sinor_shadow_500In India, a dog, a monkey, and a cow attacked me. My husband would say the cow nudged me, but he didn’t feel the horn in his hip. The monkey left marks.

As we exited the airport, we watched the slums of Mumbai unroll for miles in all directions. Each home, constructed from cardboard, tarps, and corrugated metal, held the other homes up, so they leaned like brothers in the sun. The floors were dirt, yet the women swept them clean each morning with brooms of bound twigs.

One day we walked to McLeod Ganj, a tiny town in the Himalayas, where we threaded through hundreds of destitute families. They had arrived at the Dalai Lama’s temple the day before for a three-day Buddhist holiday. Mothers, fathers, and children lined the streets, sitting on scraps of plastic or worn blankets, as if waiting for a parade. The only floats were poverty and need. I walked down the rows and placed silver rupees in outstretched palms. I had fifty coins to give; a thousand hands reached.

The boys left entire plates of pasta at a restaurant one night. We felt terrible when the waiter came to clear the dishes. “Was anything wrong?” he asked. We made excuses. When my husband went to pay the bill, the man wouldn’t charge us for the food. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wanted to make it nice for you because you are Americans.”

The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world.

At the end of a run one morning, when I was just coming back into McCleod Ganj, I stumbled on a dogfight. A dozen dogs were attacking a single dog. She yelped and snarled at the center. “Stop!” I yelled and threw handfuls of gravel. “Stop it! Stop it!” I found larger rocks and hurled those. Some hit the attacking dogs. Others pinged off nearby taxis. My throat hurt from screaming, but the dogs stopped. I recognized the dog who had been attacked. We often found her sleeping on the steps to a hotel. Her fur was falling out. Torn out, I realized that morning. When I told my sons, Kellen insisted that the owners had just cut the dog’s hair. “I saw some scissors by her.” He could not hold the possibility of a world where one of his favorite dogs was repeatedly attacked. Or one where children stood on streets and begged for food.

We immersed ourselves in the Ganges the day before we left Rishikesh. The holy river is just emerging from the Himalayas, so the water runs cold and deep. The boys floated near the shore, letting their feet sink into the gold-flecked sand. The sun beat on my head, hot and white, while the water swirled around my legs. Ma Ganga remits your sins when you fully submit your body to her waters. The sins I asked her to remove were those of inattention and apathy.

We discovered an animal rescue place at the top of McCleod Ganj, and it quickly became my sons’ favorite destination. Small and understaffed, the center housed fewer than ten strays. When we left the first time, having played with each dog and taken pictures of them all, Aidan said maybe it was a good thing the dogs had gotten hit by a car or become ill because now someone was taking care of them.

When you immerse yourself in the Ganges, your sins are removed from both the past and the future.

On the day the destitute families came to McLeod Ganj, I gave coins to an elderly woman who had bloody stumps for hands. Leprosy. I balanced the coins on brown-soaked gauze and then turned to the next person who called “Madame! Madame!”

The dogs at the animal rescue center licked the boys’ faces. Aidan and Kellen knelt on the ground, and the tiny, wounded animals clambered over them, tails wagging, broken limbs and sutures forgotten. Aidan and Kellen laughed, momentarily returned to the boys they were before India, when dogs had owners and poverty was concealed. After the shelter, we walked back into town where, on his own, Kellen gave a man with no legs a coin he found in his pocket. My eight-year-old son bowed to the man who sat in the dirt and said, “Namaste.”

We carried the Ganges home with us in a bottle. Each year we plan to pour some water on our heads, let it run down our cheeks, our chins, our chests.

Jennifer Sinor teaches creative writing at Utah State University where she is a professor of English.

Photography by Laura Frantz