And then I embraced the woman with leprosy.
It is something I had never done - something I am ashamed to say I was afraid to do, thinking I might contract a disease. In my ignorance I was shown grace and compassion.
Leprosy is all but extinct in America, but unfortunately for the residents of KKM in Dehradun, India, it is an everyday reality. KKM (Kuru Kshetr Mandal) serves as a community, a safe place for people afflicted with leprosy who have been rejected by their own communities due to the stigma attached to the disease. But KKM provides healing and hope as the residents are able to earn a living from handweaving and spinning. As a photographer gathering stories for a local partner of KKM, called JOYN India, I was fortunate enough to visit this place, spend time with the people there, and hear their stories - stories filled with hope, joy, love, and a life filled fully.
When I arrived at KKM, I walked aimlessly and almost numbly through the workspaces. I saw giant rooms filled with fabric dyed a rainbow of different colors hanging from the ceiling. I saw row upon row of weaving stations humming in a familiar and constant rhythm. I knew most of the material made in this room would be woven into fabric which JOYN would later use to make purses, scarves, wallets, and much more. I could see all the potential in this room.
Then there were odd workspaces in wind tunnels where women were utilizing the cool breeze to do their tiresome work. Walking further, I saw baskets of raw cotton under trees, shaded from the harshness of the sun.
I eventually stumbled upon a small room with three spinning wheels run tirelessly by three women with hands that moved and worked with an elegant grace – one clearly perfected through years of practice.
I was immediately drawn to the elderly woman in the corner. Her hands evidenced leprosy in its later stages - fingers missing and joints cemented together. Somehow this did not stop her from working at pace with which my eyes struggled to keep up. It was as if her hands were their own machine, moving and operating independently from her body. It did not take long before she noticed me walking into the room, though her hands never slowed from their spinning. She looked up from her work and let a big toothy smile take over her face. I took out my pocket card full of Hindi phrases and in my best Indian accent spoke the few Hindi phrases I could pronounce.
“Hello my name is Kayla. What is your name? Your work is beautiful.”
She giggled and said a word that I can only assume was her name. “Janki.” I learned through broken English, nods, and a couple lucky guesses that the gold ring in her nose meant she was from Nepal.
She patted the seat next to her, a clear invitation my presence was not only tolerated, but desired. I was mesmerized by her craft. I nervously held out my hands, asking if I could give it a try. Sitting down with Janki, I quickly learned how difficult her job of spinning cotton was. It is a complicated process balanced carefully between precision and instinct. I failed miserably, letting too much cotton pass through the wheel one minute and then spinning it so thin that it broke the next. Janki also realized this was a craft I simply was not going to perfect in the one day we had together despite her many tender and patient attempts to teach me. She seemed to think – and I whole-heartedly agreed – that the best thing we could do with our time together was to dance. She invited me to mimic her movements. I am truly thankful dancing is a transcontinental language. The smile that took over her face while we danced is one I can still see when I close my eyes and one I will not soon forget.
It was with a heavy heart and joyful tears in my eyes that I left her station after dancing, spinning, and gathering what I could of her story. Before I left, she embraced me - an embrace that lingered long enough for me to know that I too had touched her in some way. As she pulled away she took the black beaded necklace that hung around her neck and placed it over my head. She then put her hand on my chest and said in a beautiful broken English, “American baby.” It was a name I looked forward to hearing any time I ran into her throughout the course of my time at KKM.
Unclean. Marginalized. Sick. These are the lies the western world has believed about people with leprosy. But their true identities are filled with Joy. Gratefulness. Peace. Community. Ambition. But mostly joy. This is their song. This is what they have, and this is what they give.
The people at KKM are not disabled – they have been enabled.
And then I embraced the woman with leprosy.