Her mother showed up at the school the day after she gave Suman away.
As Suman was telling me how happy she was, I noticed her mother walking up the road when I peeked out from inside the rickshaw where Suman and I were sitting, the rickshaw about to pull away. Some girls from the school had pushed their upper bodies into the already tight space of the rickshaw, curious as to where Suman was going with us. She was exited and perhaps a bit cocky when she told them she was going to the Girls’ Home where she’ll be living.
Suman stayed in the rickshaw and I got out to talk to her mother who was standing beside Todd. I maintained a small, tight smile, hesitant to greet Nirmala who appeared distraught. I was worried about her motivation for coming to the school, hopeful that she just wanted to see how Suman’s first night in the Home for Girls had been, but also concerned about her welfare after signing her daughter over to the Home for Girls the day before.
Since last year, Nirmala and her husband Shiva have gently prodded Indu and me to assist in finding a suitable place for their 13 year-old daughter, Suman. Shiva, who is Bollywood handsome, but a feckless drunk, asked for help under the pretense of fatherly concern for the safety of his daughter. Nirmala, the beleaguered, exhausted mother, gave different reasons. She was asked by her employer to work in Dubai as their housemaid and she wouldn’t be allowed to take her children with her. Unless she could find an alternative, she said she would have to send Suman back to their village in Jharkhand, in northern India, to live with relatives until they could find a suitable husband for her in a year or two.
With her parents anxious to have Suman moved out of their one-room home for reasons real or imagined, and both Suman and Nirmala’s assertion that Shiva beats them when he is drunk (most nights), Indu and I arranged a meeting with the Sisters at Sister Adorers Home for Girls. The Catholic home is near the community and is also home to Ashwini, who was moved there a few years ago, escaping a difficult life with a well-intentioned but alcoholic single mother. Ashwini has flourished because of the loving, abundant care of the Sisters. Shiva, hopeful to have his daughter out of his home, flagged the rickshaw for us to attend the meeting.
During the meeting, Nirmala, a beautiful woman with strong, open, friendly features, kept her head bowed low, eyes fixed on the shiny floor tiles and threaded a handkerchief between her fingers. Dressed in a polyester sari, the swirling pattern covering up the grime infused into the fabric, her voice barely reached above a whisper as she told the Sisters the father has become more violent. Suman wasn’t safe in the home while she works, or at night when she sleeps. She explained that Shiva comes home in the middle of the night, wakes Suman and beats and berates her. With little sleep, Suman’s school work has suffered and she doesn’t attend regularly. She told of the uncle who has recently come to live with the family in their small room, who doesn’t contribute money, but is allowed to stay as a result of a payback deal from some random favour his family once did for Shiva. Nirmala hinted that Suman, who is fast maturing into a young woman, may become the target of sexual abuse while she is at work.
The Sisters have a criteria for taking girls into their home. They admit the daughters of single mothers who can’t afford to care for their daughters, or the daughters of mothers who work and live in the red-light district. Suman doesn’t fit this criteria but the Sisters were concerned for her situation and agreed to consider her placement. For Suman, living at the Girls’ Home, would mean a clean, loving, nurturing environment with regular, nutritious meals, loving discipline, routine, regular school attendance, time to study, and forty other girls to include as family.
Nirmala, Suman, Indu and I left the meeting, cautiously hopeful, and spent the next few days watching our phones. The call came a few days later.
The Sisters agreed to take Suman, provided we find a way to get Suman to and from school for the rest of this school year. They also required an assessment of the family home and asked if I would come immediately to accompany them. We folded ourselves into a rickshaw and while the driver steered the small, belching beast through the snarled, honking traffic, the Sisters recited prayers until we reached the community. We found Suman’s brothers,11 year-old Sujeet and 4 year-old Sumeet, in the windowless cement-walled room the family calls home.
The Sisters, dressed in beige unadorned kurtas, smelling of a whiff of talcum powder, stood in the centre of the stifling room, assessing the family’s living situation in the dim light despite the daytime hour. Speaking in Marathi, they asked the boys some questions. They said their father wasn’t in the community that day, their mother was at work and Suman was at school. (Nirmala is the only support for the family, earning just over $100 a month as a housemaid for three different homes.)
While the Sisters looked around and talked with the Suman’s brothers, a mouse ran the length of the wall and ducked behind the thin, single dirty mattress slumped against the far wall. They inspected the corner of the room that contained some tipped over pots and food bins. Lifting a lid off a pot they found a half-eaten chapati and some crusty dal - the remains of breakfast, replied the boys, when asked what they had eaten today. The family’s clothing and meagre possessions were stacked on makeshift shelves or haphazardly piled into the corners. A small television blared cartoons. Sujeet remained standing in the half-walled corner where the family takes bucket baths, while he politely answered questions directed to him, and Sumeet hid behind the mattress leaning against the wall, his feet in the traffic zone created by the mouse.
