Fourteen Minus One Equals Fifteen, Remainder One and a Half

Monday we went to the CWC, the West Bengal Child Welfare Committee where I expected them to start the approval process for one of our girls to return to her family. https://shishursevay.com/2012/09/11/shes-going-home-to-her-family/  We have 14 girls at Shishur Sevay and I and was expecting to walk out with 14-1, at least on paper until we took her to her family.  But before we even got to why we were there, the Chairwoman, remembering me from when I’d taken Aunty’s starving children there, wanted to know more about Shishur Sevay.

She wanted me to take more.  I resisted, saying I didn’t have the resources.   I told her I wanted to work with the government to make their homes better, not take more children.  She asked, “What else am I supposed to do with these children?”  Then she brought in a crying girl, and  stood her next to me.  I’d seen her in the waiting room, and had told my (home to her family) girl I thought she was there for relinquishment. The child looked to be about eight years, dark-skinned, hair up in braids tied with shiny red, green, and gold ribbon, dressed in a frayed light green velveteen tunic and black pants.  But now she was standing on one side of me and our Shishur Sevay girl in a chair on the other side and the Chairwoman was pleading with me to take her as she had been living on the pavement under plastic.

The child was looking at me teary-eyed pleading, and the woman with her who turned out not to be her mother also pleading with me…   Two sisters from Missionary of Charity were also huddled over and around me.  This was the best of  Bengali Drama!  Would I or would I not save this child who neither Missionaries of Charity nor the Government of West Bengal could care for.  I glanced around to Gibi, Maggie, and Purba, and then I put my arm around the teary-eyed girl and pulled her close.  The curtain fell, but it was only Act I.

Act II was brief.  One of the Sisters  recognized us from when Maggie and I had visited Aloo and Eisha, the babies they had taken from Aunty’s.  I saw her look over at the Chairwoman quickly.  Their eyes met and another plan was hatched.  “Maybe she could take Anu,” the Sister asked the Chairwoman, both of them also looking at me.  Then the Sister explained that Anu was a young woman who had come to Mother Teresa’s pregnant, expecting to give up her child.  But after the baby was born she insisted she wanted to keep her baby. She could not go home to her village.  She had been staying at another of Mother Teresa’s homes, working and caring for her six-month old daughter, but they could not keep her.   They didn’t have the facilities.  I was/am interested but said we had to meet the mother first.  That will happen next week when we visit the home.  The mother and baby are the  “Remainder one and a half” and still to be resolved.  This could be very good, or not, but something I hope will work out.  She could live with us, work, and take care of her baby.  So Act II brought the story along, but we still had the matter for which we had come, our girl who wanted to return to her family in the village, subject of the post just before the last one.

Act III

FINALLY… The curtain rises and the group has only slightly shifted.  The new child is gripping my hand.  To my right is our girl who wants to go back to her village.  To her right is Gibi, and in back of us Purba and Maggie.  More people are in the room now.  Nothing there is ever private, and we are the show of the day.   I offer the Chairwoman a two page report about the contacts with her family, and her desire to return to them, which I support.  I included some pictures from the visit.   The Chairwoman leaned forward, glaring at me, “She wants to do WHAT???”  She went on, saying the family would sell her, or send her to work, or marry her off.  She was adamant, and asked,  ‘You would let her do this?”  I said she was not a prisoner.  I don’t have the authority to keep her against her will.  “Well, we won’t let her go because we will not be responsible for what would happen.”

Our girl cringed.  Then the Chairwoman looked at me and asked, “Well, what to you want me to do?”  I requested she look at the second page of my report and the three things I suggested.  The first was that the CWC interview her.  The second was that we ask her family, the sister and brother in law who would keep her to come and meet with the CWC.  The third was that we would take her to the village if they agreed.   The stage was momentarily quiet and then in a rush, another CWC member entered and the Chairwoman got up to rush off to a meeting (I did get her to stop and give me her card).   We had started to agree that her family would come a week later to meet with them, but suddenly we seemed to be starting over.

