Sometimes she would come and ring my door bell, say an endearing “Good Morning”, wait around for a candy, and then leave with a tiny-tooth smile. Her eyes were large and expressive. She was a pretty little girl having dark complexion and full cheeks. In the mornings, she looked fresh and ready to spread smile. Her hair short and nicely combed to the sides. She sported a black kohl dot on her forehead, over the left eye. But by evening, she looked like an abandoned child – roaming around the compound barefoot, hair fanned in all directions and dust all over her face, hands, feet, and clothes.
Ask her, “Aapka naam kaya hai (What’s your name?)” and she would promptly and proudly reply, “Preeti.” If you probe her further, “School nahin jaate ho (Don’t you go to school?)”, she would suddenly feel shy and respond with a low toned “nah (no)” and avoid any further questions.
She lived behind my residence at the time, in a house that was built for demolition – one of those temporary structures you see in India that lot owners erect just to show the occupation of the land on papers. Preeti lived in that old makeshift house along with three other family members – her parents and a younger sister. Her father, a lean thirty something man, was apparently hired as a caretaker of the property.
I often spotted Preeti on my way to office – playing in the compound with her younger sister who must have been around three years old. Preeti herself was somewhere between 5 and 6. Her mother who was heavily pregnant could be seen brooming the floor or simply idling around. But she kept an eye on the sisters and prompted them to say “good morning” as I passed by.
One Sunday morning, Preeti rang my door bell to wish me “Good Morning” and to get a candy in award. I told her that she would get the candy only if she went to school. But she refused to budge. Pointing towards her younger sister, who was sitting below the steps, she said, “chotee ke liye de do (give for my younger sister). When I still didn’t oblige, she left in disappointment – looking back at least thrice hoping that I might change my mind. I really felt like giving her something but chose not to for I had also realized that my “always giving on her asking” was encouraging a wrong habit in her and in her mother as well.
Her mother, who was a stay home mom, had started sending Preeti asking for small things like drinking water, pickle, rice, food container, etc. She would sometimes even come to use my phone to give a call to her dad who had started doing odd jobs, apart from being a caretaker of the property.
That Sunday, Preeti returned with a new hope. I opened the door as she rang the bell.
“Chocolate,” she said and started scratching the door with eyes down.
“First school. School kab ja rahe ho (When are you going to school)?” I asked.
“Papa ne bola, pahle Babu school jayega (Papa said that first Babu will go to school),” she said.
“Kaun Babu (Babu, who)?” I asked wondering who she was referring to.
“Babu,” she repeated giving me a look that she was telling something obvious.
When I still appeared puzzled, she voluntarily added, “Mummy ke pet main Babu hai (Mummy has a Babu in her stomach).”
I couldn’t help laughing loudly. I had heard kids (as taught by elders in the family) in India announcing, “Mummy ke pet main bhaiya (brother) hai.” This was the first time I was hearing a baby boy being referred as “Babu”.
Babu or Baabu is a Hindi word for Mr. in English. It’s commonly used to refer to male public servants. Later I learnt that in a few northern states in India, baby boys are called as Babus and baby girls – well, just girls!
“Babu” is a term that British Raj gave to India, and one that continues to rule the psychs of many wannable employees and their families. During British Raj, people serving in government positions were called Babus. It refers to someone well educated and in a position of authority. Babus also earned well, and enjoyed many government provided special benefits, so were highly respected in the society. Even today, being in some government job is the ultimate goal of life for many.
“Wow! Born officers,” I thought.
Preeti couldn’t understand why I had laughed. “Hai (It’s there),” she reiterated thinking that I was not believing her.
“Aapko kaise pata (How do you know)?” I asked the unnecessary question. It was unnecessary because there were only two possibilities – either it was a wishful prediction or her parents had got a illegal sex determining ultrasound done. And both were beyond the comprehension of a 5-6 year old.
But Preeti’s education plan, crafted by her parents, was now clear to me – she would get to go to school once her brother arrives, grows up to being a 4-5 yr old, and starts going to school. And of course, it will depend upon the financial state of the family i.e. whether or not they have spare money to spend on Preeti’s studies. By that time, Preeti would be 11 – close to a marriageable age. Remember, 28% of the girls in India are married off much before they hit 20.
Preeti’s father was a nice guy – it’s just that his financial state was really bad and he didn’t seem to be trying hard enough to find a better job. When he was told about a school, in the neighborhood, that offers completely free education up to 10th standard he agreed, when persuaded a little, to get Preeti enrolled. The Trust run school not only provides students free books, notebooks, uniform, and lunch but also gives them some cash money as an annual stipend. Its mission is to provide equal education opportunity to kids from lower income families. It was hardly at 5 minutes walk from where Preeti lived. Unfortunately, it was middle of the year so school authorities had no choice but to ask Preeti to wait for a few months for the new sessions to start.
Preeti was provided some books and a home tutor in the mean time so that her year is not fully lost. And she was getting her well deserved candies.
A few days after that, another girl arrived in Preeti’s family that was expecting a boy, the Babu. While her parents did not appear shell shocked outwardly, internally they were devastated. Delhi NCR, the national capital region of India that gives hopes to millions, had not helped them much. They were living in a crumbling house, at the mercy of their land owner. The couple had come alone to the city and now they had three young daughters to take care of. Just one person doing multiple small jobs was not bringing much. They decided to move back to their village – at least they had a small house and a piece of land that they could call their own there – they thought.
One day, Preeti did not come to wish me Good Morning. The family had left the place, for good, I learnt. She was gone – just like that. Gone without saying goodbyes, without collecting her new set of books, without learning to count, and without mastering to write her pretty name.
Gone – without even learning how to spell “Good Morning”!
In April 2010, India became one of the 135 countries to make education a fundamental right of every child, aged between 6-14 years, under the Right to Education (RTE) act. But ensuring that no child is held back continues to be a challenge for those responsible for enforcing the act.