Blogging the #Lockdown: 24 March 2020

The #lockdown has begun. Today was really the first official day of the forced lockdown that began in Kolkata at 4 pm yesterday but now is for all of India. The girls are really fine. They are on and off computers and phones with teachers. They are rising to the occasion of organizing and operating the technology. They are having fun and studying. The teachers also seem to be enjoying the teaching, more than any of us had expected.

For me it is mixed. I’m getting work done, and relaxing. I love being home with the children. But I’m also worrying a lot —

Police are stopping, harassing, and beating men on motorcycles. Bijay received a warning trying to get here. Our day guard was also harassed. I prepared letters indicating the importance of their jobs, but I also told Bijay to stay home and I’d call if there were an emergency. Our day guard will not return for now as his landlord said he either stayed home of had to find another place, and someone in his neighborhood may have the virus. Our night guard will stay day and night but sleep during the night in the outside hallway. I need him to manage the water pump and generator when power goes off. The massis/caretakers are here, or at least the ones who could stay here.

Food delivery has been arranged but that will only work if supplies come to this area. We may not be able to get milk. We have a month’s supply of the routine medications for the children and extra antibiotics if needed.

I guess the best words for how I feel are uneasy, a bit afraid because some of our children are medically vulnerable. I’m 77 but in good health, but still I’m vulnerable. I worry about safety as it becomes apparent that we are not guarded as usual and that Bijay is not here. It has been quiet here in recent years but before that were the years of riots and death threats, and the sense of vulnerability of being alone. https://shishursevay.com/2011/11/19/occupy-shishur-sevay/

Three weeks is a long time. I think of the people living without resources, old people who cannot get out for food — the day workers who will not get paid, all the hawkers, the shops, those hundreds of thousands of people who crowd the streets of Kolkata, bring their goods from the villages — how many of them will die?

I will ask whether the cure is worse than the disease because I’m a physician, trained in numbers and illnesses, and rates, and vulnerability, and all that leads me to question what we are doing. How do we decide what illnesses deserve this level of social and economic destruction? Life is always full of trade-offs and compromises. There will be few deaths from vehicular accidents. These are the thoughts that go through my mind as we move through this crisis. This is how I’ve always been, looking at everything from different angles and perspective and wanting to share my thoughts.

“Two Old Ladies with Nothing to do All Day”

MH AssochamOvalTwo Old Ladies with nothing to do all day.”  I didn’t know what he was saying at the time, but he was trying to push me away from an office entrance at the school.  He spoke in Bengali, still difficult for me. Sometimes it’s better not to know what people are saying especially when I am making a disturbance.

I’ll skip all the details because even as I wrote them I was bored.  I was at a parent’s meeting where our six year old attends.  I was meeting with the Coordinator when a big man came into the office and tried to have his meeting and I refused to let him take over.  But after the meeting another man tried to burst into the office as our neighbor was having her meeting. I was blocking the entrance.  He tried to push me away and I refused which led to the outburst.  I was with Seema Gupta our Vice President, and retired Joint Registrar of the Calcutta High Court.  She was horrified.  He probably said even worse.  She holds back on telling me the really bad stuff.  He was aggressively saying he had to to go office and we were two old ladies with nothing to do with ourselves except stand around talking.

But here is the kicker!  I called aside one of the women officials who had seemed sympathetic and said I was upset about the men just taking over.  She said, “Maam, this is India and you have to follow the culture,”  I told her I wouldn’t.

Back home at Shishur Sevay I was telling the teachers and one said, “Yes, and I have to go through this at my child’s school next week.”

Why do I make a scene?  I have nothing to lose.  The women around me have too much to lose.  They accept it because they have no choice.  I resist openly just so other women can hear that someone thinks this is not OK, that they should not have to live as they do.  Living in the West we don’t really get it, because it’s not about incidents, but about living as a lesser person.   And for women like me, transposed from a sense of freedom and empowerment, these insults hurt.  They make me want to go back and pull out my accomplishments, to say I’m not just an old lady with nothing to do.  But he would never understand, neither of those men would.  To them I really am just an old lady.

