What’s In A Number?

We are surrounded by isms. I had always thought that I was immune to at least one of them – aegism. And then I was proved wrong. And I guess I fell for some other stereotypes too!

I was on an assignment facilitating development of Child Protection Policies for a host of faith based organisations across multiple states in India. This had taken me to a location straddling the borders of New Delhi and Haryana. It was an interesting group of participants encompassing various domains,  levels , backgrounds, experience and educational qualifications. The age range was 17 to more than 60 years. All this was intentional since we hoped to initiate a dialogue on child protection which could travel beyond the usual senior management and head office fixations. It did make my life difficult as I had to ensure that the entire training was in Hindi and participatory, that there were no power points and that people could move collectively as we drafted the organisational policy together.

This varied and very interesting group of participants included women from the local communities who supported self help group and livelihood related initiatives. One of them – fondly called chachi (aunty; the term is used for father’s younger brother’s wife) – was definitely in the 60-70 year range. She was the oldest participant. And she proved to be the most enthusiastic one!

Some of the younger participants (positioned at office and community locations) were quite active, particularly in the group work sessions. I had expected that. But the consistent interest of chachi blew me away. She would push other participants to focus on the task at hand in all the group work exercises. She possibly took down almost every word I spoke!

On the first day, she had been hesitant in asking me when she didn’t understand anything.  Though I encouraged her, she chose to turn to the participants sitting next to her. By days two and three, she was making her opinions abundantly clear including when she was feeling sleepy!  She definitely made our daily feedback sessions more lively and real.

I have always believed that each individual has strengths and capacities and can contribute. But during the workshop, my surprise at her participation made me realise that I had possibly started with a somewhat limited perception of who she was, what she could be interested in and what she could do.  By day four, I stood corrected. And humbled.

Of Triumphs and Tribulations

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.

When Imperfect is Perfect

I grew up in northern India among Hindi speaking people. In school, I spoke English. Bangla – my mother tongue – was used primarily within the family. Not surprisingly, my Bangla had a generous sprinkling of Hindi and English words. When corrected, I would smile and say that it reflected national integration! Of course, this did not always go down well with the extended family and acquaintances. As I grew older, I learnt to keep my mouth shut during annual visits to relatives and others living in West Bengal. Over the years as I spent more time in the state, my Bangla did improve. But I was always marked as an outsider the minute I spoke. Then I went to Little Andaman and felt perfectly at home!

I had gone on an assignment to capture stories of participation and impact for a project on tsunami affected children. The project was implemented by Prayas in Little Andaman, one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was supported by Terre des hommes Foundation. Bengalis and Tamilians made up the bulk of the population. There was another distinct group that originally came from the Bihar-Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh-Chhatisgarh belt and were known locally as the Ranchi community.The island was also home to the Nicobaris who mingled with outsiders on their own terms.I will write more about them another time!

The Bengalis had arrived either from West Bengal or Bangladesh over several decades. The islands were now their home and I even saw two Bengalis squabbling over whose island was better! But it was their language that fascinated me. Their Bangla was unique. It was colourful. It had its own rhythm. It reflected who they were and who they lived with. It was not always grammatically correct and the people I met didn’t really care about that. And I fitted right in. Continue reading

What My Pishi Taught Me

She would be the first to turn up every day. She would collect the keys from a neighbour, open all the windows, clean up the place and do many other small jobs that turned those two nondescript rooms into the local field office of an organisation working on women and microcredit. This is where I had interned.

On the first day itself, she came up to me and introduced herself. We shared a common surname. “So I am like your pishi (paternal aunt),” she said with obvious glee. She appointed herself my guardian, my ‘go-to’ person as I navigated this new universe.

She was a big help. There was so much I didn’t know. More importantly, I could not decipher the handwritings on many of the records made in the local language. She would patiently read them all aloud to me. Some of the staffs had hinted that she was mentally ill. Some of them spoke about her with warmth, some didn’t. But almost all of them agreed that she did a good job.

She would often walk back with me to the nearest bus stop. One day, she took a different route. I asked her how much time it would take to get to the stop. She answered in terms of numbers of steps taken. Another day, another route and the same answer. I realised that she measured distance in terms of number of footsteps. She did this for every destination.

