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.

They Never Stop Waiting

They never stop waiting for their mothers to come back.  They cannot be with us because they are always 3 or 7 or 10 years old, sitting on a railway bench, or standing on a street corner.  “My mother told me to wait here until she comes back.”  And so they wait, or they go looking but they will not find her, yet they never stop looking.

Two nights ago, one of our girls left in the evening, in the pouring monsoon rain, thunder and lightning, barefooted, to find her mother.  She climbed a ladder and spread the rusted barbed wire, and was gone.  By midnight Seema Gupta and I were trudging through 2 ft. of water to get to the road, and then to the local police station. We had pulled together her files, written a formal letter for the police, and printed out recent pictures of her.  By 2 am we were back home.  The other girls were devastated and frightened for her.  We didn’t know why she had gone.  We worried especially because she is particularly vulnerable.  We each scanned the day for a hint, for what we might have said that set her off…. I think we each took her leaving personally.

The Officer came to Shishur Sevay at 9 am to search the premises and see how she got out.  He told us we need more cameras outside and a higher boundary wall.  He was worried about someone coming in as much as one of the girls leaving.  He interviewed us all. And he took it all seriously.  Being in our home, he was even more puzzled that she had left.  Few people really understand the children who wait forever.  Ten minutes after he left we got a call from another police station about a girl they had picked up in the night, asking whether she was ours.  She was.  She was safe.  She had given a false name.  She was now housed at the government home, and would be produced the following day at the Child Welfare Committee and we were to appear with all her papers and a copy of the police filing.  Dispositions would be made.  I wasn’t even sure what I wanted.

We all met in the Committee room.  She stood stoically near me and then began to silently cry.  I  asked her why she had run.  She said, “My mother,” and I understood.  For ten years she has drawn the same family picture, and told the same story about being left…. She doesn’t want to leave Shishur Sevay.  She just wants to see her mother, see if she is OK, tell her she is OK.  The children whose mothers have died are freer to move on, and they are not haunted by abandonment, or, “why was I left?”.  Today in the CWC room we also saw an adorable three or four year old who had been found sitting in the train station.  She was waiting.  Her mother told her to wait there and left with a man.  Her mother didn’t come back.  If a woman remarries the new husband usually does not want her children.  It is an ugly custom, and ugly how it happens because the children never stop looking.

A couple of years ago we talked with all the girls about searching, and put bindis on railway stops they remembered. But then they became unsure of what they wanted. They were also afraid of not having the security they have here.  So we put the map away and tomorrow I will take it out again.

Today we went back to the local police station to give them the reports, to withdraw the request, and for them to meet our girl.  She was frightened, but was so warmly received she relaxed.  And then the same Officer got on the phone and made calls to people in the town she remembers.  He will also help us with other searches.   She was also clear with CWC, and today, “My mother is Dr. Michelle Harrison, but I have another mother and I want to find her.  I just want to see her.”

We will try.  Maybe we will find a familiar place.  Maybe starting at the bus station she will recognize a road…. we will walk around.  The police will help us.  We have the support of the CWC now.  I used to tell the girls that one day we will hire a big bus and travel to all the places they remember.

What are my hopes?

  1. To find a place and people who are familiar or known to them or related to them, a place they can find again.
  2.  To know they have our full support in helping them connect with their past.
  3.  To help them sort out what they want and to see it as a long term process in which they may have differing feelings at different times.
  4.  To help them move back and forth in these worlds and to honour their decisions but provide safety and protection at the same time.
  5.  To help them find some peace of mind in weaving together past and present so they can move into the future.

This is the little girl I saw waiting on a corner in 2001.  I’ve never stopped wondering.  I hope she stopped looking.  She is a part of the history of Shishur Sevay.

lost girl 2001

 

The Girls and I Carry Our Vulnerability

I really hate danger!  Believe it or not, I’m someone who can be quite happy without it.  I don’t need it to give me a charge, or purpose.  I love sitting on a beach soaking up sun, or walking my dog, as I did in the US, or working in my garden, puttering, playing with photoshop, writing haikus, and even books….. I love to daydream, and I can lose myself in stupid TV.  I love the rush of falling in love, but not the subsequent fall…. I don’t seek danger, but it seems to come with the things I choose to do.  I think it’s because I don’t really factor it in my decisions.  “‘I’d rather not think about it, and then deal with it if I have to.”

