Rusi B. Gimi — Application denied

About a month ago our government official suggested that we apply for the Rusi B. Gimi Award for our NGO.  We had 48 hours to do this.  Well, I had 48 hours to do this.  I needed to write about our contribution to society and I created a piece that I knew represented the best of what we had accomplished to date. I also knew I needed something like this, whether for an award or not.

Our instructions were that it be on one page, of half foolscap size.  (I was clueless.)  Wikepedia showed that this was a size related to a watermark that went back 400 years to European paper production.  I could not find foolscap anywhere.  Finally I found paper just half an inch wider than required, so I thought I’d solved the problem, but IT WOULD NOT FIT IN MY PRINTER.

Here is a picture of me cutting the edge of the paper so it would go in my printer.  Img_4455

Remember, one of my goals here is to learn what it takes to open an orphanage in Kolkata.

I learned a few days later that our application didn’t make it through the department of Social Welfare and was rejected by the same person who has held up our license before.  It’s to be expected.  But, the report is one I’m proud of.  I have not figured out blog mechanics.  One day one of our visitors will help me,  But for now you can see it on the Asha for education website that lists Shishur Sevay as a project of Central NJ ASHA for Education:  I’m sure there is a way to put this, and the general ASHA project listing in the margin.  My technical skills still run closer to cutting paper margins on the floor with a straight edge razor.


Chicken Pox

I don’t even know where to start; I have been up for two four nights now.  Crises come in bunches.  Thursday late morning we noticed tiny blisters on one of the girls.  This is the time of year here;  it’s going around the neighborhood.  We don’t have a sick room, just not enough room, and there’s no reason to try to prevent the others from getting it.  But the little ones, the handicapped children need to be protected.  For them it’s potentially dangerous.  We decided to move the classroom downstairs and move the little ones to the classroom where they could be totally isolated.  I hired a night nurse and a day nurse, because now I’d have children living on two floors, and because I needed people with some understanding of medical care-taking and isolation.  My plan was to have one nurse and one massi (caretaker) so one could leave the room without their being alone.  I really worry about the little ones… their wiring and their lungs are at risk.  And of course there are always voices in my head asking, "Am I doing all I can to protect them?"  I hold myself to a level of care as I know it in the US. That puts a great strain on me and those around me, but I can’t bring myself to say, "Nothing I can do, it’s Kolkata."

But trouble is in bunches, and now three days later, we have had a complete staff turnover. I’ve been sleeping on a mat at the bottom of the stairs so i can be close to the big girls and available to the nurse upstairs.  It’s hardest on the little ones who are used to being downstairs, and used to my sleeping on the mat with them.  The hardest part is that the big girls can’t help with the babies, although they are pitching in everywhere they can.  They are cooking and cleaning, and so far there is only one with the pox.

One of the girls has had a terrible stomach ache which had me worried about appendicitis, but that has come and gone, and right now she is outside playing ball.  Another girl, one I worry about a lot, screamed in her sleep this morning and stayed in a trembling terrified state for a long time after she was up.  I couldn’t figure out if she was having a seizure or hallucinating — policemen were beating her and beating her…. she kept seeing them all around her….  I called Seema to come quickly as it was an emergency.  Our nurse doesn’t know any English.  The girls were helping in trying to find out about the terror.  I needed someone here with me in case I was headed for the hospital.  I slept in my sari last night, ready to go wherever I had to…. Lots of floating tension.

Friday night I discovered that early that morning our security guard had locked the gate, taken the keys, and gone to have tea!  This was akin to announcing to the neighborhood that we had no security, and that our security company was worthless.  Security has been a major problem since the beginning.  During the renovation, while I was still in the US, the builder and his local buddies "moved in" and used this place as a club house.  I was unable to get them out until I actually had children here.  They claimed I had legally abandoned the building. Then they wanted me to hire them as security, which I refused.  Our very first security company turned out to be a fake company.  Now we are calling around to others.  Seema is doing this as my American accent makes my English useless even to the few English speaking people around.  One company has women guards, but it is more than double what we pay now.  it’s a morass.

