Unkempt.. This was the only word that came to my mind when I saw her. Her clothing was shabby- a green top and brown pants, colors having faded less than the dullness of poverty around her. I wondered when she had last brushed her hair, if she ever did. She was lean and one would say around eight years old. But then there was this enigma about her face. She looked slightly older than that. A little lost?Disconnected?Expressionless?
Her mother was busy preparing breakfast for us. “Meenu, wash the vegetables”,the daughter was told in the local Mythili language. Meenu immediately obeyed without any objections. On finding out that Meenu is around 14 years old, I was more curious. Yes. “Around” fourteen. Because sometimes people don’t know their age. How do you know your age? Because your parents know your date of birth? Because you have official documents to prove it? Now imagine. Your parents are illiterate. They have too many kids than they can remember or handle…too many that they start to forget..forget when they were born. How old they are. Add a little bit of poverty and the disadvantage of being a girl child. And top it up with low mental capacity and differential ability.Now, is there a wonder why Meenu’s age was a confusion to her mother?!
“Why don’t you comb your hair? Tie it up and it will look pretty”, I suggested in broken Hindi which I hoped they would figure out. Meenu just smiled and ran away. Her mother gave me a nod for the answer. Next day Meenu looked different. Her hair was neatly combed and tied up. I complimented her new look. Again the reaction was the same. A small smile and she ran to hide away. Barefoot.
“Does she go to school?”, I enquired of her mother. She looked at me beaming and shook her head. No. Meenu has never been to school. Meenu can’t study. Meenu can’t understand things. Meenu is a little slow to learning. Meenu is good only for household chores. Meenu will stay here and help her family with work. Meenu is a poor disadvantaged girl in a small village in Bihar. Meenu is unlucky. And Meenu has no choice about it.
Unfair? Definitely! What if this child was born in a family with better conditions? Meenu would have better clothes. Her hair would be combed daily. She would get to go to school. Someone would spend time with her, assess her and help her improve her differential abilities. She would have more choices in life. Yes. Circumstances define your choices.
But for now, Meenu is happy. She grabbed the biscuits I offered her and ran away. She is content with her current scenerio. She has a roof over her head. They have food to eat. There is the large natural playground of the village. She can run around and play happily. She has no clue about the life she could have had if she was born into better conditions. Ignorance can too often be a bliss. But is that not a boon for now? I erased “unkempt” from my brain as my tag for Meenu and replaced it with “Content sans choice”. “Can I take a photo Meenu?”. Meenu looked at me and gave a sly smile. And for once, did not run away. She posed. Her tiny body, barefeet and torn clothes appeared on the screen of my phone. But the camera couldn’t capture her smile. I wonder why.