Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Laughter Memoirs - Dehradun 2

Winter afternoons were precious. They would surrender to darkness sometimes as soon as 4.30, the impending night a guest that had come too early while we were still uncombed and disheveled. The silken sunlit theatre of these afternoons began with lunch, which everyone would pile on their plates carry outside to the nearest sunny spot.

It was the season of greens and salads and local citric fruits – like the tangy chakotra – and varieties of hilly daals – like tore – that we waited for from autumn onwards. The mooli salad with soft new leaves would make an entry on a huge plate, sprinkled with lemon juice that made it glisten in the sun, and red chilly powder that lent it a festive air; in the corner languished an accidental lemon pip with a secret sorrow. Then came the steaming daal, challenging the sun with its yellow heat, making rivulets amid mounds of white rice. Then the accompanying dish, which proceeded to raise the quilt-and-comforter feel of familiar food to the level of high art: Rich green paalak, cooked the Garhwali way, thickened with rice paste. Crisply fried mustard leaves laced with layers of besan. Golden kadhi, sour to just the right degree. “Aaaah, kafli today…”, an uncle would sigh – as one whose tantrum-prone lover had turned up after much beseeching – though kafli was made every Wednesday like clockwork.

Conversations over lunch often took an unexpected but fascinating turn. This usually stemmed from the fact that Dadaji was hard of hearing but reluctant to admit it, Chacha was hard of hearing but refused to do anything about it, Baba was absent minded but didn’t know it, and everybody’s mouth was full.

“I think Api can go stay at Mrs Sharma’s while studying in Delhi”, Dadaji would propose.

A chewy silence would prevail while everyone who had been able to hear him clearly commiserated with the unsuspecting family of Dadaji’s old friend, Dr Sharma, and tried to figure how to get them out of hosting my young cousin for 2 years. Dadaji got along perfectly with Dr Sharma who had short-term memory loss, and when she said “How is the rice Saklani sa’ab” and he replied “Tuesday”, neither of them felt they had lost anything.

“Dr Sharma’s will be convenient too; the metro line between her house and Connaught Place is starting in a year, I read in the paper today”, he’d bolster his argument.

“The Delhi Metro is excellent”, Chacha would opine, never having been on it and blithely unaware that his son’s future was being discussed.

“No, it’s starting in a year”, Dadaji would repeat his information.

“It started a looong time back, Pitaji,” Chacha would say with gentle pity, referring to the entire Delhi Metro project and looking at his father, the best-informed member of the family, with a patronizing smile. “Ask Juhi”, he would rally support as the family always did while arguing with the patriarch.

“Juhi? Api can’t stay with Juhi”, Dadaji would try to keep up gamely, “her house is too small”.

“No , no, it’s not small at all”, my father would unexpectedly enter the conversation, utterly oblivious of the context, bristling at the idea that anything regarding his daughter was being judged not good enough. “She deliberately does not want a big house, she has very different ideas.”

“Why would Api stay with Juhi?” Chacha would ask confused.

“Api? Stay with Juhi?”, my father would ask in alarm.

And both would look for explanation to their father. “Right, right…” Dadaji would strain to understand his sons, and fail, as he had much of his life.

Api meanwhile would be getting a military dressing down by our aunt’s husband, “Young man, you have nothing to say for yourself! It is your future they are talking about! Don’t slouch! When I was your age I was taking the responsibility for much of my family and paid for my own studies. I remember, when I went to Greece in 1952…”

Lunch over, the whole menagerie would disperse to find, quite literally, their places in the sun. Those whose rooms got sunlight went straight to warmed quilts. Those, whose rooms didn’t, would tarry, linger and delay, with perhaps a cup of coffee, in a chair that had already been dragged around the lawns and verandahs in determined pursuit of sunny spots for half the day.

In the sun it became increasingly hard to move. Through half-closed eye lashes we could see the bare movement of the shadow of the bottlebrush tree. A butterfly would flit past underlining the inertia of everything else. The warmth would become hypnotic. Very soon mumbled conversations about how sleepy rice could make you feel would die down.

