Let me start with a Disclaimer: This is NOT a tale of the dark and dire life that we live in India, but a slice of the realty that I met while I was working in a city which is not my home-town. And by this narration, I do not mean to expose an underbelly or make a statement too…
There were two things I had sworn never to do under any circumstance in my life; employing a child and riding a rickshaw (a sort of cart in India) pulled by a human being. I shamefully admit I did both in the two years I was in New Delhi. Before you penalize me, do listen to my moral dilemma in the case of the child at least.
Having lived all my life in Kerala in India, a state known for its communist leans and progressive routine, I never did see firsthand the cruelties of humankind on children, but seethed with rightful indignation when I read of child labor. The restaurants we visited regularly did have table cleaners who looked like they were under fourteen but I was always assured that they were sixteen. I appeased my conscience by passing them a tip without the waiter noticing it. When my son turned just thirteen and my daughter nine, I went away to live in New Delhi with my husband for a two year period leaving my children with my parents.
Now, I am not a very organized person, and my housekeeping skills are rather perfunctory. I appealed to my house owner’s wife, and she said she would send her own maid to me for an hour everyday. Champa came in the next day to discuss terms. The rates were standard and not open to bargain, so all we had to settle was the timing; we settled on a 5.30 evening routine. Champa came promptly at 5.30; she was efficient, quick and evidently well trained.
The next evening, I dropped in early and sure enough at 5.30 the door bell rang, and Champa was at the door. I took away the latch and bade her come in when she shook her head and said, “No Didi (Elder sister), I am not doing it today, Anita will come to do your work today.” She went on to explain how she was getting late to prepare dinner by staying at my house till 6.30. It was obvious she wasn’t ready to continue her assignment, so I took up the next option. “Okay, Bring Anita along and we’ll see how she does.” “Didi, Anita is here.” And sure enough, a pair of big black eyes was peeping from behind Champa. I was shocked, to say the least.
“This is Anita?” That little thing standing behind Champa couldn’t be more than 7 or 8 years old. It was barely three and a half foot high, and scrawny to the core. My god, this creature looked smaller than even my daughter!
“Champa, Look, I can’t make her do the house cleaning, she is too small for that. And she would have to study for school in the evening, doesn’t she?”
Champa grinned, “Didi, she doesn’t go to school, and don’t think she is a bad worker because of her size, she is very good. She already works in two houses.”
I felt anger rise in me, she was not sending this one to school? And using her to make money? I had never seen a child of five or six not go to school in Kerala, my native state. We aren’t hundred percent literate for nothing. I tried to reason with Champa, “Listen, Champa, you should be sending Anita to school. Never mind if she is seven or eight, and it is never too late to start.”
Champa was unfazed, “Didi, What is the use of educating her? We have to marry her off anyway. And don’t worry, we are sending our son to school. And Anita needs to work to earn for marriage expenses!”
This was getting from bad to worse, marriage and for this little chit? I took one more look at her, and Champa volunteered, “She is ten years old, not eight.”
Another blow! Ten and this little thing? I was feeling rather anxious and quite determined to make Champa see sense. I spoke again, rather rashly offering to bear her expenses of book and uniform if she could be sent to school. Champa was now looking rather alarmed and started backtracking and all the warmth she had displayed was now gone. Her eyes looked cautiously at me, and she said quietly, “Didi, I cannot come to work for you now, and Anita will come to work if you want. Now it is getting late and you please tell the Didi upstairs if you want Anita to come tomorrow or not.” Champa left with Anita in tow and my evening was spoilt.
I didn’t take her offer up and forgot about the whole thing. One day my house owner’s wife came downstairs with sweets for some festive occasion and I invited her in. I saw her look round with a suppressed grimace and when she left she asked me politely, “By the way, Champa didn’t come after the first day, did she?”
I told her the story and expressed my indignation at the prospect of child labor and asked, “See Sumi, we both have daughters of that age, how can we use a chit of a girl like that”
Sumi didn’t speak for a few seconds, and then she said, “Suneetha, in fact, Anita is the one who does my work daily. And I think she is better than Champa in that. She is so small that she can scramble even under the cot to dust there. Champa is my maid, but Anita is the one who comes in daily to do it.”
It was my turn to be silent. Sumi continued, “I think you could take her up, looks like you need help, with your busy routine.”
I was in fact getting tired of doing the work myself, and my house being in Champa’s domain, no other maid was ready to peep in there. I found solace in the argument that Anita would certainly be working for someone if not for me, and I would be kinder as an employer. That was how I became guilty of child labor.
Anita proved excellent, in fact better than Champa. She whizzed through the two rooms and scrubbed so fast that she finished the work in fifteen minutes and then sat in front of the TV looking at any channel that happened to be on, till it was an hour. Champa called for her exactly an hour later and this was her leisure time, her time with me. Champa collected her salary on the first of every month and once I asked Anita what happens to her hard-earned salary. She had not bad earnings for a kiddo of ten! Her answer stunned me, “Aunty, (her endearment for me) my mother is saving all that for my wedding.”
I immediately heard a warning bell, “Are you getting married and when?”
“No! Not now, but when I grow up! My parents need money for my wedding and they are saving for that.”
I thought of my daughter blissfully living without any thoughts of marriage and never having to contribute a paisa towards that! But Anita’s eyes were shining like a bride’s when she spoke of the happy event. I felt my heart wring and looked at the big soulful eyes only to see it had returned to the TV screen.
Anita and I continued our friendship through the months and in May I went home on vacation. It was six months since I had seen my children who were with my parents and I was looking forward to the visit. I returned from Kerala a month later than scheduled, and the apartment looked dusty. I called up my land-lady to send me Champa or Anita and sure enough Champa presented herself in a while. I brought out Anita’s share of the packets of goodies from home.
“Where is Anita? Have you sent her to another house because I wasn’t here?” I asked Champa who was dusting the window.
“Anita won’t come now Didi, Swati will do your work from today!” Was Champa deliberately turning away or was it the dust that was making her turn her face?
“What happened to Anita? And who is Swati?” I asked.
“Anita has been send to our village, and Swati is our younger daughter; Swati, come here!” she called out. A smaller version of Anita trooped in, with larger eyes and a sharper expression. I felt sick.
“Why did you send Anita away?” I persisted.
“She is living with her grandparents in the village, there is no one to look after them there, and she will be married sooner if she is in the village, so we sent her out.” Champa’s face was still turned away.
I watched Swati scoop up the dust expertly with a broom and dust pan. I thought of my daughter again. She was also with her grandparents in her native place. Just like Anita!
Or was she? I thought of the report of a child marriage reported in some remote corner of the country and wondered again!
I have never found out whether Anita was married off or was merely given to her grandparents’ care. But now that I am back in Kerala I do wonder if Swati is still working in Delhi?
Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at email@example.com