Thursday, December 1, 2011


A Photo I took at the neighbourhood government school. We caused a minor stampede. Everybody wanted their picture taken! The headmaster told us most of these children come from broken homes. They eat their only meals in the school that is in itself grossly undermaintained and underfunded. The headmaster Mr. Lukeman Durai and a teacher we met called Ms. Violet-something-Julie are very well spoken people. They've dedicated close to a decade of their lives to teach these kids, a significant percent of whom drop out at grade 8. Stories of inspiration like these are everywhere.

We were just leaving the area - Pannanthope colony in Ayanavaram - content with the information we had collected for our documentary, yet still missing that crucial component that would thread all the disparate bytes of visuals and voices. But that crucial component usually turns up during the last minute frenzy, or so I hoped.

A scrumptious lunch on our minds (a treat for our pampered selves, soiled by the interaction with poverty), we headed towards the bus stop. On our way we spotted a particularly miserable stretch of slum dwellings; a long compelling shot of that would be fantastic for the documentary, wouldn't it! So we took on our flipcam and began to do so. I was slinking around, trying in vain to look as inconspicuous as I could; taking photos of personal properties always makes me uncomfortable.

An old-ish woman carrying a naked infant seemed to have appeared from the depths of the slum. I went towards where she was hovering.

'Amma, if you know of any hostels then please let me know,' she said in Tamil.
'Enna?', I asked, handicapped by my shameful grasp of the language I ought to know.
'My daughter has gone missing and I have no idea where she is. We have filed a complaint many times. She's been gone since September. She was a grown girl. Now I have to take care of my three grandchildren,' she lamented, 'all girls,' she added with a sad smile.

By then my journalistic radar was ringing. I'd asked my friend to start recording, and the woman seemed to not be bothered.

'The children do not have a father. He was very abusive, beat her a lot. I do not know what to do with the children. We live off my younger daughter's meager pay.'

As taken in as I was with her tragic story, cruel pragmatism made me try to steer her conversation to the general state of her slum and what authorities had done about it; which was what we were supposed to uncover.

Enthusiastically she began relating her woes in a manner that was both undramatic and stirring at the same time.
'Nobody has agreed to help us. The politicians promise us things but nothing has improved. The waterlogging and garbage overflowing makes the kids sick. The police have not managed to find anything about my daughter's whereabouts.' I noticed that every passage of conversation kept finding its way back to her missing daughter.
'I don't know what to do. I can't bring myself to go to work thinking about her and these kids I have to take care of.'

In those two minutes she covered so many nuances of poverty. The burden of the girl child, abuse of women in the household, children growing up in broken homes, diseases, hopelessness, desperation, resilience, her missing daughter.
At no point in this heavy conversation did we have to egg her on. Neither did she ask us for anything material. For food for the baby, money, nothing.

'Please pray for my children. Just pray that is enough.'

We made empty promises to try and help. I know I shall forget about this soon, succumb to the cosy ignorance of richness.

What is your name, we asked her.
'Mine? Jessy' she said. I saw a glassy eyed smile; mine or hers I could not tell.
'Ponnu peru Ammu. Japam pannungo ma'

Ammu is her daughter's name. If you're not going back, Ammu, I hope you've found a better life than what you left behind. I'm not that optimistic about your three daughters.

1 comment:

  1. The many facets of poverty - or rather, deprivation - manifests before us if we keep our eyes and ears open. Your post reminds me of many such interactions I have had. Lending an ear itself is a big comfort for them.