Keeping Girls Safe in Kolkata

Last night the girls and I sat and talked…. I felt a familiar intimacy,  as mother and her daughters.   Each evening, one of our staff takes Rani for a walk, with one of our older girls, as Rani really needs someone on each side.  On this evening, two local men followed them from our gate, met up with more young men and made the staff person very uncomfortable, and afraid one of them would grab our girl.  Meanwhile, our girl, characteristic of the cognitively impaired, lacking judgement, smiled at them broadly.    Our little group left the park and came right home with the young men following them to our gate.   “Nothing happened,” except fear, and fear is a happening.    Our talk last night was because these walks will end now.

“Mummy, I’m not worried because if someone tries to grab me, other people around will help.”  I wish I believed this.  “No, it’s not true.  Maybe they would and maybe not.”  So then I told them about Guwahati, where a woman was gangraped recently while reporters filmed and crowds watched as she cried for help.  I also told them more about our community.  When I go out on the road, I’m often referred to as, “The Mother Teresa of Our Area.”  But when we have been under attack from the goondas, when they told the girls to get me inside of they would kill me (I didn’t go) those people who likened me to Mother Teresa did not come to help.   Instead they formed a large crowd out on the road where they got reports, updates, and finally the police came…. but none of those people came to help.  They would not challenge the criminals at our gate.

The girls listened, and then one of them said poignantly, “When we were little you didn’t tell us these things, but now we are big and so you have to tell us.”  She got it right.  I talked about “bad things on the street” and each one nodded that she knew about bad things   They each had lived bad things on the street.  They did not argue.

Purba, Maggie and I had been talking recently about the lack of free movement in the girls’ lives.  They don’t go to the park because it is not safe.  They will be stared at and heckled.  It’s not just them.  Girls are not outside in the park, or rather only little girls are outside.  When I bought the house I imagined the girls playing outside our gate, running in the lane in front of us, still a few bends from the road.  But men carrying small black pouches come and go, doing the business of the area.  And the goondas of last evening stand around and stare.

As I write I hear the criticisms from many that I am too overprotective.  But I don’t know what “over” means.  I protect them because they are in danger.  They are prey.  As girls they are prey and as orphans they are prey.  I was a teenager when I was raped in New York City.  So it’s true that I will do everything in my power to protect these girls, as I did with my first two daughters in the US.  My daughters here do not yearn for freedom.  They had a lot of it and they are still recovering, still happy in the safety of Shishur Sevay.  What I would find stifling, they find comforting.

I yearn for open spaces where they can run and play.  We once went on a picnic where by afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of a riot.  We only got out alive because of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) who came to rescue us with rifles and shields and led us to safety.  I’m not ready to write more, but this is a dangerous place for girls, a very dangerous place.  It’s why I’m here,  a one person RAF trying to protect 14 orphan girls.

Square Centimeters or Centimeters Squared

The same subjects keep coming up!  The girls are totally confused about the concepts of square centimeters and centimeters squared, and still mildly confused about length and area.  We cut 1 cm squares and made shapes.  This came up because I asked them to do a drawing 2 square centimeters.  Failing that we went back to 1 square centimeter.  You see, when I asked for 2 square cm, I got a square 2×2, which was really 4 sq. cm.  They were working on a principal or pattern of a square of 2 cm sides so you square  the 2, namely 2 squared, but that’s 4 square cm, and not two.  We made progress, I hope.  I like the creative design which was right as another way to get six square centimeters.  We also talked about tiles on the floor, how wide the table was, and then if we wanted to put all the books in a box we had to give it height, add another dimension.

the girls cut up pieces of graph paper in 1 cm squares and used them to create areas of different sizes and shapes/

Putting together square centimeters

We talked (I talk and hopefully they nod and when I asked what they thought they answered in centimeters).  I don’t know what stops them.  They are smart kids and I said I wouldn’t be spending these hours with them if I didn’t think they were able to get it.  They freeze, the deer in the headlights I wrote about last week.  Today the image was of children crouched in a burning house, afraid to come through the open door.  They are so afraid of getting it wrong they can’t think straight.  It’s not about language because they had the same problems when they were learning in Bengali.  But then last year when they were still learning in Bengali their math teacher was confused about length and area.

WAIT!!!!  I just Googled the title of this post, and guess what, it’s not just my girls who are confused!!!!   This is from a 2001 question in a math forum.

My wife is a teacher and we have had a disagreement over the 
definition of meters squared. She says that a rectangle 3 meters by 4 
meters equals 12 meters squared. I say it is 12 "square meters," and 
that 12 meters squared would be a square measuring 12 meters on each 
side (or a total of 144 square meters). Who is right? This is 
important because she doesn't want to incorrectly advise her students.

 The answers are confusing and there seem to have been some changes in the 50 years since I studied math.  There is some difference between the symbols used for squaring and the words.  HMMMMM as Ganga would say.  I'm really glad I decided to write about how confused the girls are, since I'm now confused.   But, the concept, the squares, the area, how you build area and then cubic space -- those are the fundamentals we need to keep working, and meanwhile I'll have to find some help on the symbols.  As I pointed out to the girls, if we are going to get tiles for the dining room floor it really matters whether we have  64 sq feet in our 8x8 room or 64x64 sq feet, which is 4096  sq. ft, and a bit out of our budget.  

Maggie Redden, Shishur Sevay Intern — Music and Dance, Heart and Soul

Maggie Redden is a gifted writer, athlete, courageous explorer of life and herself.  She joined us in January for a year, partly wanting to connect with her Indian heritage.  She chose Shishur Sevay over the Peace Corps!   It is hard to imagine life here without her, as she will be going back in December.   She will be going home for two weeks at the end of August and I know it is hard for her to contemplate coming back even for a few months.  But she will come back, in part because of her commitment, and even more because she can’t get the pictures of our girls, now her little sisters, out of her mind.

Ganga in Dance for Life with Sreya and Priya Mukherjee

Maggie writes a blog that is always enlightening, but here is a special post I wanted to share.  I’d planned on writing something about the Dance For Life program, but Maggie has said it more beautifully than I could.  As for Maggie’s general experience of Kolkata, I know.  I know.  I know.  I’m here because if I were not here, our girls would have to face this place alone.   Many “reasons” brought me to Kolkata, one of which was to prove to my Indian born daughter that Kolkata was not as bad as she thought, or rather as she had experienced.  One day I told her she was right.  I know.  I know. I know.

Read Maggie’s post:

August 2012
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