skin. I wonder whether physical wounds would help unearth the pain that lives within. I wonder then, with my pain for all to see, if I could smile despite my wounds and finally be free.