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

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Arun Debnath
    Sep 27, 2012 @ 19:50:09

    What a wonderful piece of creative writing – ONLY it’s not ‘created’ but raw and real! I love it, both for the two positive outcomes and the aesthetic aspects of the story-telling.

    To my shame I confess to thanking the CWC Government official as I also felt the girl’s fate would have been very uncertain indeed [warns my my local knowledge and experience] if she went back to her family. Human rights and individual freedom are the luxuries of the privileged few.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us. And the pavement-dweller-baby-rapping is neither new or news [dog biting a man is a non-story in Kolkata]

    A Foot Note :
    If I ever did write a publishable piece, creative or non-fiction, could I ask Dr Michelle Harrison for your permission to use any of the materials in your blog.

    Like

    Reply

  2. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Sep 27, 2012 @ 20:18:20

    Arun, no shame in your pleasure. I had to contain mine. It’s why I had proposed two meetings, letting the issue take its course. It’s just I couldn’t be the one to say no. I couldn’t speak against her family. The end resolution is everything I hoped for. I was very worried but in truth I didn’t have the authority to stop it. It was a great opportunity for the CWC to oppose me, which they love to do! Everyone played their parts beautifully and convincingly.

    I’d be honored to be quoted, any time. I write to be heard.
    Thank you for you wonderful words.

    Like

    Reply

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