It was just a shiny, colourful piece of plastic. A small bit that had or was broken off from something else. I couldn’t even tell what that was! But for six year old Manu (not his real name), it was a prized possession. He held it out to me and waited expectantly for my reaction. I could tell he wanted me to be impressed. So, I acted impressed.
That shiny piece of plastic, a ball, two pairs of shorts and pants, a torn school bag, two-three notebooks and a few pencils of varying length – that was the sum total of Manu’s material possessions in the world. He took out these items, one by one, from his small locker and showed them to me. Months of attempted ‘rapport building’ had finally borne fruit. Manu had let me into his world.
He had been assigned to me as part of my case work assignment. I had never considered myself to be particularly good with kids. And here was one categorised as ‘sometimes moody’, ‘often violent’ and ‘needing medication’! I honestly had no idea what to do with him. I played with all the children at the shelter. I tried to talk to him, but was often rebuffed. So, I just hung out with the others. Talking, listening and mediating in fights when asked to.
Manu’s mother had handed her two children to the home herself (Manu had a younger 3 year old sister). She would wander from one railway station to another, sweeping and doing anything else that got her money. She was considered mentally unstable, shared the shelter staffs. There had been many occasions when she had left the children alone at the station and disappeared for days. Then, others started telling her that she could not take care of her children like this. Even now, she would appear suddenly after weeks or months to see the children.
There were other children in the shelter whose parents remained untraced or never bothered to come. Meanwhile, Manu struggled with life at the home and at school and with the uncertain presence of a mother that his younger sister had already forgotten.
After completing that year of fieldwork, I stopped going to the shelter. I was assigned another organisation for fieldwork and I became a part of another universe. But during that second year and even now, I sometimes find myself thinking about Manu and that shiny piece of plastic.