Heart pain, i.

“Heart pain, i-iv.” is a series about the time I spent with Pavi, a 15-year-old young man whose smallness of stature is very much overwhelmed by his tallness of heart and wideness of love. 

As an introduction, Tamil children describe physical discomfort with phrases like “head pain,” “stomach pain,” or “leg pain.” But when they say “heart pain,” they mean something else. It isn’t physical.

It describes … well, heart pain.

I discovered this photo on my Nikon after letting a small child borrow it.

I first spent time with Pavithran (pronounced PAHV-ee-trahn) one afternoon when I saw him placing a chair near the threshold of the open chapel. I asked him what he was doing and he said “Sitting. Like, simplicity. You want to come?” I said yes, so he pulled up another red chair and we simply sat. He studied my face and we talked of ambitions.

For the rest of our time at the hostel (the ministry and housing portion of Carmel Matric. School, where we stayed), Pavi was never far off. He would often sit beside me when we clustered our red chairs to talk and sit together, or if all the red chairs were taken, he stood behind mine.

He was the one I depended on to translate what was being said in Tamil whenever the kids glanced my direction and giggled at each other. (“English means?”) Except when he started giggling, too, and shook his head.

One evening when we were together, Pavi opened his wallet, drew out three small ID photos, and showed them to me.

“My mom, first brother, second brother,” he said. I told him they were wonderful pictures and asked if he prefers living at the hostel or being at home with his family.

“Home,” he said and paused, looking down at the photo of his mother. “Everyone likes mothers,” he commented. “Between mothers, fathers, favorite is always mothers. Everyone says mother is favorite.”

“Is your mother your favorite?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Well, do you like your father, too?”

A moment passed. “My father is dead.”

I could see an unfaltering weight bear down on his slight, wiry shoulders.

“He died in an accident at Pongal.” Only two days earlier, we had celebrated this year’s Pongal (the Indian harvest holiday) at the hostel.

“So at Pongal,” I began slowly, choosing words familiar to Tamil ears, “is it like feeling heart pain and celebrating at the same time?” He nodded. “It’s strange and hard, isn’t it? I also know how it is with heart pain on the inside and celebrating on the outside.” 

But not like he does. My soul heaved at a sudden recollection.

“My sister is also dead.”

Nothing kicks you in the gut like when your well of understanding drawn from common experience runs dry on someone that young. All you can give is genuine, yet vastly inadequate, mercy.

“She died of kidney failure at Christmas.”

I have no memory of what I said or did in reply.

“I miss them all.” He buried his head in his hands.

His voice hasn’t even fully changed.

That unmistakable, unspoken “why” blisters the same in every language, but in simple, broken English, it bled.

Sometimes broken says it best.


8 thoughts on “Heart pain, i.

  1. Noelle, this is beautiful. As are all of your posts about India. Everything that you are speaking about reminds me of my trip to Trinidad, and I honestly cried reading some of these. You have such a gift with words.

  2. Noelle, I don’t know what to say. These posts are beautiful. The pictures communicate so much, just on their own… and the words tug at my heart. This kind of makes me want to go to India. :-) I can’t wait to talk with you about your experiences in person.


  3. “Nothing kicks you in the gut like when your well of understanding drawn from common experience runs dry on someone that young.

    All you can give is genuine, yet vastly inadequate, mercy.”

    I’ve been reading the book of Job recently. Heart pain is… an appropriate description. For me, it drives home just how little suffering (by most of the world’s standards) I’ve experienced in my life so far. Genuine, yet vastly inadequate mercy seems to be all I can give… I only hope I don’t become the kind of comforter Job’s friends were.

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