Then the whole tableaux would find its fulfillment in a gentle open-mouthed nap. A benign sun would fill that valley of ours, a little bowl amid the gently pretty Shivalik hills, with its slanting rays. With Dadaji’s oiled skin shining a healthy red, Baba’s silver hair catching the light, an orange cat curled up near Chacha’s green socks, ma’s banana-yellow shawl, the family looked more than anything like a Dutch still-life oil painting of a fruit bowl. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Travels: Anu – Work in Progress; Varanasi Junction

A railway station in India is not a place where people choose to spend time. It seems to be an essentially transitory space with a relentless march of anxious feet, tense bodies, harassed minds through the day, a space from where any sense of harmony or peace has exited forever. Beneath the veneer of a portal, however, lies a whole self-sustaining universe. Peopled by those who never quite leave.

The porters, vendors, rag pickers, informal hawkers, beggars, girls who are sex workers by night, boys who ran away from possibly abusive homes, the addicts, the destitute, and those who turn the threat of destitution into the possibility of survival every day, every same-old new day.

It’s an alien insecure world for me – and it doesn’t trust me either – but I make my way confidently through its unfamiliar terrain because I feel safe following this little heroine, all of 5 feet high, weighing some 45 kgs. For the last 2 years, 22-year-old Anu has made this her workplace and more, her vocation.

I see it all through Anu’s eyes. The platform is not really a platform but a ‘contact point’ for runaway, destitute or trafficked kids. The vendor is not a purveyor of goods but a possible ‘stake-holder’. The little flat a couple of minutes down from the station is ‘the shelter’. And all of this is a backdrop to the essential business of rescuing exploited children; physically and psychologically helping the runaways to return home; counselling floundering adolescents; teaching young sex workers about hygiene, disease, AIDS and contraception; offering some shelter – a bed, a bath, some food – to all. Eventually, holding out hope and practical options of schooling and perhaps more worthwhile employment.

Stay here and fight

Across a seemingly infinite wasteland of “girls can’t”, girls shouldn’t”, “girls must not”, Anu walks towards us with bleeding feet, grimly determined. She carries her own bandages and is her own doctor. I have rarely seen anyone so courageous and strong-willed. Painstakingly she has recreated herself – from a girl who was refused a bicycle to a working woman who bought one with her first salary; from a child who couldn’t continue studies after Class XII to a student-of-life who is paying for her own graduation; from a person who was not schooled in English (and is still quite unconfident about it) to a social activist who rattles off “liaisoning”, “stake holders” and “informal education classes” with ease. Compliment her on any of this and she credits the people who helped her and discusses how much more she has to achieve. Anu: the work-in-progress.

Everyday she comes to the railway station, having pedalled on the bicycle they said she couldn’t have, carrying a mobile phone they don’t want her to possess, doing a job they don’t want her to do so badly that her family has hardly spoken to her for quite some time.

The ‘they’ in Anu’s life is unfortunately her immediate family. A lot of her growing up memories as a child have to do with having her opinions not valued, her desires thwarted and her independent-mindedness questioned. That bicycle she couldn’t have – another threat of a girl becoming mobile, independent and potentially out-of-hand – still rankles. Good at her studies, Anu wanted to study in a school affiliated to the nationally well-respected CBSE board but was made to study in a state-affiliated school. She was not able to take up the science stream because the school that offered this was “too far”. When she chose the college of her preference her brother opined that the reputation of the college was not good, the boys there were indecent and the girls were ‘spoiled’. She gave plenty of arguments, which seem admirably reasonable – “how does it matter what others are like”? “I’m interested in studying, why would I necessarily become like them”? “Shouldn’t you trust your sister”? And even, “At least let me get admitted, and if you see any signs of my getting spoiled I will leave the college” – but none of this worked.

In anger, Anu, with financial help from a grandmother, obstinately joined the same institution for sewing classes. For her class material, she used to take leftover scraps from the tailoring shop of an acquaintance. But when the time came for her examination, she wasn’t able to get the requisite money together for the form and fees. She also tried to do a beautician’s course but couldn’t because the make up products were too expensive and no help was forthcoming from home.