The application for license renewal is due before the end of this month.  I’ve started working on the papers I need to submit.  The application calls for the audit, which is an impossibility since it takes about six weeks after the fiscal year ends, which is 31st March.  Instead I’ve been told to submit the un-audited accounts, up to day of filing application.  I started bringing everything up to date last week, but the papers stayed strewn on the couch since the chicken pox arrived.  Today the accountant arrived, as a total surprise as he has been MIA for about two months, which is to say he makes appointments and then doesn’t show.  This is a common practice here, that I’m still not used to.  He also dragged out the time.  So I offered him twice his price if he would finish the whole thing today.  He thought for a while… I told him I didn’t want to think about it anymore, that I’d hire him or just do it myself.  He did it, and much more quickly than he thought.  Part of what slowed me is that I computerized the financial system.  I got ripped off by the first company, who installed the software, as they charged me full price but gave me an "educational" version that has to be re-authenticated every three months or it doesn’t work.  But, the accounts are up to date and now I know how much money i have to raise in the next five days!  I’m under a lot of pressure.  I can’t use international funds — not even my own, until I get clearance from Delhi, and I couldn’t apply because our license was held up.

These are the obstacles, the hard parts.  But the hardest right now is the separation of the "normal" and handicapped children.  It so alters how it feels.  The downstairs feels empty.  The classroom, where the handicapped are, feels like a room for handicapped, like a separate institution.  Somehow in the big environment the girls seemed more normal, as their interactions were so much a part of the moment to moment life here.  Upstairs they don’t really "have a life" even though their teacher comes.  They aren’t privy to all the talking, playing, phone calls, workmen, cleaning, kids playing, learning, fighting….  I really hate the room, the feeling of isolation for them.  I think about some children who lived like this in a single room waiting for two years to be adopted.  the big girls miss the little ones.  they came up one by one to look in….

Water crisis, which isn’t a crisis, just another scam to get money from me —  There is a general shortage of water in this area.  We use a lot.  About six months ago we set up a system to get water.  The local construction/ club leaders had suggested it.  Then we were fine.  About a month ago, some fake government officials (we didn’t know that then) came with the plumber who had put in the system, and threatened to close it down, and shut off water, and send us to jail.  So I paid the Rs. 4000 plus more under the table to have the pipe made larger, which they did, only it made no difference because the pipe was in the wrong place (naughty pipes here) and anyway there is a general shortage.  I figured all this out Sunday as I was having the kitchen faucet fixed and asked about the water supply.  And then all the pieces fell together — including that I had to give the money to a plumber I’d thrown out of here previously for putting water valves backwards so the water stopped instead of coming out.  I had a confrontation with some of the club men about it Sunday also — said no one was getting one more rupee from me, and if they slit my throat they still wouldn’t get any money so not to bother.  (Yes, I am tense!)  You see, in order to carry this off, all of them had to know, because they pretended their houses were inspected and they weren’t.  It was all lies.  No one else paid one rupee for water work.

I remain exhausted.  Everyone tells me to relax or I’ll get upset.  So I try to remind them that when things are good I’m very relaxed.  I don’t know how to be relaxed with chicken pox, vulnerable kids, staff changes, scams, needing to raise money this week, and most of all how hard it is for the little ones.  Rani misses her didis; she bangs her head.  Bornali cries when she sees the others.  Ganga cried when she heard prayer time downstairs, so I grabbed two gods and we had parthana upstairs.  Sonali is doing well.  In fact she is making great strides in eating solid foods.  So, as long as she is held, she doesn’t cry. 

The little ones haven’t gone potty in two days — too much change.  This morning we put them in their potty chairs and i sang to them, and we sat around talking to them… It was fun but nothing happened.  Now I sit here writing, which makes it easier for me… I feel the isolation too, of spending time in that room.

