One of my happiest memories is of the two years I had spent working for an NGO in Calcutta. And whenever I think back fondly on those days, I can’t help but think of that one girl…
We had organized a drawing competition at the NGO on the occasion of Childrens’ Day and the response had been overwhelming. The tiny tots scribbled happily while the older ones put their heart and soul into what was a rare entertainment in their lives.
As I sorted the drawing papers at the end of the day, one of them in particular caught my eye, though I must say, several of them were surprisingly good. It was a water-color of a tigress with her cub, and it was so intricate and displayed such expertise of lines and color that it was not only the evident winner of our little contest but one that deserved full guidance to pursue painting. It was signed ‘Nazneen’ (Group C) and I didn’t wait any time before going up to the manager at the NGO, a kindly, pleasant women, wanting to meet this wonder girl. While Naz was finishing her classes at the free school run by the NGO upstairs, she told me a story that made me dissolve into tears in no time.
Nazneen was only 16. But she had seen more of the harsh truths of life that most of us, thankfully, never see in an entire lifetime. She was only 15 when her mother died of malnutrition, withering away before her very eyes as she and her family watched helplessly. Her father had a job unloading goods at the docks that paid 100 bucks a day, 150 if lucky. With her mother’s income as a maid out of the picture, needless to say, the father’s income was disastrously insufficient for a family of six. That was when, Nazneen, the oldest of the five children, decided to pitch in and help his family get back on its feet.
She signed up for all the courses that the NGO offered – embroidery, crafts, beauty training and jewellery designing, apart from attending classes. The instructors for all the courses were surprised at the natural aptitude she showed and at the quiet dedication with which she worked tirelessly. Before long, she was the favourite of all the instructors and could churn out the most beautiful jute bags and dry flower bouquets, cross-stitch table cloths and more. Clients for beauty services made special requests only to be served by her. And very soon, she was earning enough to keep her family floating. And, she scored a first division at her board exams.
She never neglected to take care of the family. With the mother gone, she knew her little siblings had only her to look up to, the father away drowning his frustration in liquor most nights. Every morning, she woke up before the crows, cooked, cleaned the house, packed lunch for the little ones and dropped them at school, and never ignored packing something for the father too.
It might seem otherwise, but she also had only 24 hours in a day, just like the rest of us.
And you could never catch her without a smile. Looking at her, it was impossible to guess that this shy, dusky girl with a heart-shaped face, hiding in a narrow dirty alley in a bustling city had got all her grief and troubles by the horns and turned them back with sheer grit.