Little Shreya is the daughter of a maid and a construction worker. She lives in a makeshift house on an empty plot of land next to our home. In the afternoons she waits outside our gate, calling out to my daughter Rhea. Shreya has a mousy face and a curious nose. Her long chestnut hair usually falls loosely about her till the evenings when her mother returns home from work and sits to oil and plait it.
Eager to get her away from the television, I encouraged Rhea to take a few toys and head out to the street outside our home to play with Shreya. After all didn’t living in India entail such masti? Wouldn’t she have to master the art of scuttling swiftly to the side upon hearing an approaching car or truck?
Although the girls struggled with a language problem, they grew fond of each other and Rhea began inviting her home. We faced initial challenges with Shreya such as communicating to her that she ought to inform her parents of before coming over, taking her to the toilet and teaching her how to use a Western closet, cleaning her dusty hands and feet to protect Rhea from germs, getting frustrated with her endless nosy questions which were really just an expression of wonder for the numerous objects we owned.
One day Rhea came home bawling and told us that Shreya had slapped her. Not once, not twice but a couple of times. I wanted to be rational and ask her what exactly happened but all I could feel was rage at my own carelessness. How could I have been naïve enough to believe that two vastly different worlds could intersect without any sort of conflict? Why didn’t I prepare my child with a better instinct for survival? And then there was the most shameful one – what else can we expect from ‘these’ children?
When we talk about ignorance, we associate it with all that we don’t know. But I’ve come to learn that a greater sadness is not a limited bandwidth in the mind, but in the heart.
I forbade Rhea from stepping outside to play. Every time I heard Shreya call out her name or running behind me repeating ‘Aunty’ ‘Aunty’, I’d ignore her and walk away. Then some time about a week later my little girl pleaded with me, saying she missed her friend. When I asked her about the slaps, Rhea assured me that it was all fine and Shreya didn’t mean it.
The girls made peace and I stayed alert. In the interest of preventing further physical confrontations, I introduced quieter games like colouring and puzzles. And despite my weariness towards Shreya’s volatile nature, I was endeared by her desire to learn. Later I would discover from a conversation that our own maid had with her mother that Shreya stopped going to the government school because the teachers were hitting her for being too naughty. Even portions of the free mid-day meals meant for the children were pilfered by the staff, especially the eggs. When I asked her directly about the school teachers, Shreya scrunched her face and asked me in her own concocted language of Telugu and broken English if she could go to Rhea’s school.
That day I lay on my bed for a long time, staring at the spinning fan, feeling so pathetic at how small I was and how unfathomable the inequality that surrounds me is. I thought about Shreya; how irritated I was when I discovered dirty stains made by her feet on the cream marble tiles of our home, how I constantly checked Rhea’s hair for lice, how eager she was for my approval every time she fit a jigsaw piece correctly.
We talk about income disparity, blame greedy corporations and the government, use our intellect to analyse why there are crores of families languishing in poverty. But what are each of us doing to address the socio-economic gaps that exist in our daily interactions? I don’t mean by the generosity we extend to our maids or drivers via the clothes we donate, meals doled out on special occasions or loans provided for their expenses like rent, school fees etc. These are fixes we merely indulge in to assuage our own conscience.
Our country’s stratification begins early; class dictates the schools we send our children to, teachers they are fortunate or unfortunate enough to attain wisdom from, games they play, domestic experiences and friendships. With the wide and incomparable gap in standards between government and private schools and an RTE (Right to Education) policy that is a long way from being truly effective, the opportunities that will be accessible to children like Shreya versus Rhea will be tragically different.
I keep going back to the slapping incident, re-playing my daughter’s disappointment and my own reaction, zooming in on my anger, trying to break it down in a bid to understand it better. What was I madder about – Rhea’s humiliation or the unreasonable expectation that an underprivileged child should have felt grateful enough to be ‘included’ and behaved well?? Why didn’t I have the equanimity to sit with the child and hear her side of the story? How different would it have been had one of Rhea’s school friends done the deed?
Yes, the answers aren’t nice and cast a huge spotlight on the deep-rooted ugliness within, forcing me to accept that I am not as kind as presumed. Intentions matter and while I’m constantly conscious about raising a compassionate human being, I am struggling with my own pettiness.
While we navigate through the dense clutter of all that is wrong with our promising nation, maybe the easiest (or toughest) place to begin with is understanding how we see others who don’t share our own backgrounds. Why must only the government, NGOs and a few good Samaritans work on change? How can we, with whatever time and resources available, increase our own emotional bandwidth?
I am involving Rhea in the process of teaching Shreya a little English. The family that her mother works for has offered to send her to a better government school next year. There are still the occasional scuffles between the children but I am learning to step aside and let my daughter build her own boundaries.
In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie rightly said, ‘Children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison.’ Though we try to vehemently retain their innocence for as long as possible till the world hacks at it, they build perceptions of how society functions from a young age and are intelligent enough to grasp how in a country like India, status dictates respect .
As Rhea grows and forms more friendships, she will discover ways of building and understanding commonalities with others and face her own conflicts. The best I can do is keep my poison to myself.