A few years ago, I joined a non-profit organization that works for the welfare of underprivileged children in India. It was a surprise to those who knew me, considering my reservations about kids. “I can tolerate them for a couple of hours,” has always been my response to the question, “Do you like kids?”
On hearing about my new job, a friend asked, “Why are you saving children?” I couldn’t have been more honest — I needed a job and took this up, as they were the first to respond to my application. Plus, my work didn’t involve dealing with children directly. I had to sit inside an office, in front of a computer, and generate content.
I was the copywriter — nothing as glamorous as the brains behind glitzy commercials featuring supermodels and superstars. My job was to sell the organization’s cause to new donors, and re-sell it in a new package to the existing ones. Create stuff that would strike a sentimental chord and make the donor hit the donate button if it was an electronic mailer or write a check if it was a printed newsletter.
The ex-copywriter, a woman whom I was about to replace, explained to me the kind of text I had to write daily to be put up on Facebook. Having kept myself away from social networking sites like the plague, I had to dabble with it every day, seven days of the week. Not to speak of the annoyance caused by the insistence on “simple English.” Apparently, “hinder” and “enrich” were heavy words.
Having studied English Literature for years, I couldn’t help but cringe at the dumbing down of my writing standards in order to meet the company’s requirements and keep my job. But English Literature had not got me a snootier job either. With age catching up, the job-market at an all-time low, and no work experience, I was a living example that beggars cannot be choosers.
As the days rolled by, I moved from being the new girl to being a part of the team. It was suggested that I should visit the learning centers run by the organization. These centers were an avenue for marginalized children to receive basic education. My colleagues felt it would be good for me to visit the center to gain firsthand experience of the kind of work done and interact with the people who worked there, as well as the children who came to study.
The center was nothing grand or ostentatious. Architecture wise, it wasn’t even large enough to be called a “center.” It was a big, bright, airy room. The walls were covered in chart paper with drawings, typical figures which one would encounter in children’s preparatory schools— animals, fruits, alphabets and the very familiar landscape paintings drawn by little amateur hands. In the middle of the room was a portable blackboard, next to which was a big table and two cupboards filled with books and other paraphernalia.
The children were sitting on an old fraying carpet. Small stools were casually strewn around. In one corner of the room was a kitchenette. A toilet, the white tiled floor of which was turning black due to the dirt brought in by the children’s shoes, completed the center.
When I reached, I was struck by the eagerness with which the children wished me, “Good morning, ma’am” and offered me a handshake, small hands hardened due to poverty and other kinds of hardships. However, it was only a matter of time before they changed their mode of address. I thought of having a little chat with Priya, the girl who taught these children. I had not prepared a formal interview. My questions were extempore, pertaining to the number of children coming in, the curriculum, the timings, the difficulties encountered. The “interview” was over in less than fifteen minutes.
I asked her if I could stick around for a while and click a few pictures. More children had arrived in the meantime. The curiosity I was generating in the new batch was palpable as I could hear whispers enquiring about me.
Priya’s class started getting restless the minute I took out my camera. The children were no longer interested in studying as the camera had captured their fancy. Some posed for me, some wanted to be clicked alone, some wanted to be clicked with their friends, while pretty little Fatima wanted to do the clicking herself. I realised I had to keep the camera away before the children became difficult to control. I promised them that I will click more pictures and allow them to use the camera but only if they concentrated on what was being taught. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the promise. Perhaps, they knew it too, as they went back to their lessons without protest.
But the ice between me and the children had thawed. From “Ma’am” I became “Didi,” an elder sister. And elder sisters are supposed to help with homework. So Fatima wanted me to solve her multiplication problems while her brother Mohammad wanted me to draw a flower. The maths I could manage; the drawing not so much.