The Sisters concluded their home assessment, nodded to me and one another, handed the boys a few candies, and told me to bring Suman to the home at 4 o’clock the next day.
Nirmala was elated at the news when we visited her at home later that day. Her mouth stretched to a grin the size of a half moon, she embraced both Indu and me in her strong arms and shut her eyes. This was the news we had all wanted to hear. We all knew what it meant for Suman. A new start, an opportunity to be well-educated, well-fed, and consistently nurtured far from her abusive father. For Nirmala, it has to be said that she would have less tension with one less mouth to feed and one less person to take up space in their small room, but mostly her fears for Suman’s safety were finally put to rest. As for the father, it was assumed that he would be happy. The brothers would have more space in the small room to sleep and more food to eat. There would be one less school fee to pay.
Indu, Todd and I arranged to pick up Suman in the morning to take her to get a new outfit and some toiletries and we celebrated with cupcakes in a fancy air-conditioned bakery. Suman’s smile, a wee bit lopsided when she is giddy, was contagious. We dropped Suman off at her home and told her mother to make sure she packed all of Suman’s school clothes and supplies and whatever clothes she wanted to bring. Nirmala, excitedly shook her head yes, and then the two of them disappeared into the darkness of their home to pack.
An hour later, Suman, still smiling, linked her arm in mine as we carefully stepped over debris in the lane way leading out of the community while Indu, Todd and her mother followed a few steps behind.
“Cindy Mom”, Suman yelped as we neared the rickshaw stand, “I’m going to a new life. I’m so excited. I like the girls there. I like the Sisters. I will miss my mother but I never want to see my father again. My brother said he was happy I was leaving. I am so happy to go.”
Once at the Home For Girls, Nirmala signed the required paperwork and Suman was shown a locker for her few possessions. The Sisters reminded Todd and me about Suman’s 6:45 am pick-up time for school as we would be the ones to pick her up and drop her off at school. Nirmala and Suman exchanged glances but no tears flowed. Indu, Todd and I gave Suman a hug, and she was left in the doorway, smiling with the Sisters, anxious to get on with her new life.
In the new darkness of the evening, Todd and I walked Nirmala home, chatting as we walked, and left her at the stairway that leads down into the community with a bag of vegetables we had stopped to buy. She was happy with her decision. I reminded her that we could all visit Suman; that the Home for Girls was walkable from the slum. She gave a quick nod, but was now concentrated on getting home to make food for her sons.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Nirmala, allegedly beaten by Shiva who was filled with rage because he had decided in his drunken stupor that Nirmala, or us, had somehow profited from Suman’s placement in the home, was at the school desperate to take Suman back to their desperate lives. As is the case in every home in the slum community, Nirmala has no power over her husband’s decisions, and will bear the brunt of his ineptitude. We or the Sisters have no power over a mother’s decisions for her daughter.
Devastated, Suman sat in the rickshaw hoping this wasn’t true. Moments before, when I entered the school to pick her up, Suman was happier than I had ever seen her. She blurted out how nice the home was, how much she'd liked the girls, she'd had a good nights sleep, and a shower, and they had fed her breakfast - all things she is not used to in her home life. She could already feel a forward momentum to a better life.
Despite our best intentions, despite a disintegrating home life with an alcoholic, abusive father and uncle, despite Nirmala’s assertions that her daughter is not safe in the family home, despite the Sisters changing their criteria for admission to admit Suman to their loving home, despite Suman fighting back tears and not being able to look at her mother, despite the father deciding months ago that he didn’t want Suman and actively seeking any and all alternatives, despite us offering Nirmala and her sons help in finding a new place to live away from the father or train tickets back to their native village, there was nothing the Sisters or we could do.
Suman packed her bag, the one we purchased the day before, and left the Home for Girls a few steps behind her mother who refused to look at us.
The Sisters and I shed tears of frustration and worry for Suman and her mother. We all embraced, and in a whisper, while holding my hand and delicately stroking the crosses hanging from their necks, they looked at each other and insisted that only God knows why.
Suman is back in the community living in the small dark room shared with five family members. Her parents have yanked back the only Golden Ticket she will ever have.
DWP donates money every year to Sister Adorers out of respect for the work they do and for Ashwini’s on-going care which includes a tuitions teacher to improve her school work.
20,000 rupees (CAD $365)
Supplies for Suman
(top, pants, underwear, shoes and toiletries):
1265 rupees (CAD $23)
The cupcakes were on us.