This committee member had been present for previous contentious and confrontational meetings with the family.  The CWC had warned us to watch our girl closely as she was in danger of being kidnapped.  Her safety became prime in the choice of school.  The CWC woman asked for another copy of the report, and then “went ballistic”.  “I’ve met your family!  No, this is too dangerous.  I don’t have to meet them again!  Once you are 18 we can’t stop you but not now!”  Ice cold air radiated from our girl who wanted to go home to the village.  The woman went on to ask her what she was doing and what she wanted to do to achieve independence.  Our girl was testy. She had been read the riot act!  She made a commitment to finish school.  She was told she would be given a government job if she passed the Class X exam.   We agreed, though it is not realistic in the next eight months, but Shishur Sevay doesn’t have an age limit.    CWC drew up papers that she would continue to be at Shishur Sevay and that we would enroll her in the NIOS, National Institute for Open Schooling, a process we had already begun.  The CWC agreed to change her records to reflect her true name and age.  We will enroll her with her real age as soon as we get an original of the birth certificate.  It took a while to get all the papers stamped and signed.

We straggled out, our sad and angry teenager, the new child holding my hand, Maggie and Purba ahead of us going to the car, Gibi giving our phone number and card to the woman who had brought the child as she wanted to see her again…..We took a picture of her and the child together.   I was happy she knew how to reach us and where we are.   She waved as we drove off.

We decided to surprise everyone at home.  The others went ahead. Then I came along with our new girl.  She was greeted with warmth, smiles, and some jealousy — so normal.  Kalpana was the most put off and refused to look at her.  It was really cute.  All the girls were relieved that their big sister wasn’t leaving for the village.

The curtain came down but there was no applause and the audience did not want to leave.  The drama felt unfinished, so an Act IV was added.

Act IV

The curtain rises on the “office” at Shishur Sevay.  This is a room about 10’x12′ and forms part of the entrance way to the rest of the house.  It’s where we work, talk, and hang out.  It’s also where kids put stuff they don’t want to lose.  It’s clutter center and often we sit on the floor because all other surfaces are covered with stuff.

Scene 1

It’s evening  of the next day and I am sitting on the couch with our very confused and angry girl.  It’s time to talk.  She has been avoiding eye contact.  She is silent so I speak and say we should get her enrolled in classes that would get her out of school as soon as possible, as I assumed she no longer wanted to be a doctor.  Tears streamed…. “No, I still want to be a doctor.”  I tell her I’m thrilled.  I said, “You do the work and I’ll back you all the way!”   She asked, “I’m not too old?”   She hugged me, and then tears and more tears and she dozed off in my arms.

Scene 2

The following night, we are back in the office, this time with Gibi here to call the family and tell them she will not be coming.  Our girl is a bit on the icy side.  I place the call, say hello to her eldest sister, her Didi, who doesn’t sound well, and I pass the phone to Gibi who speaks in Bengali.  Didi is indeed sick, and has been in the hospital with fever.  She is home now but may need surgery.  She told Gibi that this was better, that her youngest sister stay with us, that they barely had money for food, that the neighborhood was bad.  The impulse had been there, the wish to care for her, but the reality was not so easy.  Didi was relieved.  We ended by talking about Didi coming to visit here.  She joked about staying a night and I said that would be wonderful.  I said I would pay her transport and we would meet her at the train station the first time so she could get here easily.  Didi and her sister talked, tears and smiles.  After the phone conversation I got more hugs.

Over the next half hour, more girls joined us on the floor, including our newest.  They are mostly happy she is here, one confessing she was jealous at first. They wanted to know if they had been her size when they came.    They asked her a lot about her past, and also explained to her that they were translating for me, not talking about her.  She had been living on the footpath (sidewalk) and begging.   She is full of contradictions.   She has extremely good table manners and can tell us the  knife is used for spreading butter, but her hair shows the color and texture of starvation.  Something terrible had happened but we don’t know what.  One day she will tell her sisters and then share with me.  She is calmer than they ever were.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wondering how much of their wildness came from living in the government institution where they were frequently punished and tortured.