Then, one day, she wanted to treat me to some local snacks. I was in a hurry that day. But we stopped in front of a small shop. I was a little suspicious of the kind of oil being used and the set up wasn’t very hygienic. I didn’t really want to eat there (Yes, this was early days!!!). She asked me what I wanted. I didn’t want to say no to her. There was a pause. Then, suddenly, she spoke to both me and shopkeeper together, “She sings. You sing, don’t you? And the oil is not good for your throat. So, you should not have all this stuff. She will not eat anything. Let’s go.” And she started walking at a brisk pace and I had to run to catch up. I made small talk, trying to guess if she was angry with me. She wasn’t and we were back to talking as we usually did.

She came with me to the bus stop on the last day of my internship as well. I thanked her for everything that she had done for me. She told me not to talk like that. Then, my bus came and I left. That month, I learnt about women’s groups, savings and microcredit and how these women interpreted empowerment. But my pishi taught me the more important lessons – about kindness and friendship.

Living with the Grey

Salma and Asif talked about their struggles with poverty, of making ends meet. Whenever one spoke, the other would listen respectfully and nod. An assignment on documenting case studies of young women survivors of trafficking had taken me to their home in rural West Bengal. We wanted to see how these women who had chosen to return to their families (and their families had wanted them to), were doing. Terre des Hommes Foundation, Lausanne (India Office), Sanlaap and a group of local community based organisation were my guides in this fragile and complicated universe.

A few years ago, Salma had got trafficked. The family had not approved of her relationship with the older and married Asif. Her brother hit her. Headstrong Salma, still a teenager then, ran away. She eventually found herself in a brothel thousands of kilometres away from home.

The system did work for her as she was eventually rescued and restored to her family. Salma stayed away from Arif after her return. But he met her and persuaded her to marry him. Arif knew what had happened. He was tormented by guilt and wanted to offer her a fresh start. Initially, both the families had mixed feelings about the marriage. The birth of their son made it easier. (Arif and his first wife did not have any children). Gradually, family and social acceptance grew. Each day brought new challenges, but Salma had found her safe space.

The experience of meeting Salma and Arif has stuck with me mainly because it made me rethink moral positions and what can/should be considered right or wrong. Arif, older and married, chose to initiate a relationship with the teenager Salma. Surely, that was wrong. Her family objected – any family would. An act of violence (brother hitting her – cannot condone that) triggered a chain of events that none of them had foreseen. Arif, to his credit, chose to stand by her when she returned. He married her when she was considered ‘tainted’ and doomed to an uncertain future. Did this redeem him?

And what about his first wife? I didn’t get to meet her. But I also learnt that the household was essentially run with the money that she earned as a domestic worker. (Arif had a childhood attack of polio which affected his right foot. He has never had a steady source of income.) How did the first wife feel when she came to know about his relationship with Salma and when he later brought her home? And when the two had a child? Didn’t Arif do wrong by her in all this? But then, I return to what got me there. A survivor building her life again with the man she trusts and what is now right for her.

What Happens to the Child After That?

The children who came to the drop in centre were being encouraged to participate in a play which would be staged on Independence Day. The staffs at the non government organisation (NGO) were demanding, cajoling, pleading and trying every trick in the book to get the children interested. Finally, a motley group of about eight-nine children agreed.

The older ones (all about 10 – 12 years) and the staffs started talking about the storyline. Ideas were strung together – a child with an alcoholic and abusive father, conditions worsening at home, child runs away for a better life, ends up a railway station, feels afraid and lost, is spotted by a didi (NGO staff) who tries to convince him to come to their drop in centre, initially the child resists but eventually agrees to go with the didi feeling hopeful again.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Well, I was a student social worker then and didn’t know that this was the de facto script for most NGO driven plays.

Anyways, parts were assigned and the acting began. Everybody was making up their lines on the spot and having a blast. A few small scuffles, over real or imaginary slights, broke out as well!

Finally, we were at the last scene. The child and the didi hold hands and walk out together. Everybody clapped. The actors got busy reviewing their performance in phrases that can’t be written here. The staffs just sat down to catch their breath. They were through the first rehearsal. Now, it would get easy.

And then, one of the smaller children (I think he was about six years old) spoke up. “What happens to the child after that?”

A Shiny Piece of Plastic

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.