One of our house helps is unusually intelligent. She had just turned 19 when she joined us. I know her since the days she went to school. She would often come to visit when her elder sister was working at home; always happy to show me the medals she won in her academics and kabaddi. But years later, the day she joined, did I realise she had dropped out of school somewhere in between and contrary to my high hopes, never entered college.
While we were pulling out some fresh veggies from my kitchen garden, I started a conversation with her about something that had long intrigued me. I wanted to know why she did not continue her education. Was it due to lack of funds? Or, were her parents against it? I wanted to know if she had any particular dream or what she wanted to become. My concern grew because here was a young girl whom I knew when she was even younger and was certainly a bright student.
Not stopping her hands at work she smiled and replied calmly, “Kuch bhi ni didi. Bus jab shaadi ho jayegi toh ghar ka kaam kar lungi. Parhai toh saari zindagi kar sakte hai, ghar kitaaben laakar. Parna aana chahiye. Reema (her younger sister) doctor ban na chahti hai. Mai toh ese hi khush hoon” (Nothing, I’ll get married and do household work. One can study at any time, only one needs to be literate. Reema, my younger sister, wants to be a doctor but I’m happy just like this).
I smiled. It had been a long time since I last met someone so serenely self satisfied and content. And her answer took me years back and reminded me of Suraj.
I was studying at Miranda House in Delhi then and those were the days of Common Wealth Games in the national capital. Hence a massive number of labourers had migrated to the city. As a part of my college outreach program, I went and taught children in one of these slums in Delhi where I became good friends with a bunch of kids and Suraj was one of them.
He was a young boy of 9 or 10. After completing their daily learning activities, all would pep up Suraj to sing and bravo what a jolly smooth voice the little one had! Though I never understood what he sung since it was in a Rajasthani dialect, it certainly was warm and joyous. Whenever I encouraged him saying, “Tum toh bareh singer banoge” (You will become a famous singer one day) -he would shyly reply that he wanted to become a mason like his father and singing is just to have a good time.
His answer too reflected nothing less than integrity and self respect. We, the privileged have a different looking glass for these children. Some of us feel sorry for them, some others empathize with them. But no, they need none of it. They are proud of who they are, how they are and much happier than most of us.
Just then my maid tapped the basket on the walking path to sift away the soil. “Didi ander chalen” (Do we go inside?) – she said with a radiating face after she was done pulling out the turnips. As we walked back, I was reminded of the lines by actor and poet Arunoday Singh – “To be happy with yourself. To be worthy of yourself. What greater success, could you possibly find?”
Published in Hindustan Times on 2/3/2020