The Undulating Journey of Anjum
The Undulating Journey of Anjum
I am Anjum, a 12-year-old girl from Mewat Region, Haryana of North India. I live in a village which is predominantly Meo Muslim. This is one of the reasons why our village is conservative. In our community, girls are not allowed to step out of houses, forget going to schools. They only go to Madrsa to get religious education. We are forced to work in houses and fields as supporting hands and bringing up our siblings. We are unaware of what the outer world looks like or what the opportunities are for a girl like me. There is no media, radio or TV even to tell us what our environment is like. Such mediums are forbidden in our community. The only education we have is of our religious texts.
Unlike the community, my father was very loving. He was the one who taught me what my name means. Do you know the meaning of my name? It means a star – yes, that is the meaning of my name. My father cherished me like I was precious, and he told me often that I was the most beautiful daughter in the world and that I would become a star one day. My father Aas Mohammad was the one I loved most.
We were a happy family of five with my mother Zeenat and two elder brothers Istiyaq and Imtiyaaz. I was the only daughter, hence I was the most loved. Unfortunately, this happiness was short lived. My father lost his life to cancer when I was merely nine years old. Afterwards, my mother found solace in another marriage, leaving my brothers and me behind to face life on our own. We never felt as helpless as in this situation as we had no one to look to. We had no food and no peace but were sheer helpless left in despair. In this loneliness and darkness of life, we had nothing but to join our hands and pray endlessly.
Our prayers were answered when our uncle came to fetch us. It was like a ray of hope in our lives as this is when we decided to stay away from our home and past and live with him in hope of a better future. My aunt was very happy and delighted to receive us initially. It was decided that my brothers could do some job to contribute to the family and I could be company to their only daughter, Sajia. Sajia was as old as me and mostly stayed at home. She was not interested in going to school. Very soon as decided, my brothers got jobs outside the place. One of my brothers got to drive a truck, which made him travel outside, and the other got a job in a dhaba, a roadside restaurant. Once they were gone from the house, my aunt’s behaviour towards me changed completely. She forced me to do all household jobs like washing clothes, fetching water, cleaning the animals, giving them fodder, washing dishes, cooking and taking care of all other jobs at home and for the cattle. She would beat me if I made any error and would only give me leftovers to eat. When I asked for more food, what I got was thrashing and no food. There was no dignity in my life. Over time, I realized that my aunt’s greed to keep us was due to the custom that people in our village gave us food and clothes during festival times. This is a custom which is followed in our village for destitute children, and my aunt took all advantage she could. On top of that, she got to keep all my brothers’ earnings. All the money and gifts were spent on her and her own children, and I got nothing out of it.
One day while I was attending to my regular jobs, I overheard some people talking about this school called Udaan. These people were suggesting this school for Sajia. I peeped from the crevice of the door and saw a kind and simple looking woman called Poonam didi (older sister) asking my aunt to send Sajia to Udaan. Poonam didi is a teacher in the school that she was speaking about. She was trying to identify girls who lost out on early schooling. This seemed like a dream school for adolescent girls who have never been to school and in only 11 months’ time, they could complete five classes and even join class 6 in government school. They would be looked after, get food, clothes and a place where 100 of them would stay together without any fee. The best part of the school was I would be able to rejoin school where I left it. I could not believe my ears, and this gave me a fresh hope for my life.
My aunt agreed to send Sajia to Udaan but never told them of my existence. Soon Sajia went, but a week later we got a message that she had difficulty coping with other girls. Poonam didi said that it happens initially when girls come to Udaan, leaving their home, family and friends, until they make new friends at school. The idea of getting free education, food and a good life for Sajia was too tempting for my aunt to let go, so she decided to send me to stay with Sajia for a few days to help her adjust in camp. She informed Poonam didi that I was a distant cousin visiting her for a few weeks and threatened to kill me if I disclosed anything more to anyone.
For me it was a dream come true, though for few days. I saw it as an opportunity to stay away from my cruel aunt and live the dream of going to school with a school bag and of a free life on my own terms.
However, this dream was shattered as no one spoke to me, slept with me or ate with me. I could not understand why I was different, and I thus felt lonely. Sajia treated me like a maid and often beat me up. As I sat crying on my fate and of the immense pain in my head, an Udaan teacher found me and asked for the reason of my agony. I could control no longer and wept uncontrollablely without uttering a word.
Soon all the teachers were around me and took off my veil, which I had not taken off since I came to my aunt’s place. In fact, I realized I had not changed my clothes in many days. When the teachers removed my veil, they saw that my head was bleeding due to the unsurmountable number of lice and worms feasting on my head and skin. It never occurred to me that I was in so much pain or that rats had nibbled on my ears. I had not slept in days, and thus my sensations were numb. Maybe this was the reason I did not realize the pain inflicted upon me. I was like a dead and walking body with no senses.
Poonam didi called the barber to cut my hair, but seeing my condition he got intimidated and refused to cut my hair. The fear was that my skin which was all wounded should not get further hurt. The Udaan teachers did not give up on me and took the courage to cut my hair themselves. Upon cleaning, I could see all the worms wanting to cling to me again as they were losingtheir host and food. I was like hell. I was wrapped with Neem paste (natural disinfectant and healer) for days to keep me at bay from lice and worms and also to heal my wounds. The teachers gave me fresh clothes, clean food and something that I had not got for months- a warm bed to sleep. I did not realize that I slept for four days with a teacher watching over me for any pain and to ensure I was fed as I rested. I felt like a lifetime of rest was due on me. I recovered slowly. After a few days I felt like a human again. Later I was told that had I not been attended I would have been killed by infection in a few days. It was just by grace of almighty that I came to Udaan, and Poonam didi was my angel who took all the efforts to clean me and not give up on me and saved my life. She not only supported me physically but also helped heal me within all of the trauma I had gone through.
I can never forget those four days when I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep. What I remember was seeing a different world surrounded with white light, playing with my father and seeing that very star which I always wanted to grab for myself. Indeed I was in a different world away from all misery and sorrow. But alas I woke up to another world altogether. A world of Udaan…
In Udaan my teachers gave me so much love and care that I almost forgot about my past and all the trauma I been through. My teachers gave me an objective in life and asked me to build a purpose in life with the tool of education and how I can achieve it. My teachers were very patient with me and helped me not only in adjusting to my life but also with my day to day needs like sitting in the class and concentrating, being friendly with other girls and adjusting to this new world. Once I got to know other girls, I realized that there were others like me who were supported by didi and whose lives got completely transformed because of their hard work and perseverance.
When my aunt came to fetch me, didi refused to send me back and threatened to lodge a police complaint against her for abuse if she insisted or played any further tricks.
When my brothers came to visit me, they were surprised to see me in the shape I was in and thanked my teachers for not only saving my life but also for giving me this new lease. They requested my teachers not send me back as they might then never see me again.
It was Udaan which gave me wings with its support to understand that I too was a human with a mind and a heart. I got my life and my confidence back to face life with new energy and zeal. This camp has not only given me wings to fly but has nurtured other girls like me out of physical and mental trauma to fly high with dreams and aspirations. Today I have learned to find my way and have a purpose in life bundled with my aspirations. I am equivalent to a grade II student and soon will be on par with grade V. After Udaan, I would like to join a KGBV, a government run residential school which has similar set ups to help me grow further in my life.
One day I will become a star like my father has named me and will study hard to become a doctor to serve back to my community and humans where I found my new identity with a purpose to fulfill…
Written by Seema Rajput, CARE India.