“Whoa, whoa” will forever be on repeat in my mind. I hope I never forget the way the corner of her little mouth moved up and to the left as she curiously questioned me and used the only words she knew as a toddler.
Bhoomi lived in a tin hut in an area of the community that was everything you imagine a slum to be - flies, garbage, scavenging dogs, sickness and disease, barefoot children and burdened parents - but like everything in India, there is more than meets the eye. As DWP started its biggest project to clean that area of the community, we met hundreds of children belonging to proud, hard working parents and also heard heart-breaking stories that emerged as we peeled back the layers of this section of the community.
In 2010, as our project began, nine-year-old Ashwini and two-year-old Bhoomi soon became daily fixtures in DWP stories and photographs. I spent every day with these two for months and I began to learn more about their situation, which was tough to hear. Slums are full of gossip and hearsay and when you throw in cultural differences and a language barrier, fact and fiction can sometimes get tangled, leaving us wondering what the truth is. As the gossip goes, Bhoomi was born to a young prostitute and then sold to her current mother when she was just days old. The woman who purchased Bhoomi had a husband who was dying of TB and she required a child to secure her stake in her husband’s small tin shack. After her husband’s death, two more women joined the household with their children. The three woman shared two tin shacks with Bhoomi, brothers Sunny, Praful and Anu, and Ashwini who soon became the slave to all. She cooked, cleaned and endured daily beatings while caring for 2-year-old Bhoomi and shielded her from the abuse in the home.
After much convincing and a deal with me to watch Bhoomi, the women conceded to let Ashwini attend morning classes at the free kindergarten in the community. She was anxious to learn and just be a kid. While Ashwini spent the morning learning basic math and tried her hand at writing and reading, Bhoomi and I played in the newly cleaned garden space with the other kids.
Ashwini and her depressed mother eventually fled the home because of the abuse. We found them living in a dingy roadside cafe where the mother had found cleaning work. With the help of DWP and Janvi Trust, and to the relief of her mother, Ashwini was moved to a girls’ home near the community where she lives to this day, safe and respected in a clean, loving environment. She attends English Medium school and although she missed Bhoomi, she is happy and engaged in her surroundings and her mother visits her monthly.
We all worried for Bhoomi when we were able to secure a home for Ashwini and wondered what would become of her in the family hierarchy. Our fears were put to rest when Santoshi, one of the women living in the house (the mother of the three boys), seemed to dote on Bhoomi and she appeared well cared for and happy despite missing Ashwini’s dedicated care.
Bhoomi & Santoshi
While Ashwini settled into her new life in the girls’ home, Bhoomi grew from a toddler into a fearless, feisty 8-year-old tomboy who, (unlike most of the girls in the community who love to dress in sparkles, ruffles and neon-bright colours), dressed in shorts and t-shirts handed down from Sunny, Praful and Anu. While Bhoomi’s mother and Santoshi worked cleaning office buildings nearby, the three boys kept a watchful eye on her as she played in the lane way, dressed her and helped her wash her face. She was often without pants because they tired of washing her underwear when she squatted in the gutter. On most days we searched their hut for pants for Bhoomi. She tagged along with them on all DWP sponsored outings, running down the lane way, her hair slicked with coconut oil and combed back from her face just like the boys, excited to get to the meeting spot. She was completely fearless at the recent DWP waterpark outing - walking off the edge of the pool, struggling to swim, coughing, spitting water, and then doing it all again. She reluctantly attended Indu’s tuition centre and carefully wrote out ABC’s in her battered notebook when she wasn’t looking out the door to the freedom of the laneway. She was quiet but assertive and loved to make faces.
Despite the new beginnings for Ashwini and Bhoomi, the realities of life in the slum reminded us all that life can be cruel, brutally unforgiving and over far too soon. Eight-year-old Bhoomi passed away suddenly on May 28th. Our sadness has no bottom.
Through murky details we know the following. Sunny, Praful, Anu and Bhoomi sleep together on a 4 foot by 6 foot cement floor in a separate hut from the women. They have one small fan that is plugged into the wall via two wires that have been stripped and are then shoved into the socket which also has bare wires from the wall. Sometime in the middle of the night the fan might have stopped working. The heat in the small tin shack would have been overwhelming. It’s believed that she woke up and attempted to insert the wires of the fan back into the socket, but instead got such an electric shock that it stopped her heart and killed her. In the morning the women got up and left for work and remained unaware of what had happened. The boys woke and left the hut assuming Bhoomi was asleep. A little while later they attempted to wake her and found her body lifeless.
Santoshi and Bhoomi’s mother arrived and they bundled her up and took her by auto rickshaw to nearby hospitals. The first two refused them entry as it was clear that she was already gone. A local public hospital finally allowed them in where the cause of death was determined to be electrocution.
Her body was brought back to the community, washed and wrapped in a white cloth and then laid in the dusty garden where I first met her as a toddler, perched on Ashwini’s hip, opposite the hut where she lived and died. Marigold garlands were placed on her body, she was surrounded by her family and others from the community, and she was given the necessary Hindu rituals to send her spirit soaring. When Hindu children die they are not cremated and her body has been buried nearby.
This is an incredibly sad and preventable death that will haunt us all. Bhoomi was a DWP kid - a child we all adored, part of a family we know well. We thought she was one of the unbreakable ones.
When Ashwini’s mother couldn’t be located in the few days after Bhoomi died, the task of going to the girls’ home to tell Ashwini about Bhoomi’s death fell to Indu. Ashwini’s heart is broken. A few days later, Ashwini’s mother brought Ashwini to the community to visit the family and pay respect. Bhoomi’s mother prevented attempts by DWP to have Ashwini and Bhoomi reunited for brief visits over the years, but they never stopped asking about each other, hoping they would see each other again one day.
On the last day of her very short life, Bhoomi feasted, laughed and danced her heart out to Bollywood tunes at a community wedding that she attended with her family.
Good-bye sweet Bhoomi - "whoa, whoa" from DWP. We adored you and will forever keep you in our hearts and minds. Every child in the community represents a struggle, a fight to survive and a will to go on. Every child represents a bright hope for their family. Bhoomi’s feisty, tough but sweet spirit will survive despite her body’s insistence on leaving.
To celebrate Bhoomi’s life and mourn her death here in Victoria, B.C. we gathered with friends, Sarah Petrescu and Ashley Fernandes and their one-year-old daughter, Nova (both of them knew Bhoomi from time spent with us in Saki Naka) at the waters edge where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets a pebbled shoreline, on a clear sunny evening. We brought a favourite photo of Bhoomi, a marigold garland made of flowers from our garden, dried rose petals brought back from Saki Naka, a candle, and in a small container, water from the Ganges from a trip to Varanasi. In a quiet spot just below the cliffs, we lit the candle, laid the marigold garland on her photo, sprinkled the photo and the rose petals with Ganges water and stood quietly for awhile. As life on the waterfront went on around us, we talked about Bhoomi's life and shared separate memories of her. When the candle started to flicker out, we finally set her photo, the rose petals and the marigold garland afloat in the clear water and watched them slowly float away.
DWP will present Ashwini and Bhoomi’s mother each with a book of every photo we have taken of Bhoomi from toddler to tomboy. There will be a smile on every page.