Friday, December 5, 2008

HOMECOMING by Manorama Mathai

Neetu did not understand that when you are very poor dreams don't mean anything.
That is all they are, dreams, unreality, a fugitive hope that has hunkered down in the
further recesses of the mind. All that really matters when one is down and out is survival.
Neetu is only 12, a small wisp of a girl, who left her native Kerala many years ago but
not long enough to erase the memories to which she has clung all this time, memories
that became a dream of happiness past, happiness waiting to be reclaimed in a beautiful
place that had somehow got lost. Or so it seemed to the little girl who treasured her
memories as other children play with brightly coloured objects.

Vatakkara in Kerala, where Neetu's family had lived, is not a rich place, but it is green,
lush and it was home even though that home was only a small bare hut in which she
had lived with her grandparents, parents and other relatives. Her parents had worked
very hard as landless labour, her father as a coolie pulling heavy loads and her mother
doing odd jobs. For the little ones, however, there had been ponds to splash in, trees to
climb and loving grandparents on whose laps they might lie down to sleep.

When the chance came and it had seemed like a big chance, Neetu's parents had migrated
from Vatakkara to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, as different from green pellucid
Kerala as any part of India could be and they toiled there in the harsh climate and came slowly
to the realisation that they had only exchanged one kind of poverty for another. And they were
not at home, outsiders who never would truly belong.

Realising that they could not afford to support Neetu and the other children who had come into
being, they got Neetu employed as a servant maid in an affluent local household. At an age when
she should have been at school and at play with her friends, Neetu shouldered all the household
chores that were thrust upon her and nobody thought that she was too young to take on such a
burden. There are many children like Neetu who struggle on as domestic servants. People believe
that they are better off working, but then some people will believe anything that makes the unpleasant
more palatable. There are many such people who will tell you solemnly that they are doing the little
child who toils in their home or business a good turn.

Although she was only a child, close in age to their own children, she was not their child and Neetu's
employers were not kind to her. She was only a servant and servants belong to a different breed;
soon the harrassment began and grew to unbearable levels. She is still unable to talk about it but if
you persist with your questions the tears welling in her eyes and some suspicious marks on her arms
and legs need no words, they annotate only too well a cruel page in her life. There is a look about a
child who is unloved and it is plain for all who have eyes to see.

Finally, Neetu could stand it no longer, perhaps some small misdemeanour or childish mistake
brought dreadful retribution on her defenceless body, so she ran away. She did not go back to her
parents, she knew there was no recourse there, that there was nothing they could do to help her.
She was half starved, hurt and alone, but something remained in her mind, had never been erased
from her memory, which she knew she must look for. What drove her on was the dream she still
carried in her mind of her quiet native village in Vatakkara, which seemed to be her only hope.

She had no clear idea of where Vatakkara was or how she might reach that place, but she remembered
that she and her parents had come from there in a train. So she went to the railway station and thought
that she might find a train going in that direction. It was not as easy as she had thought because there
were many trains to catch before one might find a train to take one to Vatakkara.

Wandering bewildered on the station platform, she was noticed by some policemen and it was obvious
that she was penniless. So they did the only thing they could do, they took her into custody and later she
was produced in court. There, Neetu told the judge her tale and she begged and she pleaded to be sent
back to Vatakkara. Her grandfather had died and others of the family had moved away but she was sure
that her grandmother who still lived in the village would welcome her back with open arms.

The judge must have been a kindly man; perhaps he was moved by a little girl's tears or else he saw the
scars on her thin malnourished body and recognised that they were recent. Whatever the reason, he acceded
to her request and she was sent to Kerala accompanied by two women constables of the Madhya Pradesh police.

When they arrived in Kerala, two Kerala policewomen joined the trio in order to help them locate the house in
Vatakkara where Neetu's grandmother still lived. It was not an easy task. One mud hut looks very much like
another and coconut palms and ponds are not reliable landmarks and the little child who had left Vatakkara
so many years before had no real clues to where the grandmother's hut might be. She saw it very clearly in
her mind's eye, the well with the pulli tree beside it from which she had plucked the sour fruit to suck, even now
it made her mouth pucker; the verandah on which her grandmother had lulled her to sleep with old lullabies.
But what she saw there in the Vatakkara they took her to did not fit in with the dream, the long-ago memories.
The reality looked different and she did not even know her grandmother's real name.

Still, somehow, through tenuous links and tortuous questions, they found the place and they found the old woman,
Neetu's grandmother. The reunion was joyful, for she did welcome the little girl, her grandchild who had come all
those many long, lonely miles in order to find what she thought of as her home.
--Brought you by RK

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