Two girls and a Madam

I am placed at KC Mahindra Education Trust (KCMET) – the not-for-profit arm of Mahindra & Mahindra Corporation. My background is in purely non-profit, one-room organizations – so this, for me, is a different experience. One of the programs I am involved in is Mahindra’s girlhood education program called Nanhi Kali (little bud in Hindi), and I’ve been excited to visit government-run, non-English medium schools as part of the job.

I spent a week in the “field,” going to a brand new location in Mumbai, seeing a variety of schools with different cultures, meeting the teachers, meeting the girls, going to their homes, and finally getting back on the train  a world was changing inside me.

Meeting Lakshmi

When I first saw Lakshmi, she was wearing her school uniform and shouting, “Oye Madam! Look – don’t step on the cow dung!” Lakshmi is in sixth grade and is tiny, but makes sure her voice is heard.  We sit outside her home, a makeshift structure on the sidewalk, watching her friends walk back from school. She tells me all the latest gossip and I listen with no real context.

Lakshmi spends her mornings helping her mother sift through garbage to pick up recyclables, which they then sell for a meager profit. She tells me that her favorite subject is Mathematics, and that since her mother doesn’t know how to do basic math, Lakshmi helps her with the bookkeeping.

When I ask her what she aspires to be when she grows up she answers, “a madam,” very matter-of-factly.

Meeting Aarti

Aarti is still my phone’s background. I talked to Aarti in her school before I went to see her home. She was just getting back from practicing a dance for one of the school’s cultural events. An otherwise energetic seventh grader, she began to get quiet as we approached her home and I saw that she lived in a tent on the street. Her teacher had told me beforehand that Aarti was embarrassed about her living situation, so I did not ask her about it.

As we arrived at her home, I was engulfed by her welcoming family – her mother, grandmother and her two sisters. We sat outside and talked about her love for dance and sports, and about the Marathi movie she watched in school.

Her mother joined us after a bit. We talked about Aarti wanting to join the police force in the future. Her mother said, “She is growing up now, and it is now becoming clear to her how ‘small’ she is in the world.” Aarti’s mother was married at the age of 13 and had Aarti when she was 15. She works as a maid today in the nearby apartment buildings.

Seeing these two girls who lived on the streets of Mumbai was not easy to for me to take in. But what stood apart for me with Aarti was that her home had to be dismantled every afternoon at 2 PM to make way for the vendors who occupy the street during the day. They start to rebuild their home again every night at about 9 PM, and finish the process around 11 PM. This routine disruption, especially during the heavy monsoon season, takes on obvious toll on nearly every aspect of their lives.

Meeting “Madam”

Lakshmi likes math because it is her daily reality to help her mother sell the trash they pick up and manage the books of this business. I wonder how nervous Aarti must have been to welcome yet another stranger to her home and analyse what her living situation means for her potential and future.

I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was the “madam” who visited their homes, talked to them for a bit and thought I had it all figured out about them. Can we look at where Aarti sleeps at night and decide what her future will look like? Is she the exception to graduate and get a full time job — or is she the rule?

Why do they call me the “madam” in this situation? Am I a researcher? Someone contributing to poverty porn? Or am I a compassionate anthropologist? I don’t know; I never asked them. But in the end, does this show up on my resume? “Can talk to ‘marginalized communities’ for a few hours and gain inferences from this short visit.”

During one of my visits – the teacher bought us a Coke to drink. I knew the bottle cost Rs 40 and wondered if this conversation is worth her spending 1% of her pay cheque on it. These privileged conversations that I am having with them–is it helpful to them or just me? I come in–observe their lives for an hour or so, disrupting their routine and possibly keeping them out of school and work.  For whose benefit is it, really? Or are we better off knowing each other and a little bit about each other’s worlds?

I always asked the girls and families if they had any questions for me. They never asked any. I wish they had.

Janice D'souza grew up in the Mangalorean Catholic community in South India. A first generation college student, Janice draws inspiration from her mother who tried for many years to teach herself English and go through vocational training. She moved to the U.S. in 2010 to attend Berea College, a tuition-free, work-study school where her studies focused on social justice and women's issues. During her time at Berea, she co-led a movement to reform the college's investment policy, and, working closely with the administration, achieved many of the campaign's goals. Her final thesis at Berea, informed by both personal experience and extensive research, examined menstrual hygiene in the developing world. Janice has shared her insights on the topic with the International Center for Research on Women and senior members of the World Bank. In both India and America, she has worked with nonprofits ranging from rape crisis centers, to women's empowerment organizations, to food pantries.

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