One of our girls whose family we had found a few years ago asked me if she could show our new girl a picture of  where she had lived. In the past she had asked me to hide them all pictures. Now she wanted this new girl to know that she too came from a bad place, and not to be ashamed.

I noticed the clock, long past bedtime.  The girls got up and headed off, some holding hands, all thoughtful and peaceful  I came to my computer to write.

Curtain Falls, but life goes on.

Play Discussion:  In my previous post: https://shishursevay.com/2012/09/24/beggars-for-life/ I addressed begging by children, and  begging by government dependent on the soft hearts of foreigners who don’t like to see children hungry or crying.  I posted that blog Monday morning just before we left for CWC.  And then it played out, as it had been written.  By the end of the day I had one more mouth to feed and the government had one less.

This morning I came across a new Kolkata story: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/pavement-dweller-baby-raped-kolkata-crime-mamata-banerjee/1/222350.html  An 18 month old baby living on the pavement with her mother had been raped.

NO END

Beggars for Life

There ought to be a law that children can’t beg after ten o’clock at night!  There ought to be another law that NGO’s can’t use children to beg for their funds.  

There is a fine line between children on the street begging for food or money, and children in orphanages taken around, like kids in the US on Halloween, begging for clothes for the pujos —  That line was crossed last night after ten, when three children and their orphanage director came looking for money for “watches, shirts, jeans, and shoes.”

I know these children.  I know their director.  I’ve helped them out financially before.  I stopped when I could not get any accountability.  I have been able to get some services for the children, but financially I have said no.  I keep saying no.  I keep being asked.  A week ago I said no.    Four days ago she came for money and I said no.    But last night she got me.  She brought the kids, holding their hands out, looking very sad as she had them do their begging act.  I gave her Rs. 1000, about $20, far less than she had demanded.  I did it for the boys, who know me as someone who helped them.  I took pity on them and that overruled my anger at her.  It was already after ten and they had at least an hour’s journey home, although she did say they still had another stop to make.

These boys were beggars on the streets and in the rail stations, and now they beg for their orphanage.  This is their only achievement.  They don’t excel at sports because they have none.  They don’t excel at education because they have none.  They don’t excel at work because they have none.     This is the Indian government’s version of child protection and rehabilitation.  But it’s also a social and cultural pattern.

This is the season of extortion here.  Local “clubs” set up pandals, temporary temples to Goddess Durga.  These clubs raise money by assessing residents and asking for donations.    It’s one of the rules of life here that you do not say no, because people get killed that way.  There is never any accountability over that money either.  I’ve heard that the same goonda who demanded and got extortion money from me to open Shishur Sevay, also stole all the Puja money one year from his club.

But let’s come back to a central question, the difference between how India could take care of its orphan children and how India does take care of its orphan children.    Government homes receive funds from the State and the Central government, supposed to be 10% from the State, 90% from the Central Government, but the 90% doesn’t come until AFTER the State puts in 10%.  So, as is the case of West Bengal the State has not fulfilled its commitment, the 90% is not coming.   The people who run these homes are expected to raise the funds, hopefully from foreigners.  Foreigners have soft hearts and don’t like to see hungry or sick children.  It’s all a game because the people running these homes know from the start what to expect, know they will have to raise the money on their own.  So they become like government fund raisers, developing their networks to feed money into India to feed the Indian children India will not feed.

So you take the children who were begging on the street, all the better if they have disabilities, and put them into government homes where they can put these skills to better use, namely begging for the money that the government promises but doesn’t deliver.  When I adopted my infant daughter from Kolkata in 1984 I wondered what happened to the children who are not adopted.  The sad answer I’ve learned… not much good happens to them.

She’s Going Home To Her Family

I’ve just gotten off the phone with the eldest sister of our oldest girl.  My office door has been closed, Seema Gupta, our girl, and I on the phone.  I  walk out to talk with the staff while our girl goes to talk to the other girls.  This is not really a surprise to them, but it is to the staff.

I tell them, “She is going home to her village.”

“She is doing WHAT?”

“She is going to live with her Didi (elder sister),” I explain to some of the staff.  They know her mother had died when she was born and that painful traumatic events had taken her to the government institution and then to us.  In the past year we have learned her name, her real age, and we have visited her relatives in the village.

