I remember a time when I would sit in my neighbor’s house drinking milk that had a cloying smell. My cousin would come running in, yelping with pain and cursing in Tamil between her husky wails. “Let him go to hell,” she would shout. My neighbors would automatically lock her in one of their musty storage rooms, and we would resume our activities as if she had never come.
Her father, drunk with alcohol and staggering between his threats of murder, would stumble in with a heavy piece of firewood in his hand, asking if my cousin was hidden in the house anywhere. As the fat old woman of the house held me close and gave me a warning look not to give the secret away, she responded with a threatening disgust that my cousin was nowhere to be found. My uncle would then walk all around the village, in its sugarcane and rice fields, cursing and searching, while my auntie stood submissively in the doorway. Tears flowed down her face, hot with shame and hopelessness. I would return to their house only once my uncle was either nowhere to be seen or fast asleep. After my auntie would put me to sleep, I would lie in bed wondering what my mother was doing, where she was and if she had abandoned me. My heart was so heavy that my teary eyes would lull me to sleep.
As soon as I would get up each morning, my cousin would wash my face and my auntie would give me curd to eat my rice with. I would then follow my cousin, whom I was very fond of, to graze our cow. He would teach me to pet and feed our cow. Sometimes we would go on small adventures to our neighbor’s mango fields or we would go on top of the village rocks to eat prickly pears, not minding that they were staining our clothes pink and that the small thorns were in our hands and tongue. It was during these times that I would forget that my mother, along with my six-month-old brother, were somewhere far away searching for work. She had to give up being a housewife and look for work to support our family once my father had passed away. When I was bored, I would remember my mother with so much longing and loneliness that I would start to cry.
When I turned three, my mother sent for me. Like my aunt and uncle, she too had found work in a quarry. Our house had four granite slabs covered with mud for walls and stacks of neatly tied woven coconut leaves for a roof. After settling down here, I would walk about the feces covered mud roads with my skirt lifted shamelessly over my head to avoid the merciless sun and the rising dust and smoke from the quarry. Otherwise, I would follow my mother down the steep quarry where I would sit a few meters away, watching her frail body shatter stones with a heavy hammer. I suppose it was during a time like this, though many years later, that a piece of stone hit me on my forehead. Curious and bored, I picked it up. It was crudely shaped like a heart and had tiny specks of gold on it. It is one among the three things I keep on my bed for good luck. It is a tangible reminder of where I came from.
Two other items that are constantly present on my bed are reminders of my present, and my future: my art supplies and preparatory books. If not for Shanti Bhavan, I would have little need for – or interest in – these things.
Since being admitted to Shanti Bhavan at the age of four, the hours I spent letting my imagination run wild instead of going for physical training session has resulted in me receiving various awards and titles within my school for outstanding performance in the field of visual art. Now, drawing abstract pictures, being recommended by many teachers and classmates to make posters, and being asked to make cards for various people is a medium through which I express my passion for art. This is a talent that would not have been nurtured or encouraged had I not attended Shanti Bhavan.
The preparatory books, on the other hand, are scattered on my bed because I am soon appearing for my entry into a law college. I decided years ago that I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, fighting against the many social injustices that exist in India, more than a handful of which I have witnessed myself in my family and community. The values instilled in me at Shanti Bhavan – those of humility, honesty, and generosity – have all impressed upon me the necessity to always work to help those who are less fortunate than me in any way possible. This is where my desire to work as a human rights lawyer stems from. I also hope that working in the field of law in India will provide me the skills I need to one day alleviate poverty and injustice on a broader scale, hopefully in a political position in India. Ideally, I will one day become the Prime Minister.
Every item I cherish communicates much about me. As I reflect on the past 14 years of my life, I realize they are tied to one of my two lives – that of a village girl who grew up in a world of sadness and desperation, devoid of hope, and the other of an educated and confident woman, who was given an amazing opportunity to aspire. Both of these lives compose who I am, and equip me with the knowledge to one day change the country I live in.