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‘Go pick up Baby, Gudia’, yelled her Madam from the living room, where she had her friends over for tea.
Gudia, abandoned her tea-making, to pick up little Baby. Baby was only 4 months old, and Gudia had been delegated to look after her, from the time she was born. Looking after Baby was one of the chores that 12-year-old Gudia loved. It reminded her of her own sisters and brothers, she had helped her mother bring up. She wondered now, how they were managing. She knew that she really did not have to worry. Sunita, her 10-year-old sister would have taken over from where she left, a year ago.
She remembered that day so vividly. Her madam and sir had come to their native place, a few months before Baby was born. They had their son Vivek, and madam had been pregnant with Baby. Their old maid had fallen ill, and this time madam wanted a young child because she did not want to be saddled with the worry of a maid falling ill. Her mother had been overjoyed at their offer. It was a big blessing for her. With six children to look after and bring up, one child being practically taken off her hands and getting paid for it, was more than she could ask for. Gudia’s school had been stopped long back when she was roped into help her mother look after the other children when her mother went to work as a domestic help for the well-off families in the village. What she earned was a pittance in comparison to what the Kumars were offering for Gudia. She could not believe her luck. The only condition that they had been that she had to maintain that she was 16 in case anybody asked her in the big city.
Life at the Kumar’s was quite pleasant for Gudia. She had a lot of work, but in comparison to the amount that she had to do back in her village, this was quite comfortable. Madam was good to her too. She did not hit her like she had heard some people did, from others in the village. She did get an earful, every so often, for eating too much, but Gudia had learnt to ignore it.
Things became more hectic after Baby’s birth for Gudia, but because she adored the little baby so much, she quickly got used to it. The couple’s son was the only thorn in her back. He took pleasure in taunting her and made fun of the fact that she knew no English. She has started learning the language at school when she was pulled out. Once Vivek saw her pouring over a book he had left around and started making fun of her. ‘What are you trying to do? Do you think someone like you will be able understand all these big words?’ That ensured that she never went close to his books again.
‘Gudia, why are you day dreaming?’ Her madam’s, harsh voice broke into her reverie.
‘Baby is asleep, and we are waiting for tea, and here you are sitting at day-dreaming! Do I have to remind you of everything?’
Mini, at Amita Kumar’s place for the first time, flinched. She worked in an NGO, and they had been campaigning for years to eradicate Child labour. Although Amita claimed that Gudia was almost 17, it was difficult to believe. Mini just could not help telling Amita in English, that she is after all just a child. Amita’s eyes flashed and showed Mini that she would not take kindly to any interference.
Mini’s husband reported to Amita’s husband at work and she had to be careful handling this. Her heart went out to the little girl who was handling responsibilities like a grown up. Even if she were 17, did it make it alright to shout at her? Besides, her instincts told her that she was definitely younger. She could not be more than 11. Amita claimed that she was even more scrawny earlier, and they had brought her here to help her mother who was finding it difficult to look after her children. Amita claimed that the girl had started looking healthy only after coming here.
After that get-together at Amita’s place, Mini tried to tiptoe around Amita’s ego to try to do her bit for Gudia. With Amita insisting that Gudia was 17, there was little she could do unless Gudia herself confided in her or came to her for help.
Mini had been wracking her brain to figure out a way, when fate provided a way out. Providence does work in mysterious ways. One day, Amita called her and asked for a favour. She had to go away for a few days and she had not been able to find somebody to take Gudia home. Could Mini please help keep her at her place until she got back? All her other friends had full-time domestic help, and did not want to upset the balance. Mini was overjoyed, here was the opportunity that she was waiting for.
Gudia came on the appointed day and was stunned when Mini instead of asking her to start work immediately started to ask her about her and her family. Gudia maintained that she was 17, and the story of how her mother had been delighted that Amita had helped them. On talking to her she realised that the girl was interested in studying but had been pulled out of school. Mini’s do-good nature licked into full force and she decided to teach her in the time that she was at her place. Gudia sensed that Mini wanted to help her, but she could not understand why Mini wanted to help her at all. She actually considered herself lucky that Amita did not abuse her or treat her badly. She had heard stories of how some other girls had been treated. Amita’s household was heaven in comparison. The last thing that Gudia wanted was to upset her madam in any way.
