By Usha Rani Das:
She spends her evenings collecting alms. Her only companions are her two little sisters – Soma, who is just a few months old and sleeps a lot, and Guddu who is about three years old and has the most beautiful smile on earth. Her big dream is to buy a piggy bank and collect enough money to buy a new dress for herself and her two sisters.
She is eight years old. She lives at Haldia in a small house with mud walls, thatched roof and cloth curtains as doors. It is nowhere near to the palace her elder brother dreams of living in someday; nonetheless, this is the heaven she calls her home. Her mother works as a maid in the houses of the township. Sometimes she takes her daughters to work, sometimes they are left all by themselves throughout the day. Her two small sisters spend the day playing and loitering around but she says she goes to school. Although when I asked her the alphabets, all she could manage to remember was this, “A-E-C-M!” Well, off course she has a name – Nazina.
She calls me Didi (elder sister). When she comes to me to ask for alms, I often invite her to join our evening soirees and have a little chat with us. She accepts them eagerly. Partly because she likes us maybe, but mostly because she loves riding our bikes and playing with our mobiles. For this, she even comes by herself to join us without asking for alms. Her daily income varies from day to day. Some days, when her luck favors her, she earns around 100 bucks or so. But these earnings don’t come easy to her. She faces a lot of questions about her family, her schooling, her purpose which she answers with silence and smiles. These are accompanied by a lot of denials and harsh scolding too from her alms givers. Still, she carries on with a smile as if she has become immune to all these insults, as if to collect alms is her only desperate way to stay alive in this world of grown-ups.
I asked her once what her dreams are. She replied, “I will hide some of my money from my mother every day and buy a piggy bank. There I will collect enough money to buy new dress for myself and my two sisters (Translated from Bengali to English)”. She said this with a glowing face, her eyes sparkling with the grandeur of her dreams. Her words expressed her innocent pain she has to face every day when she hands over all her day’s hard work to her mother, saving nothing for herself.
I was actually very happy when she told me she goes to school every day and takes tuition too. But this was a bare lie. I learned the actual truth from her sister, Guddu, that Nazina has quit school a long while before. The reason is her teacher’s beatings which she had to bear almost every day till it became unbearable and she quit it. It was also from her that I learned another bitter truth about her father. He left her mother a year ago to never come back. Though Guddu went to stay with her father at first but the pangs of loss of motherly love pricked her heart too much and she returned to the safety and warmth of her mother’s embrace.
Her mother struggles hard to feed four mouths. Her children are fed twice a day, sometimes only once, with a handful of rice and onion and water. She can’t even afford a side curry to go with the rice always. They never complain. They say it is enough. If it is enough then why does a toddler of just three years old wander around all alone asking for alms to somehow manage five bucks to be able to buy a handful of puffed rice to satisfy her hunger, that too at 8 PM in the night? She is not always lucky to earn those five bucks and has to return home empty handed; has a glassful of water as her dinner for that day and goes to sleep, not to weave new dreams for the world but simply because she was too tired of her day’s hard work to stay awake- tired of the excruciating pain of hunger. When they say “It is still enough” with a smile on their wearied, shrunken face I am reminded of the callous political definitions of poverty currently on news.
These children are the burning symbol of the nakedness of our society, the narrow-mindedness of this patriarchal society, the hazards of illiteracy and the shamelessness of the crippled education system of the country. They are the symbol of the ruthless punishment imposed upon them by this unruly society, their crime- they are poor. They are the symbol of the mockery thrown at them pitilessly by the sly politicians.
I end this article with a hope that someday their silence will get a voice, a voice of protest. A voice to be heard by the deaf and the dumb.