A couple of years ago, one evening, I overheard my daughter’s nanny talking to somebody. She sounded extremely worried, gesticulating and whispering as she spoke. When she hung up the phone, I noticed tears in her eyes. A repeat of the incident a few days later, however, got me a little worried, and I cajoled her into telling me what the problem was. When I found out, I was speechless. A couple of days went by but I found myself constantly thinking about Bharti, the 12 year old whose story I had just heard. I decided, I had to do something immediately.
Bharti was the nanny’s cousin. She was the eldest of a brood of five girls, from a village named Dapoli. Her father was a drunkard, and her mother was partially blind. Her grandfather was the sole earning member, a daily wage-earner surviving on odd jobs in the city. He had brought Bharti to the city to work as a maid. The old man had no choice, he told us. Poverty and too many mouths to feed, coupled with sicknesses had forced this decision – to take the children out into the city one by one in search of employment. Work or starve, not much choice, is it? So off came Bharti, pulled out from her village school and packed off to the first family who wanted a captive servant at their disposal. That’s when it began. The uncouth family she was lodged with treated her like a slave, made her wash dishes and dirty clothes and cook and serve all day long. She was up from dawn till midnight, serving faithfully, relentlessly, compassionately. Her meals were frugal, clothes were sparse, and her spirit squashed. She had been forced to grow up over night, in a cruel horrible way, with no hope of anything better. My worst fears were confounded when I was told that the family had a teenage son who had been eying her mischievously for a while. With a very controlled access to the house phone, she was unable to communicate with her family and the only time she managed a few words was when she spoke with her cousin, our nanny.
Bharti was a sweet little girl, pretty, doe-eyed, petite and timid. She walked in shyly, hesitating to make eye contact with me. Her clothes were dirty, one size too big, and her hands bore some bruises. She clearly looked undernourished and unhealthy. She coughed gently and fidgeted with her hands, not knowing what was coming next. My heart melted. We had gotten Bharti out of her employer’s house under the pretext of meeting her cousin, the nanny, below her building. Fait accomplit! I knew in my heart we could not send her back. The nanny suggested we shelter her for a few days while she looked for another family into which she could place this child. Short of any ideas, I chose to go along with her suggestion for the time being. A mattress, warm food and a safe place to sleep was more than Bharti had expected and I could only sense the happiness on her face and peace in her heart. The next day my family unanimously decided that Bharti was to continue to live with us till we figured out alternatives.
And so the days went by. She was nursed back to health. She read books, sat with my daughter to study and helped around the house with odd jobs. One day, whilst reading alongside my daughter, Bharti picked up one of her English books and read a paragraph, slowly, but clearly and eloquently. My daughter excitedly told me that Bharti could read and write English and was very keen to study from her books, and that I should put Bharti into her school so they could study together. Hallelujah! With that one remark the seeds of a thought were sown in my head. Bharti could get back to school! She could complete her education and qualify herself for a respectable job, stand on her own feet and ensure her family was on its way to recovery from the throes of poverty. Her sisters could not follow her path under any circumstances! I called her Grandfather once I had made up my mind. His reluctance stemmed from his fear of loss of income should he agree to my plan of readmitting her into school. I could empathize with him. We reached an agreement of a monthly stipend to be sent to her family whilst she went to school.
With that battle out of the way, next on our cards was securing admission for Bharti into a good Marathi medium school in the vicinity. MBHS Marathi Medium high school came to our rescue and the school accepted her into 8th grade with open arms! Bharti’s new lease to life was a reality! Her excitement while feeling her new books, wearing her crisp new uniform and polishing her shoes was palpable. She went on to excel in 8th grade. In 9th grade, at one PTA, her class teacher praised Bharti in a way that made me proud! She said she was happy to have a girl like Bharti in her class, giving the other city kids good competition in their race for the number one position in class! Then came 10th, SSC exams. With no tutorials, a choice made by Bharti herself, she performed brilliantly and secured 84%! Honestly, our joy knew no bounds! Friends came together and showered gifts on her, as she had become the ‘Child ’ for all our friends and family! Next came college admissions. We picked Commerce. With easy admissions considering her good grades, Bharti was on her way to a degree!
Bharti’s journey has been a lesson in life for several of us. Bharti herself, of course, has metamorphosized into a bold young girl, full of ambition, and a resolve to ensure her sisters and other girls from her village do not suffer the way she did for lack of options. She is working with us on getting distance education to the girls in her village to ensure they are able to complete their secondary education without going far away from their villages in search of colleges. She is working on getting her degree in commerce, with a specialization in computer science. To ensure she is ahead of the race, she has enrolled in English speaking classes, and computer classes and spends every waking moment engrossed in her books. Bharti is on her way to be a woman of consequence!
Bharti’s story has taught us what it means to overcome setbacks. We have learnt to respect people from diverse backgrounds, social brackets and above all, humanity. Bharti’s journey has taught us to value education even more than we currently do. What comes across easily to us, is a gift for millions of others across our country. The dark shroud of poverty is a curse and unfortunately a reality in our nation. From that stems the trigger of child employment and illiteracy. We must look for solutions that are sustainable and can improve not just one girl’s life, but an entire family. And then a clan and then a village! It may sound like a Herculean task, but we can all contribute to this solution. ‘Rather than providing a man with fish, we should teach him to fish’, is how the popular adage goes. These young girls will not stop searching for employment on account of poverty and lack of educational facilities. A little bit of effort from each one of us in this direction, will change the future of our India. Scholarships to reduce the financial burden of fees, provision of school supplies, rehabilitation through hostels and trusts for the girls who eventually come to the city in search of employment but have a desire for education, investing in E-education that can reach remote villages with a lack of secondary education facilities….These are all some of the things you and I could easily do. All it needs is the desire. I do not have all the answers yet, but with Bharti’s determination and help, I know we are going to change Dapoli, and impact the lives of 75 other girls in that village! To commemorate our 69th year of Independence, Bharti and I decided that it would be alright for us to share her story, and inspire others. We were thinking of titles for this story, when she chuckled and smilingly suggested to me, “ MADE in India” and then laughed as she added, ” Didi, not maid in India, ok, MADE in India!’.
Happy Independence Day, Bharti!