Teachers, massis, all are incredulous. “But what about her studies?”

“Her sister will put her in the local Girl’s High School, and after school she will help with their sewing work that brings income.”  Her sister had been looking into this since our visit as she couldn’t get her youngest sibling out of her mind.  It was as if she was waiting for our call.  I think their first choice would have been for her to stay here where she has a “better” life — the rational view.  But it seems that now, after many years, emotionally they want her to come home, and they needed for her to want to come home.

My staff protest.  “She won’t be able to live there.  She won’t have such good food, or clothes!  She won’t be able to live that way!”

“No,” I explain.  “She doesn’t care about that.  It means nothing compared to being with her family.”  It’s what I’ve been saying about all of them.  They don’t care about “stuff” or even food.  They would give it all up in a second to be with family.

I know this is true.  I know it in my being.  I know it because the girls and I have talked about it many times.  When I put myself in their places, imagine myself there, I’m not sure what I would do, but my decisions wouldn’t be based on comfort or things.  Abuse would keep me from family.   Things, and food, would never count in the equation.  And maybe this is the crux of what is wrong in the usual adoption model, that the child is “better off” in the home with more comforts.  Kids who have lost their families often don’t care as much.  Maybe some of them sense of the transience of “stuff.”

Staff  ask me, even suggest, that I must be upset — after all I’ve done.  They don’t get it though.  My mission is to care for orphans, and to figure out what they need.  I started this home with the question “what do they need?”   Then we build on ways to meet those defined needs.  My job is to lead them to where they need to be.

Like her Didi, our girl has been unsettled since the visit, her mind constantly going back to her family.  Last week we called her Didi and it happened to be when the sister’s daughter was in labor with her second child.  So our girls got on the phone with her, talked and distracted her from the pains.  In the morning we learned that a boy had been born.  In the Indian system of naming relationships, our girl is now a grandmother.  She wants to be there to take care of the baby.

This reunion could not have happened previously, as there were some very serious family problems that had to be resolved first.  She could not have gone back then.  She knew it and said it then, but things and people and circumstances sometimes change.    And we really don’t know how it will work out.  She is almost 18, almost out of government care.  We will petition the government to allow her to go to her family and we expect them to agree.   We will ask the government to note her real name and age in their records.  So this will be the next chapter in her life, and in a way another chapter  in the life of Shishur Sevay.  On paper and in her heart, she will be theirs, but she will also be ours, if she wants.  But she won’t be an “orphan” any more and that may be the most important part of this for her.    Remember, it was when Donkey Sir, the teacher was insulting her, that she thought to herself, “I’m not an orphan.  I have a family.  I don’t have to put up with this.”

To be an orphan in this culture is to live in shame.

I don’t expect it all to go smoothly.  I’ve dealt with village expectations.  But I know our girl is strong.  I believe she may be a leader.  I know that she cares about the poor, writeS about the poor, and wants to help the poor when she grows up.  I suggested she keep a journal.  She gave the “the look.”  Oh well, I tried.  Maybe one day she will want to.

I have walked this path before.

The other girls, how are they?  It’s mixed.  Some are upset.   They think about their families, want to find them if they can.  One girl was remembering her house by the water and a factory along the water, and we knew the town from which the police report came so we went on Google Earth looking for a factory and water.  One day we will go there and start with the police station, the police report.  Does she want to go back?  I don’t think so.  But she wants to know if her grandmother is alive.  They are losing their Didi, who I often thought of as Wendy and the lost boys of Peter Pan.  Wendy has a home to go back to.

There is yet another pull among the girls.  They are survivors of family betrayal.  They protect themselves and at some level trust no one.  So they worry, and ask me, “Who will take care of us if you die?”  They panic if I have a headache.  They know I had cancer.  So, each girl here is also trying to figure out her Plan B, “What if Mummy dies and no one will take care of us?”  So I go through the list of people who care about them, the plans we have in place, but they still worry.   I worry too  It’s what mothers do.

I’m walking along the railway tracks with her Didi at the end of our visit.

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