It wasn’t a good life, it in fact didn’t feel like life at all, and Anu wondered if she should run away. She nearly took the drastic step once, she says, relating the episode with a lot of unexpected calmness and maturity. Ironically, it was at the railway station that is now fast becoming home to her that she sat and thought hard about leaving home. She stayed. “I’m really glad that I finally decided against it. At that stage, uneducated and vulnerable, I could have fallen prey to anyone. And anyway, the correct thing to do is to stay here and fight my battles from within.”

It turned out to be a good decision. One of the steps Anu took in fighting her battle from within was to get in touch with a friend whose relative worked for a local NGO. She joined them, underwent training and became, in her parlance, a ‘street educator’ for them. Anu recounts her early and unconfident days. “At my first workshop, I was literally trembling like a leaf because I would have to give my introduction and so many eyes would be looking at me. But with the help of my seniors and repeated practice I was able to participate in workshops and programmes and articulate whatever was necessary. I got over the shyness of stumbling over English words and phrases, got over the embarrassment of discussing reproductive hygiene and contraception in front of people, and with colleagues’ help I overcame family opposition to travelling to other towns for work-related programmes”.

So is this job her fulltime concern now? “Well, I have to get more skills and a graduation degree is very important in the world.” And so Anu is paying her own way, with her NGO salary, through a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work; a computer course (“it covers Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint”, she says confidently); and a course in spoken English. There’s one more rather important thing that she has done with her salary. She has bought her 10-year-old niece – with whom she clearly has a mutual adoration society going – a bicycle. And as she tells me this, pure glee shining through her overwhelming poise and gravitas, I glimpse the triumphant child who lives on in the young woman. And I hear the voice that echoes in so many female heads: “I won’t let this happen to my daughters”.

The sweeper children Anu works with, rendered anonymous at her request

Making of an expert

Anu is such a mine of information on the station’s children that for a while I forget my role as an interlocutor and simply become a fascinated student. I may never get such an opportunity to talk to an expert on this subject, and expert she clearly is.

The children often run away because they are scolded or beaten at home, they imagine having freedom away from home, and are too young to know that how exploitative and brutalising the experiences that await them in the world can be. Anu and colleagues also watch out for trafficking. We can make them out, she says, because it’s usually a group of 5 or more children with only one or two adults supervising them. The language, the body language… is a give away. In such cases, we get in touch with the railway police and see that action is taken. The other day we found an infant girl abandoned in the garbage. We had to follow her case through to the City Magistrate who heads the child welfare committee. We then took her to the state orphanage as he directed.

A big part of her work is getting the station’s children – mostly boys – to engage with the shelter and start envisaging possibilities of a different life. Any station child, anytime of the day or night, is welcome to visit the shelter, have a talk, catch up on sleep or take a bath. For a nominal sum they also get meals. “We have to charge something for the food, otherwise these boys spend all their earnings on the whitener they are all addicted to. (At the station she points out to me how the boys soak a piece of cloth with the whitener used to correct typing errors and sniff it’s pungent, mildly intoxicating odours through the day). It is important that after a point they feel committed to the shelter”. Anu also teaches them informally with the help of charts and pictures. The shelter has paintings made by kids pasted all over the walls. The boys who become interested in alternatives are encouraged to enrol in a school run by the NGO on the outskirts of the town, well away from the station.

Anu spends a lot of her working day at the station, talking to auto drivers, taxi drivers, local police, railway police, hawkers, vendors, porters, station officials, TTEs and more. It’s an energetic saga of making sure that as many people as possible know about the NGOs work, are sensitised to the problem of these children and know that there is someone to contact if the need arises. Much of her time is simply spent with the kids in building rapport and making friends. “I have to be a friend, it doesn’t work if I am judgemental. They are mostly good fun and become quite fond of me. One of them said the other day protectively, ‘you should stop coming to the station, it’s a bad place.’ Well, if it’s such a bad place, I said, you stop coming here. I have to because of you. If you stop being here, I’ll have no need to come either”.