Last night I called another doctor, Rani’s doctor at the hospital and talked to her about chicken pox.  She thought it worthwhile to immunize the handicapped children even though they might still get it.  I liked that idea because it will allow us to take them out of isolation in a day.  So this morning we took all four to the hospital to get their shots.  The girls loved being out of the room, among people, riding in the car… back to "having a life!"  Then this afternoon I went to the bank to deposit checks and get an updated statement.  I came back exhausted, ready to cry because my body was so tired… I napped and then the accountant came.  This is the current pace.  Sometimes I just want to cry with exhaustion.

Six days have passed since I started this post.  The other girls didn’t get sick.  Today we will move the handicapped children back downstairs.  They will be together.  Rani will sing for us again.  She sings and sings and sometimes it’s irritating… but now I miss it, and I feel her silence.  It’s much too quiet downstairs. 

This morning in google chat my younger daughter asked me how I manage all this.  I told her that when it gets bad I sit down with the kids, and I act silly, and we sing, and make faces, and I see their joy in being, and I’m renewed.  Yes, it’s hard sometimes, but it is also wonderful.  We are an oasis in a difficult world and there is no where else I would want to be.

I do forget to write these things.  I have been doing parthana (the prayers) with the kids upstairs.  Yesterday Rani was on my lap waving her hands.  When we were done she eyed the electrical wires from the TV, and I said "NO!" and she looked away.  Then she looked again and I repeated myself.  So then she got mad and started spinning, so I started spinning with her and she was shocked, but grinned, and then she hit the floor with her hands and started drumming and I drummed with her.  Sometimes I followed her; sometimes she followed me.  Bornali squealed with laughter and kicked and kicked her feet.  Ganga just grinned.  Staff was laughing and laughing and Rani noticed and played for the audience.  We connected.  Rani connected.  I know how damaged she is, but sometimes I look at her and  I think she will just "snap out of it" and come and join us fully.

There is no place else I want to be.

Now we are twelve

Our non-orphan has gone with her mother.  She left smiling, and not looking back.  We had packed her school bag but she only took clothes.  The teachers and a few of the girls cried.  She didn’t.  This is the difference — as she never really wanted to be here;  she always wanted to be with her mother.  The decision came because her mother did not want to stay around long enough to arrange a boarding school.  She had places to go, people to see, and she said she would take her daughter and leave her with her sister.  She would have just walked out the gate, but we said we would drive them to her sister’s.  We wanted to know where they were going.  Whatever non-attachment the girl had, she was our responsibility.  I wanted to know for ourselves, for the other girls, for anyone who asked, where she had gone.

So after lunch, Bijoy, Gibi, Das Uncle (a neighbor and Board member) the child, her mother, and I piled into the car, with me taking pictures of course.  We knew the general area where we were going, as it was not far from where Bubbi, my cow, lives with Bijoy’s wife’s family.  After two hours we passed where Bubbi lives.  Then about fifteen minutes later we turned left off Diamond Harbor Road and I said to Bijoy, "Isn’t this the road with the cows?" meaning where we had gone to look at ‘boy cows" for Bubbi.  But he didn’t recognize it.  The mother had told us this was a very dangerous area, where we could be robbed at any moment.  She clutched my arm as we walked, as she said the car could go no further.  Bijoy stayed with the car.  We walked on.  Gibi worried, wondering where this woman was taking us.  I was relaxed as I’ve been in so many village areas like this — just peaceful people living their lives.

Suddenly though, Gibi stopped and said, "Look, look, the doctor’s house!!!!"  Yes, the house of the cow doctor was in front of us, and his wife was staring at us…. As we were about to pass, I stopped and called inside — as I saw the cows too,  The doctor came out smiling, thrilled to see us again and we told him where we were going, that this was one of our former children — our non-orphan.  So then he joined us, and we promised his wife we would stop on the way back, which we did.  I am often teased that I seem to know everyone, or someone everywhere.  This was an incredible coincidence, as nothing in how this girl came to us would suggest we would be back in this village.

