Recently, I got on a van rickshaw after three years. These contraptions (a cycle or a motorcycle attached to a broad wooden plank with additional wheels) are the most common form of transport within many islands of the Sunderbans region in West Bengal (India). I was here for an assignment.
As soon as I sat, everything around me went still. Fellow passengers talking to each other, the driver calling out…all of these sights and sounds seemed to recede. I did feel a gust of wind on my face (the monsoons had just made an entry). A strange mix of loss and grief and other feelings that I could not even name washed over me.
Suddenly, I was back in 2014. The family had witnessed my uncle lose his battle with stomach cancer. Then, a friend and another colleague met with a freak road accident while working. They had been travelling on one of these van rickshaws. My friend survived. But her friend did not. I knew her too. We were all the same age, doing the same kind of work. We shared similar hopes and frustrations. It was so unexpected and unbelievable. Then there was another death in the extended family. He was in his early 80s and unwell. Nothing had ever been certain or consistent for him. The last act had followed a similar vein. I was left numb by the cumulative weight of these events. Grief – present and past – somehow connected and enveloped me.
I was jolted back to the present as the van rickshaw navigated its way past the broken, potholed parts of the roads.
Walking (and working) with grief had not been easy. But I learnt that it was possible and that we do begin to gradually cohabit with our losses. There were others around me who had been affected even more by these and other senseless tragedies of life. That was a humbling realisation. I was also struck by the resilience of the human spirit and how it can surprise us with its affinity for hope and tenacity for survival.
I think that year, difficult as it was, also helped me become more self aware. I hope it has made me more attentive to the burdens we bear, the daily skirmishes and bigger fights and their fallouts that mark our lives. In a way, walking with sorrow provided me another route for connecting with others. I think it pushed me forward a few steps in terms of understanding and practising empathy. And that has been a completely unexpected collateral benefit!
The five girls waited patiently as I finished another interview. Then, it was their turn. I explained the objective of the interaction – this was about capturing their experiences of returning to school for a case study document. Basically, these girls were part of groups (Kishori Samooh) constituted through the government’s SABLA scheme (Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls). Helping girls who had dropped out to return to formal schooling was one of the components of this scheme. The document was being prepared under a pilot project wherein Child In Need Institute (a reputed not for profit organisation) was assisting the state departments (Departments of Child Development and Women Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal, India) in rolling out the scheme across 18 blocks in 6 districts of West Bengal. Ford Foundation had provided additional support.
The girls spoke about the circumstances that had conspired against them. Absent fathers, mothers trying to run the families by doing whatever they could, or both parents struggling with low paying jobs. Two of the girls worked as domestic maids themselves while the other three stayed at home, helping with household work. All of them had been out of school for an average of about three years. They had not really expected much when they had joined the girls’ groups. Then, the Anganwadi Workers (grassroots government functionary) and CINI staffs helped them in rejoining school in classes VI-VIII. The two girls who worked as maids negotiated timings with their employers so that they could attend classes. This was a significant achievement in itself.
Getting back into the classroom was half the battle. The girls felt uncomfortable as they were among the oldest in their classes. Some of their classmates didn’t make it easy for them either. Comments and taunts sometimes hung in the air, sometimes the echoes followed them even after they left school. But then there were also the few that befriended them. The relationship with the teachers remained complicated as well, sometimes affected by their own lack of confidence in approaching them with doubts or requests for help.
Two girls mentioned another challenge. There were a couple of days when they had been unable to board any of the buses that would take them to school. As the buses slowed down at the stop, the two would get ready to get on. Each time, the conductor would spot them and say that the bus was full and they should take the next one. The girls would be left standing as the buses would fill up with other passengers and leave. The two would finally trudge back home. No school that day. Why did they think this happened? “Maybe because we as students can give less fare and the conductors don’t want that” is the response. Another girl, whose financial situation was comparatively better than these two and this was reflected in her clothing and appearance, shared that this had never happened to her.
In the midst of all these challenges and an uncertain future, the urge to prove themselves now in the classrooms was unmistakable. “I may take more time. But I can also do it,” stated one with quiet confidence as others around her nodded in agreement.