A woman among men

So what is this work like, being in the station all day, I ask. Surrounded by people so different from you? Do you get scared? Are you harassed?

And out come tumbling the stories. Anu’s narratives of work-related problems would have been very much like the harassment that many working Indian women face through the day – stares, gestures, innuendoes, comments, propositions, malign gossip, deliberate misrepresentation… -- except for two factors. One, that the overall atmosphere of the railway station netherworld can make the danger and insecurity much more acute than usual. And two, that Anu has an approach to these situations that, truth to tell, boggles the mind. She doesn’t give in to anger, frustration or a sense of humiliation. Nor does she accept situations fatalistically (as in, “what can be done, this is how things are”). She keeps her larger purpose of helping the station’s children as some kind of beacon always in sight and navigates her way through these shoals. “The railway police constables keep asking me to come and have tea with them. It is important that they know about our work; they are the ones we have to go to if we come across children being trafficked or exploited in some way. So I don’t fight with them. I just politely tell them that I don’t drink tea.”

“Once the sex worker girls told me, you shouldn’t come here, people say bad things about you.” “Who says bad things and what does he say,” asked Anu. ”Maybe I can talk to him and make him see things the right way”. It was a vendor who had apparently sent a message that he would pay Anu to sleep with him. “I made one of the girls take me to that vendor. I didn’t say anything to the vendor that would make this girl feel bad – if I had been outraged, as in ‘how dare you think of me as a sex worker’, she would have felt humiliated. I told him he was mistaken, that I spent a lot of time on the station and in company with these girls because that was the nature of my work. I then told him all about my work. See, anybody can become a useful aid in rescuing the children. One or two or even three people might ignore what I say or be cynical about it or get annoyed, but at least the fourth will listen.”

I am slightly dumbstruck at this amalgam of level-headedness, practicality, positiveness and engagement. Her sensitiveness to the sex worker is remarkable and shows how beautifully she is living out the politics and philosophy of her training. I may be appalled on her behave, but she tells me wisely, “samaj hee bigadta hai, par samaj hee banayega.” (It is from society, from the people around us, from the world that surrounds us that our problems will come, but it is from the same society that our solutions will also come). Anu is willing to give society a chance.

She narrates the time when she had to harshly scold an older boy for the sexual abuse of a younger child and turn him out of the shelter. Later, a colleague said that the boy was threatening to hit Anu with a stone. She went looking for him, calmly walked up to him and said, if it makes you happy and gives you peace, go ahead and hit me. I don’t mind. But let’s get it out of your system and move on. Of course, he didn’t hit me, she smiles. “Anyway I don’t feel all that unsafe here. These boys are quite protective towards me”. She knows them all by name, knows their individual histories, their quirks, their possibilities…

A homeless boy from the railway station sleeps at the shelter

Anu’s first will and testament

If all was ideal in the world, what would you dream of for yourself? She considers:

I already have two sources of great satisfaction and joy. One is when I come to the platform and the children come running to me happily, calling me Didi. And the second is when I escort a child home and his parents bless me and I feel this story has come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I want to continue working in this field and do better at it. I definitely do not want to stop working after marriage. My family keeps getting prospective grooms to see me and they keep warning me, “Don’t tell him you have a job.” But I can’t do it this way. When I get married I will let the boy know clearly that I work and intend to keep working. That I plan to finish my graduation. In fact, I don’t want to marry for another two years till I get my degree. There is no way I am going to be dependent on the goodwill and earnings of someone else, ever. I don’t want be wildly successful or have enormous wealth. Just enough to satisfy my needs, not be dependent on anyone, let my children have a future. And I want to be someone in my field. To make a bit of name, gain a bit of recognition. So that all these people who say today, ‘All this is impractical, come to your senses, we will see how long your obstinacy lasts’… all of them have to acknowledge, ‘Yes, she did something; yes, she became something. She is someone’.

[First published in Plan International’s Because I am a Girl – Voices of Change in India, 2011.]