I made a new friend yesterday… a talkative 5 year old, the daughter of my friend’s maid. Farheen confidently rattled off, “A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat, D for Doll…” She was in the first grade and had been learning the English alphabet at school, but she shyly admitted she couldn’t remember what M was for, and jumped from H to O in her enthusiasm. I doubt she knew what any of those words meant. It was just something she had been taught, and she had dutifully learned.
In her hand she carefully held two pieces of paper on which a doll’s picture was drawn, kind of like a mini animation. She showed me how if she flipped the little pages it would look like the doll was changing its form. I asked if she had drawn them. She said a “didi” at tuition had drawn them for her. Farheen enjoyed drawing, but she didn’t have paper or color pencils of her own to draw and color.
I asked Farheen about her friends at school. She said she had none. She only spoke to her little brother, Mohammed. The teachers didn’t allow them to play in school, and she seemed afraid to talk to others in class.
After school her elder brother (a cousin, I assume) would take her to a tuition center to do her homework. She liked going there because they would sometimes serve her biscuits, samosas and Thumbs Up.
Farheen was happy that her mother Aisha had packed Biriyani for her lunch that day. It was the left over from Sunday’s dinner. She usually carried Rotis and sugar for lunch and didn’t like eating that. She preferred snacks, “pan biscuit” in particular. She laughed about her “fat little brother, Mohammed” who ate a lot, unlike her.
I spoke a little to Farheen’s mother Aisha too, while she swept and swabbed the floor. She told me that she had 3 children – Farheen who was 5, Mohammed who was 3, and another son who had recently died of some heart disease. Aisha thought this son had brought her good luck and restored her joy. She felt all her problems and sadness had returned after his death. Aisha still loved this little son of hers more than the other two and thought about him a lot. I could hear the sadness in her voice as she told me about him. I sympathized with her and tried to explain in my broken Hindi that God had given her 2 beautiful children, so to be thankful for them and love them the same way she would have loved the son she lost.
Farheen told me she liked her father better than her mother. He was a painter and would sometimes take her and Mohammed on his cycle. He would go out to some place on Sundays and buy eggs, biscuits, etc… for them. He had bought them a new fan recently, but Farheen had put it away because she was afraid other children would play with it and break it. She complained that her father made the house dirty though, and she and her mother had to clean up always.
I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up, and to my disappointment she replied that she wanted to be a maid like her mother. “You don’t want to become a good teacher or something else?” “No, I want to clean homes. People make their houses dirty, no? I want to clean their houses.”
I saw a big mark on Farheen’s left arm and assumed it was a vaccination mark, but it didn’t strike me that she had probably never been to a doctor in her life. What it was was the scar from a brutal beating. Her teacher had beaten her with something (I couldn’t understand what) because she hadn’t paid her fees on time. The scar seemed so deep. Farheen told me it had swollen so big and didn’t heal for a long time. Her parents had shifted her to another school soon after. I asked her, “Farheen, did it hurt?” “Yes.” “Did you cry?” “No…” “Why not?” “Only small children cry…”
So little, and yet she spoke as if she was 10 times her age! I had to gulp down tears and the lump that had formed in my throat by then. My heart went out to this little child who had an entire lifetime before her, but had already suffered so much, lacked so many things that I took for granted, and had resigned herself to her fate. In her little mind, all she knew was the life she lived and she didn’t even think or wish that life could be any better for her. She was content being who she was, willing to accept her life as it was, and was determined to become whatever she thought it was her duty to become.
All the words in the world are insufficient to express what I felt at that moment. When I returned home and thought about it, I was moved all the more and could not contain my tears. To think that there are millions of Farheens all over India (and probably the world), needing a good education, a safe environment at school and home, basic amenities, nutritional food, better facilities and opportunities, genuine love and care… and just needing to know that God loves them, cares about them, and wants nothing but the best for them…
What am I doing to make life better for someone like Farheen?