We were well received in the sister’s home, and our girl took off, like a deer set free.  This is all she ever wanted.  When she came they said she was six or seven.  Probably she is 13-14 years old.  We rescued her when she needed rescuing.  It’s a complicated story.  Will she be OK?  Probably not, but there is not much to do about it.  We had little impact on her life.  I’m a realist.  I’ve taken care of girls like this.  I have a 100% failure rate.  When I thought this months ago, others thought i was just being cold-hearted.  It’s a learning process for each of us who tries, and I respect each person who wants to try.  Each teacher had come to me, charmed by this child’s manner, and each tried.  Sometimes there is nothing we can do.

The other girls were sad that she was so happy to leave, but they were also relieved.  Then they asked if we could try to get more of their friends from the government institution.  I said, soon… soon we will try.  I find myself with renewed energy. 

One down, more to go…

Gibi and I visited a school that takes in street children, teaches them, houses them — a school noted for the quality of its education, and its mixing of paying and non-paying children.  The "but" is that our girl would not be able to visit us, nor us visit her — we would have to cut ties.  The Catholic nun who runs the school could not understand why the mother wouldn’t give up parental rights so she could stay with us.  She also was sure the mother was scamming me, that she wanted something else, like money.  Maybe so, maybe not — she hasn’t asked for money, and if I were her I wouldn’t give up parental rights.  That’s how children end up being adopted out of the country… parents sign them into a school, and poof, they are gone. 

This girl is ours in the sense that we accepted responsibility and she is part of our home, our family, even though she doesn’t quite fit in.  That seems to me all the more reason for her to stay in the lives of our other girls, and for them to stay in hers.  Kids attach, in spite of themselves, and it would not be good for anyone for her to disappear from our lives.

I have a call in to another place, and discovered that one of my teachers here knows the head well, as I do too.  She boasted that he calls her "Auntie" and I said he calls me "Mother." So this week, Mother and Auntie will talk to him about taking our girl.  As of six months ago he wasn’t taking older girls, but apparently that is changing.  And three years ago when he was starting he was also insisting on disconnection with families.  I knew he had started to relax that.  It seems to be the impulse, one I understand well, but it’s not good for the children. 

One of the reasons people do this in taking poor children, or street children, or children of sex workers, is that parents sometimes come back to take children out of the home to put them to work.  Or, they demand money for allowing the children to stay.  I know places that have stopped taking children because of this, that it is too painful to see a child blossom, learn, have a future, and then be pulled out to be a servant, or child bride, or prostitute.  One girl I "sponsored" for several years after I first started educating children here is now working on one of the bridges, lined up with the others…waiting….

Our first summer in India, in 2000, my Calcutta born daughter wrote:

Pulsating pink, luscious lime, tempestuous tangerine

The head-turning spectrum of saris

Mysterious figures

Sitting on the railing like


Endless rivers of raven hair

Flowing in braids.

Radiant red lips and bold black eyeliner

Stunning skin of silky sand, mahogany and sienna

Emphasize the vivid hues of cloth.

Waiting for a customer

To ravage the reddest rose

The thorn pricks the skin

Like the shock of beauty lost.

Waiting for a man who will turn

Fairness into business.

This is the ugliness of these women’s lives.

This is the repulsiveness of reality.


                                     Cici Harrison

I have the poem because it was among the papers I brought here when I came.  The poem was published in her high school literary magazine.  The girl who now waits on that bridge spent a lot of time with us.

Cici jokes that she and I have traded lives.  I live in Kolkata; she in NY.  Two days ago the juxtaposition was so clear.  She phoned me as she was walking home at night from band practice.  She plays drums with two bands now.  She was on the cold streets of NY, rain falling, walking from the subway to her apartment.  I was also walking, but I was carrying a bag of vegetables I’d bought from a cart.  So here I was, walking in the baking sun, along a dusty broken road, saying hello as people looked… nodding… smiling… mother daughter, worlds apart and tied together.  Well, life is strange, for sure.

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March 2008
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