When you live in a small town, there are areas that your parents tell you to avoid because there are beggars, addicts and sex workers there. So, you religiously take the second left turn to avoid those dark patches, without asking you parents the reason for doing so. In ignoring the place, you also ignore the lives of the people living there.
It was only after the girl travelled to the city that she came to know what social work was. She met people who made a career out of helping other. *You can help others and get paid for it?*
So, she thought, why not?
She applied for her very first internship at a community based organisation in the city which actor Amitabh Bachchan described so elegantly — “Rikshon ka, tramon ka, coffee house ki shamon ka shehar; parivartan ke prayas ka, kalibari ke vishwas ka, rasgulle ki mithas ka, phuchke ke teekhe ehsaas ka shehar; Football ki uchal ka, boubazaar ke bhuchaal ka, adde ki behas ka, siyasat ki tehas-nehas ka shehar.”
For the first time, she met people who she had been ignoring all her life by taking that second left turn instead of the first. She spoke to them and realised that they were no different from any father or mother – they were trying to give the best of what they had to their children. And, when she learned of the hardships they had gone through, it changed her forever. The two month-long-internship left a lasting impact.
This is the story of the time she learnt how fulfilling it is to help others:
Across the road, she saw a woman walking briskly with one hand spread for alms and the other clutching a walking stick. She was almost blind, had a hunched back and white hair neatly tied in a bun, she was perhaps 70 or 80-years old.
Her poor eyesight and frail physique did not stop her from crossing the road with great agility and coming up to the girl. “Which way is Shealdah station?” she asked. And, she started walking almost as soon as the girl pointed in the general direction.
So, why did the girl stop and look back? Shealdah station was at least 20 kms away and the woman looked determined to walk the distance. The girl was sure that it was an impossible feat, even for most 25-year-olds.
The girl turned around and rushed to the woman, “Do you have to go to Shealdah station?”
“Yes,” she said.
“But, it is very far from here.”
“I know,” she said, giving the girl a glaring look. She started walking again, almost immediately.
The girl was stunned; she ran up to her again and said, “If it is about the money, I will pay your bus fare. But, please take the next bus to the station.” She did not say anything. And, when the girl took out a R10 note to pay the fare, she grabbed it and put it in a polythene bag that was slung on her right arm.
She did not stop at the next bus-stop and kept on walking in the direction of the station.
“Hey, I gave you the money so that you could take the bus. Why are you still walking?” the girl asked.
She turned back to face the girl, looked her in the eye and said, “Do you think I am a beggar?” She started sobbing. “I have a graduate degree, I used to teach the bachchas for a living. But, these damned eyes… I have lost everything because of them,” she said.
“How can I teach anyone when I can’t even read the books? Last month, my landlord kicked me out after 25 years because I could not pay the rent. You only tell me, what can I do? Amar kono chele mei nei (I do not have kids). Who will take care of me? So, I have to beg to collect money for my eye surgery,” she poured her hearts out.
She needed R5,000 for an injection that could save the vision in her right eye, if taken within a month.
The woman squeezed the girl’s hand and said, “I haven’t eaten anything in two days because all I think about is the injection. Anyway, why should you care?” She squeezed the girl’s hands, gave a sad smile and started walking again.
The girl rushed to the nearby moodir dokan (grocery store), bought a pack of Parle-G and a bottle of lemonade and walked up to the woman.
When she saw the offerings, she collapsed under the tree. She opened the packet of biscuits and started devouring them. As soon as she was done, she said ‘Thank You’ in perfect English and started walking again.
The girl knew that she had to do something.
At 8 in the night, she headed back towards her office. She was sure that the people there would be able to help the woman. And, they did. The organisation had received a letter for free treatment of poor patients at a city hospital.
As soon as the girl heard this, she turned on her heels and started walking back. Soon, she caught up with the old woman and told her what the people in her office had said.
For the second time that day, she saw the woman crying. The people from the office, who had followed the girl, saw two women standing in the middle of the road, hugging each other and crying.
Within an hour, she was taken to the hospital. A huge smile was on her lips throughout the journey.
Five years on, the girl can no longer recall her name, but she can never forget that smile.