I drew a flower with great difficulty, the only thing I can manage without drawing too much attention to my artistic ineptitude. He was satisfied. As adults, we sometimes forget to give ourselves a break once a while. When someone picks out flaws in our work, we normally accept it without a fight. But when our work is praised, most of us feel it is not good enough. To insist on mediocrity becomes a convenient ruse to fish for more compliments –“Oh, it’s not good.” “Oh, come on, it’s great.” I did the same thing. I thought one of the petals was not curved properly. When I erased it, Regina was quick to chastise me: “Didi mitati kyun rahti ho.” She was annoyed because I had erased the picture and was re-drawing. The ease with which she expressed her disapproval was endearing.
When we interact with a group, there are a few people who inevitably end up as our favorites. Out of all the children I met, I warmed up to Fatima a bit more than the others. I helped her in solving maths problems. It was difficult to explain multiplication tables in Hindi. I would lapse into “four threes are” and Fatima would look at me with a confused smile reminding me that I had to translate tables into pahada, the Hindi equivalent.
Despite some struggle, we managed to sail through. And we made small talk. The first thing she asked me was, “Didi aap kahan tak padhey ho?” (until and where have you studied). Was it a sign that more than anything else this little girl wanted to study? Don’t our questions at some level reflect our dreams and desires?
After some deliberation I told her, “Main twelfth tak padhi hun aur uskey baad thoda aur padhi hun,” (that I have studied until the twelfth grade and a little more after that). I had no language to explain to her my swanky college degrees.
Her next question was, “Aapkey papa kahan tak padhey hain?” (until where has your father studied). We talked about what we both liked to eat. She asked me whether I could cook, I told her I don’t like bananas and papayas.
I had spent more than an hour at the center and it was time to get back to my warm colorful cabin and extol the virtues of the organization in “simple English” for the Facebooking generation. Taking leave of the children was not as easy I thought.
Taking leave of Fatima was the most difficult. She didn’t want me to leave and resolutely clung to my hand. I wasn’t able to jerk my hand out of her grasp either. And as adults do to placate kids, I made excuses and grand promises. I told her if I didn’t go I would be scolded by my boss. Worse still I might be kicked out of my job.
I promised the children that I would visit again and spend more time with them. More than a dozen pairs of hands wanted to shake hands with me, and I had to reply to an equal number of goodbyes.
Once I was back in my office, I was asked about the visit. I said that it was a new and memorable experience, and that I would like to go back again. I was told that can be arranged and I could click more pictures and get the children to talk more. So that it could be put up on Facebook. I nodded.
And just like that, I went to the bathroom and washed my hands with soap. I scrubbed and scrubbed till the white lather turned black. I don’t know why I did it. I was not going to eat, nor do I have a compulsion for cleanliness. But I washed, scrubbed and cleaned. Perhaps a part of me had not forgotten that these children were from the streets. God knows where all their hands went, what they touched, who they touched.
My position of privilege couldn’t let me have the smug satisfaction of knowing that I spent my day with children whom I otherwise would have looked through. Washing my hands, when there was no pressing need to, was a reminder that I was different from them. With that one act, I burst my bubble of self-righteousness. While I could share details with these children, like favorite fruit or favorite actor, I wasn’t sure to what extent I could share intimacy, as small as a handshake, even though I was trying hard to be declassed in my mind and manners.
I have always believed that social work does not happen while sitting in the comfort of an air conditioned office. Real social work happens out in the open, being in the midst of people for whom one wants to work, eating with them, sleeping with them, facing inclement weather, dealing with uncooperative elements in the form of bureaucracy and red tape. Social work is uncomfortable, dangerous, unpaid and not glamorous.
I had a good time with the children. But I was no social worker. I was a copywriter, visiting marginalized children to get case stories so that the brand could be endorsed and funds could be generated, a part of which also paid my salary.
I was a copywriter who, if given a chance, would soon move on to selling things that transformed a person’s hair or skin or height or weight rather than transform the lives of multitudes who do not have it good to begin with.
This essay has been nominated for the Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments will be taken in to consideration by the judges on Dec 1. Contest Rules.