That week, instead of doing all the household work, Gudia spent her time mastering the English alphabet and trying to read. She was delighted at the end of the week, that she could read sentences. Mini promised her that she would somehow continue teaching her. One day, Mini took Gudia to the NGO’s office. Mini realized that Gudia needed to see more of the world to understand that she deserved more. She saw how some of the girls rescued from working in homes were now being taken care of by the NGO. Seeing all the women at the NGO , filled her with wonder. Wonder at what she could have been if she had not been born where she had been. It also reminded her that if they got to know her real age, she would be plucked from there and her mother would ultimately suffer. Her monthly salary was a huge boon to her mother back in the village.
The time at Mini’s place flew by too quickly. Back at Amita’s place, Gudia’s life went back to normal. Household chores, ferrying Vivek back and forth from the school bus, looking after Baby. She still managed to get her hands on the daily newspaper and would practice her newly acquired reading skills. She kept this knowledge away from Amita. Something told her that Amita would not appreciate it.
Mini did not get a chance to coach her again. Her husband was offered a better job at another city and they were getting ready to move on. Just before she left, she did manage to smuggle a dictionary to Gudia. She had once showed Gudia how to use it and she hoped that she would remember.
Mini moved cities and got busy with life, but she always had that nagging feeling that she had not done enough. She wished that she had the courage to take Gudia to the NGO and get somebody else to talk to her. She got busy with her life in the new city. She started working another NGO, but always felt a little guilty at the back of her mind. She could not help wishing that she had done more for Gudia. The week that she stayed with her, had made her very fond of the sincere, serious and responsible girl who was shouldering such responsibilities at an age when teenagers around her, are having the time of their lives.
Years later, she moved back into her hometown, and rejoined the old NGO. She was getting introduced to her colleagues when she met a young woman called Sujata who looked familiar but she was not able to place her. Sujata on the other hand was ecstatic, ‘Mini Madam,you must have forgotten me. I am Gudia , I used to work at Amita Madam’s place!’
Mini’s delight knew no bounds, ’I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you. I have been feeling so guilty for not doing enough for you when I left!’
Gudia said, ‘Guilty, for what? Whatever I am today, is because of you. You made me want to aspire for more. You made me realize that I can dream and that I can hope to be more than a maid!’
‘If you had not showed me tenderness and caring,or encouraged me to read, that ‘people like me’ did not necessarily have no brains, I would have accepted my fate and my children might have been doing the same that I was. I got the confidence to break the cycle, because of you.’
Gudia’s words were like a balm for Mini. She had not let the child down. Gudia explained how those days with Mini had shown her that she could do more if she wanted to. So she secretly started studying Vivek’s old books which Amita had thrown away. She would stash them away and try to read and understand what she could. She knew that she had little chance of getting an actual education, but she wanted to know as much as she could. Amita’s confidence in her grew as she realized that Gudia was hardworking, sincere and extremely honest. In a couple of years time, Gudia had become so dependable and trustworthy, that when she approached Amita with the plea that she be allowed to work in other homes, just to make a little more money, Amita had agreed. This extra money she got, was stashed away as her nest egg. At that point in time, she had no idea what she would do with it, but she knew that all the opportunities she never got, she had to ensure that younger siblings and her future children should get. As the nest egg grew, so did her confidence. She had also made sure that her younger siblings were going to school and getting an education back in her village. She was determined that they would have a different, better life.
One day, she gathered the confidence to go to the NGO that Mini had once taken her to. By then she was no longer a child labourer. But she wanted to ask them if she could do odd jobs there. The people at the NGO were delighted to help. They had been surprised at the way she carried herself, her self-confidence and how well she had self-educated herself. Soon she was helping out with other children, some battered physically, some battered mentally. Today she had a job that she loved. She was still studying. The thirst for knowledge that Mini had unleashed, in her was never satisfied. She also reclaimed her ‘real name’. She had been known as Gudia for too long, a mere nickname which had taken over her personality. She wanted to be Sujata now. A new name for a new personality, a person in-charge of her own destiny.
Mini realised then that every little counts. It reinforced her faith in what she was doing.She was at peace that night after a very long time.
Gudia was now one of the most effective persons at the NGO. She was an inspiration for children like her who were being used as child labour. Gudia’s success showed them that they could dream and achieve. All they had to do was grab every opportunity and be strong and aspire for a better life.
To reach the sky, all you need is a helping hand.