0-wires_2425_wOur neighborhood criminals have started cutting our phone lines repeatedly, each time we have them repaired or repair them ourselves.  I think one of the men is obsessed with us, like a stalker.  He stands outside at night taunting our guard that all our cameras will never catch what he does. (He is right.)   He knows that ultimately we have no protection.

That’s exactly what I have to learn to accept.  

Last night I thought about moving, but it’s unrealistic.

  • Neither Shishur Sevay nor I personally, has the funds it would take.
  • Where would we move?  Some of our most committed teachers live nearby and teach when their kids are in school.  If they have to travel, too much time will be lost.
  • Property values have gone way up, but our house at the end of the lane would not bring us enough to get another comparable place and renovate.   I’ve looked from time to time at property and at houses — nothing we can manage.  Having children with disabilities requires a lot of specific alterations.
  • If we move locally, can we be sure we won’t be followed by our criminal stalkers?
  • If we move further away, where we are not known, can we be sure we will be safe?  Many homes for children live by undeclared policies that allow local men to have access to the children.  The criminals here ultimately want access to our girls.  That has been a source of conflict since the first days.  They wanted to be able to “come and go” as they wished.  It will be the same wherever we go.

I came to understand that the girls and I carry our vulnerability.  This evening we all talked, and the girls asked why I’d been sad looking.  They hadn’t all known about the phone lines, and I talked about my worries, how it had gotten worse.  I talked about my thoughts on moving but wasn’t sure we would be safe anywhere.  We are female.  I am not anyone’s property and as orphans they are considered everyone’s property.  It was personal and it was intimate.  I acknowledged that they had each lived in far more dangerous situations.  And then one of them said that when she got married and had a baby she was bringing her baby and her husband here to live.  Another suggested we have a building with flats and they could live with their husbands in the same building.  The ones who say they never want to get married want to stay here too.  I have no idea what the future will bring but for now, this is clearly home, their home… it was a beautiful evening.

On another note, this is a drawing done by one of our girls, an illustration for my children’s story:  Dreaming Wishes For Prince Dobu.

Princess Tikka and Prince Dobu in the Land of Dreaming Wishes

Princess Tikka and Prince Dobu in the Land of Dreaming Wishes

Danger Is Back

Many months ago the police finally cleaned out the criminals.  They cleaned out drugs, prostitution, and guns.  This was all right next to our home at the end of the lane.  One of the criminals, wanted for murder, is still on the run, though he has made brief appearances.  His son, whose family is here, is apparently out on bail.  He has come around at times, but mostly stayed away.

He is back, in full force.  He has been trying to involve one of our girls, though he has a wife and child, and other children around of course.  He tried to get her to steal money to give him.  He harasses us outside out gate.  It’s been annoying, but now for the last three days he is blaring music throughout the day and long into the night.  He is playing love songs so loud that with our windows closed it still comes in very loud.

Bijoy threatened him when he learned he was going after on of our girls.  That took courage, but I think the music is also revenge.

Two nights ago I went out late and asked him and his mother to turn the music down, which they did eventually.  But it was a Pooja celebration and I thought it would stop the next day.  This is the third night.  Yesterday he almost ran down one of our Board Members who was coming.  I heard that one neighbor had complained.  This criminal is supposed to be under close police supervision but one never knows which side the police are on.  And I guess everyone is afraid of him because I can’t be the only one whose home space has been invaded by sound.

In the past, the local “CLUB” and the police were involved with cleaning them out.  For whatever reason I feel more vulnerable now, maybe because as bad as his father was in some ways, he also kept his son in check at times.  And he is targeting us.

Sound gets to me.  I’m reminded of Penn Station in NYC where they blast music at night so people can’t sleep in the station. I tell myself I may just have to learn to live with it.  I even tried telling myself I might enjoy the music if I let myself.  I have lots of ways of trying to convince myself!  They aren’t working.

I lived with death threats here for years, with riots, with police here when I could get them.  But I thought that was all in the past. In the US, you look for a house in a cul-de-sac because it’s safer for children to play.  But here it’s the opposite.  If you live at the end of the lane, you are vulnerable to everyone along the way to your house.  If they have enough power they can stop the police from coming, which they mostly were able to do.  When I was doing renovations the criminals would stop the contractors and demand money.  

Sometimes it’s not easy, what I’m doing.  But then, that’s why I’m here.  I’m the wall between the girls and precisely that harsh and dangerous world out there.

 

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