This is hardly the first time, and certainly not the last, and I tell myself to ignore it, but in truth, I feel bad.  I feel devalued, and that was exactly their intent.

 

 

The Wounded

Oases and Mirages1

Ten years of living with the wounded children; for now haiku becomes the best way I can explain.  There is no miracle to what Shishur Sevay does, except that we do it with the commitment we will not give up and when they urge us to give up on them, we still do not.  When on rare occasions they peek out from their cocoons, we are there smiling, encouraging, but never tugging.  It is not an easy process for them or for the people trying to help them and protect them, and none of it is personal.  I  love building oases.

The Sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE

I stepped out of the old Kolkata airport into the strong musty smell that told me I was home.  Walking to the carpark, I noticed a low bluish building with a huge sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE.  I tried to imagine the goods there, luggage forgotten, tags lost; clothes and cheap jewellery left on the plane; contraband goods being smuggled but suddenly not worth being caught — the lost and unclaimed — inventory on the shelves of the blue building across the parking lot at Kolkata’s airport.  What they all had in common was the absence of traceable tags… identification — no origins, no destinations.

There is a taller building about half way between the airport and the city — a government institution that houses children, orphan children.  Many lack tags or identification.  They arrive — some via police, via Childline, via kind people who realized they were lost.  In Kolkata it is the lucky ones who end up in this building because sometimes children are “found” and then sold.

The children of Shishur Sevay came from this government building. Their lack of any known connections resulted in their being excluded from most “orphanages” since there would be no family or community to take them when they reached 18.  Additionally they had each been reviewed and rejected for adoption.  How had they gotten there?  Each had her story.  One had been found lying sick under a train seat.  She was hospitalised with pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis, and suffered a stroke.  Others have stories of being left at a train station or on a corner, but no one ever coming back for them.  They have stories of violence and escapes.

This morning I happened to be looking at an organization which is a federation of groups of parents of children/family members with disabilities.  It’s a national advocacy group. But who are the advocates for the orphans no one will take, especially if they have disabilities?   Early in the history of Shishur Sevay we had a terrible battle with the government. They had made a decision, without notifying us, that they would send five girls who were not orphans.  A major donor had just pulled out of an NGO run home, and one unit had to be closed.  A woman showed up at our gate, unannounced, and said she was here to put her child at Shishur Sevay.  I told her there was a mistake and I went to meet with the government officials.  There I found yet another mother who had been told to bring her daughter to us, and I refused.  The government official asked me what was the difference between our girls and this woman’s daughter.  I turned to the mother and said, “You may not know it but your daughter has a wonderful mother who will fight for her.”   The same government official who four months before had sat at Shishur Sevay rocking one of my brown dolls, and telling me we would get the children, now threatened to bring charges against me for discrimination against children with mothers.  She threatened to close Shishur Sevay and take the children.  I stayed polite and composed and told them they would have to kill me first. It was about a year of tension until we were able to get a renewal and I lived in terror that they would actually try to close us.

Why did I refuse?  Our motherless girls would have immediately become second class citizens to these educated girls with mothers who would advocate for them.  In India, to be an orphan is to carry shame.  “So your family threw you out?”  Orphans come with more shame, histories of unimaginable abuse, and a profound sense of grief and loss. Some live with suicidal fantasies seemingly their only relief from the pain of loss.  They lack trust.  After all if you can’t trust your own family to keep you, why should you ever trust anyone else?

Most orphans are not able to be effective advocates for orphan children.  Few are really educated so their stories are not articulated in ways that are heard.  And they live in shame.  Yes, I have a hope that our girls, if they choose, will be able to speak about the care that is needed.  They are being educated to have the skills to be effective on behalf of themselves and others.  But they are also free to walk away if they choose.  It cannot be another burden for them to bear.

Previous Older Entries

April 2020
S M T W T F S
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  
%d bloggers like this: