About a girl - Field Notes

This is one of my field notes from ethnographic research conducted in Summer 2016. The women I met in this slum left an indelible impression on me. They were NGO workers, teachers, optimistic young girls, resigned old women, and cheerful babies. But no one affected me more than Saima, a wisp of a girl whose slight figure belied the wisdom and strength it held.

I accompanied the NGO worker to the slum again today. Currently, she is working with the children in the slum to present a skit based on Snow White. When we arrived, one of the girls older than the rest of the lot started getting the room ready for practice. She also told all the kids to clean up and get ready. While I was standing there taking in the surroundings, one of the younger girls pulled at my bag and pointed at my phone which was in my hand saying, “ma’am photo”. She then went near a box and raised her hands indicating that she wanted me to carry her and put her on top of the box. Seeing me taking a picture of the girl, a few other kids came to the room too and said, “ma’am take a selfie with us”.


I found out later that the older girl, Saima, organized the kids for their classes at the NGO. On the way there from the far end of the slum, I could see little kids lying on their cots with their mother, and many of them looked very weak. They also had swollen bellies and bowed out legs, and some of the children who were around 2-3 year old had a different gait because of the bowed out legs.

Saima was a skinny girl, she was yet to be 18 but she seemed years older than her age. She wore western clothes all the times I saw her, she told me that she was fond of them. As we talked, she told me more about her life and her experiences with the NGO.

“Ma’am, I work in this pucca structure, the center pays me for it. My work is to get together the children, make sure they are clean and dressed and then send them to the center to study. I also keep the center clean and run any errands required. I live here with my sisters, you’ve met them, remember the woman you talked to at the center yesterday? That pucca structure is her home, two rooms are rented out to those two NGOs. I’m not living with my parents anymore. I had some issues with them.

Like every other story, it was to do with love. It happened in the village, I fell in love with the wrong person and now I am suffering the consequences of that (she choked up a little here). While growing up, I was very close to a boy my age. We were very good friends. Friendship grew into love. But my mother warned me against it. The boy came from a family with more money.

I was naive and thought everything could be solved by love. I went against what my mother said and she disowned me. The boy’s mother was completely against marriage to him and the boy never once stood up to his parents. I was thrown into this prison in the jungle by her family and for months no one found me. I had no idea who had done this at the time. When I finally go out, I learned that those people had hired goons to do this and I filed an FIR against them. When I did that, they tried threatening me, and bribing me but I was adamant. I was still willing to not press charges if the boy married me. The worst thing is that the boy I did all this for, does not even care.

Since I was young, I had a fondness for learning. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity go to school. I had to start working from a young age to supplement the family income. I’ve done every kind of work possible, you mention it and I’ve done it. I’ve pulled bullock carts, worked as a housemaid, ran miscellaneous errands and now I’m working at the center. I haven’t been paid by the center for months though, I’m thinking of refusing to work till they pay me. They don’t pay me much, only around 3000 rupees a month. Those 3000 rupees disappear before I know it. Right now I’m struggling for money, I eat on some days and I don’t on others. Last month, it was one of the kids birthdays so we had a huge celebration and I spent 10,000 rupees on it to get food for all the children because we hadn’t celebrated in a long time. I couldn’t say no to the children. Now I have nothing left.

Even my sister, the same woman you talked to yesterday was sly about helping me. When she needed money, I lent it to her without any questions. Now when I’m asking her for the same, she’s asking for interest. I agreed anyway because I don’t have a choice.

I like working at the center, in the first couple of months I had problems with the teachers working there but now I’m on a good footing with Annu ma’am. She even taught me. I’m a quick learner and learned in a month. I learned the alphabet and how to recognize letters in a piece of text. However, I still can’t read. I can only recognize individual letters. Annu ma’am would write down the alphabet for me and I would practice writing later. I’ve told Sanjay that I can help him and so has Annu ma’am but I don’t know why he doesn’t ask for help.

Before the center started over a year ago, a white lady and Sachin Sir, the manager, came to our slum. She gathered all the women in one place and asked who was willing and capable of working at the center. All the women here came forward but I was the only one who really understood what the woman was saying because I had picked up a lot of English from working as a housemaid. From working there, I had also learned how to speak with some manners (tameez). The woman took a liking to me and gave me this position at the center.

When I started working at the center there were two teachers, one for children under the age of 6 and the other was for the rest. However, the two teachers had a lot of issues between themselves and I would get stuck in the middle. Annu ma’am would complain that the other ma’am was unable to control the class. And that was true. I think the teacher had got a fake degree. She was completely unqualified for the job, the students would say that she doesn’t know anything, how is she going to teach us? Finally, the other class was discontinued, the teacher was fired and Annu ma’am started handling more children. At one point, Annu ma’am also had issues with me and accused me of not being at the center. How could I be at the center when she kept sending me on errands? Once she would tell me to get water, another time to get food. If she told me everything at once then I could at least not waste time on that.

Finally, she complained to Sachin sir, and he asked me what had happened. I told him my side of the story and he listened. Finally, he talked to Annu ma’am. He said – We’re not the ones who have any right over her, she’s the one who has any claim over us. How can we remove her when she’s the one who is letting us work here? We’re not the ones who hired her in the first place then what right do we have to remove her? I cried that day. I generally never cry before, not even when the boy I love did not stand up for me but I cried then. After that, Annu ma’am and I came to an understanding.

Once there was an incident when the policemen who live opposite our home were being unprincipled. Seeing that there was a young woman working alone at the center, they came into the center where Annu ma’am was teaching and harassed her. She was shaken by that. When I heard of that, I went to the police station and shouted at them and told them that I would file a complaint. After that, they did not come again. I keep all the men in the community in line, they don’t even look at the women who come to work here.

There are many stories from living here. Earlier we used to live across the road, in the space you see there. There were a lot more of us then. The government removed us from there because some construction was going to take place. The government gave plots of land to those who were removed as compensation but we did not receive any land then. Soon after we were removed, those of us who didn’t have anywhere to go were just sitting on the streets and lived there for a few days. It was the winter then and it was bitterly cold. One day, when we were sleeping, someone picked up this fat lady who was with us and just walked off with her. She suddenly woke up after he had walked a 100 meters or so and screamed. All of us heard, and hurried to help her and beat up the man. If she hadn’t screamed, then God knows if we would ever have realized that she needed help and anything could have happened to her.

A long time back, someone came here with a bus and promised that he’d take us to see the sights of Delhi. He told us that we were going to India Gate. All the children believed him, and we got into the bus all excited. However, a little into the journey, I realized that we weren’t going to India Gate. I’d been to India Gate once before and I remembered the route. I said this out loud and demanded to know where he was taking us. All the children then beat up the driver and got him to take us back.”


While leaving, Saima accompanied me till the auto. On the way, we saw a group of old men discussing something. She told me that it was their panchayat, and she had wanted to attend this meeting. They were deciding what would happen to a man who had harassed a woman. They should turn him over to the police but they might not because the image of their community would be ruined.