I was just settling in for the night on the large Circuit House room bed when the phone rang out over the television news anchor. Not another fire I hoped as I saw the number of the local News correspondent flashing. Phone calls at 10.30 pm can never be good…at least in an administrator’s life. Bracing myself for the worst, I picked up the remote with one hand to put the TV onto mute and the phone with the other. The voice at the other end was confident and urgent as the polite apology was belted out. “Am sorry to disturb you at this hour,but I can’t think of what else to do. I hope you were not sleeping”
Even if I was, would I tell you, I thought to myself, wondering what crisis was to befall the district now…hopefully, we could stop it from making breaking news or stall the damage.
“No not at all, tell me…” I replied unaware of the impact this one phone call was to have in my life.
He began to tell me a gut wrenching tale of a little girl around five or six years of age in the government hospital. Her mother had been brought to the hospital by the 108 ambulance in a semi comatose state. This little girl was hanging onto her mother’s near lifeless hands as she was wheeled into the ward for treatment. During the course of treatment, the mother had died and the little girl now alone and in tears was running up and down hysterically in the corridors of the hospital. It was late ,he said and some people in the hospital not knowing what to do with the girl had called him up wondering if by flashing the news on the television news network the girl could be helped. “Can something be done for the girl, ma’am ? I don’t quite know who to turn to , so I thought I would call you. Could you please help”
I had just moved to the district of Bikaner as the District Collector around 10 days back. As official transfers are a sudden disruptive process my predecessor was yet to vacate the official residence and I was staying in the Circuit House. Not only was I new to the district , I was also clueless about the various officials in the departments, not having met everyone as yet. We are trained to deal with late night calls involving accidents, fires, riots but a five year old girl alone in the hospital. This was a first and I was not prepared to handle this. Still, a few phone calls later we had found the little wailing girl. She was taken to the government run Sishu Grih, a home for the abandoned babies and children for the night. Laxmi the tiny little girl as she told us her name was unable to tell the officials where she was from. Hungry, hysterical ,tearful and in a deep shock and confused state she allowed herself to be taken away by the ladies from the social welfare department who carried her out from the hospital where she had just lost her mother.
The next morning the officials of the Social Welfare Department set out upon the task of trying to trace the little girl’s family. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts of the police and the administrative machinery, we were unable to find out where she was from. Even Laxmi was unable to clearly spell out where her home was .No one reported a missing child or a lady matching the description of her mother. The police made enquiries even around in the neighbouring districts and in all the police thanas but all in vain. No one came to claim her even after a newspaper notice was put out.
A few days later on a visit to the Sishu Grih I met Laxmi, a tiny little mite, chirpy and chubby. As happens with little children, the shadow of the tragedy that had befallen her had left her face as she played with the six other little girls in the Sishu Grih. Laxmi was like a typical child of her age, boisterous and giggly with the other children and shy and quiet every time an adult tried to speak to her.
Sishu Grih‘s are run across the state of Rajasthan in the seven Divisional Headquarters. Officials from the Social Welfare Department manage these institutions which house orphaned and abandoned little girls below the age of eight according to the norms laid down by the department. Bikaner’s Sishu Grih was housed in a campus with other institutions run by the Social Welfare Department , the Naari Niketan (a home for destitute women), a home for children with mental disabilities (run by an NGO) and a Balika Grih ( an institution for older girls comprising mostly girls who had run away from home). As with most government departments the place was grossly understaffed and a single lady warden juggled her time between the institutions. Budget and maintenance issues were the foremost on any inspection of these institutions. Peeling plaster, old furniture and a strange dank smell that penetrated the walls of each of the rooms. A large ,overcrowded room with beds laid down in rows was where the girls spent their waking and sleep hours. Meal times were equally cheerless, watery ,flavourless curries and thick undercooked chappatis signified lunch time and breakast a hurried affair with tea and biscuits. Government guidelines lay down that the girls are enrolled at the neighbourhood govt school and the same was followed for L and her new friends.
Two months later, as Bikaner celebrated the Camel Festival, a two day tourist extravaganza with cultural programmes and camel races and shows especially for tourists I met Laxmi again. As District Collector, I thought it would be an interesting change for the children in the govt Sishu Grih to visit the festival. So the girls were piled into a bus and brought to the sand dunes where camels were being exhibited amongst cheering tourists and locals. It was around two months since I had met Laxmi, and between all the noise and chaos of the festival I was struck by her appearance. She had lost weight, a much thinner version stood before me instead of the chubby cheerful kid she had been,the colour had gone from her cheeks which were pale and her eyes quiet. Two months at the government institution had transformed the little chirpy girl into an entirely new person and the transformation was not very positive.
A few days of thinking about what happened made me decide that a change was in order as far as Laxmi was concerned. I placed a call to the Principal of Sophia School Bikaner,a nun with a reputation for being stern and a disciplinarian. Sophia School is the lone convent for girls in Bikaner. After quickly narrating Laxmi’s story, I made a request, would it be possible for the school to take on the onus of Laxmi’s education. It would be a difficult no doubt, since the school had a completely english medium mode of instruction but this was a chance we were willing to take. A shot at studying at this school would give Laxmi a better future,atleast I hoped so. In any case,Sophia was the best school in town. Along with Laxmi, I requested the principal to please admit one other girl, so that two of them could be together. She was positive, said she would be happy to help, in fact her response was most unexpected. I had thought I would have to spend a while trying to convince her, maybe pay her a visit or two. But she agreed at once, adding that they would keep the girls till the twelfth standard free of cost and bear the cost of tuition and books.
I put the phone down in my office feeling a warm feeling take over me at the thought of the alacrity with which she had agreed. Laxmi was going to go to the best school in Bikaner. The feeling was exhilarating, and the sense of accomplishment equivalent to pulling off a big infrastructure project.There was goodness in the world. Now as I recall those days of trying to get things organised for Laxmi’s first day at school, it’s almost unbelievable how everything fell into place;like a miracle of sorts. Now it became imperative to ensure that Laxmi had all that she needed to join one of the biggest schools of the city where children from the city’s economically well off families studied.Children can be quite cruel at times and I did not want Laxmi to feel inferior and inadequate infront of the other kids.
My next phone call was to the same journalist who had found Laxmi in the hospital some months back. As I shared my joy with him I could barely contain my own excitement,”Laxmi has been admitted into Sophia School” I nearly yelled into the phone.
A brief silence followed and then,”Laxmi? Who ma’am?”
My excitement turned to exasperation,”Laxmi, the girl you found in the hospital in October,have you forgotten ? ” I nearly snapped with impatience.
As realisation hit him he apologised and told me that this was great. I hurriedly told him why I had called him. I need someone in the city to take charge of all the things she will need for her school. The commitment should be long term, someone who is from Bikaner and will take responsibility for her till she completes her entire schooling, even after I have been transferred out. Could he find someone.
The “someone” was in my office ten minutes later and Laxmi had her mentor. A week later Laxmi and Kajal armed with their brand new school bags and water bottles marched into their new school in their spanking new shiny shoes. With the help of other mentors we managed to get all the eight other girls in the Sishu Grih admitted into the cities bigger schools. Next up, a renovation of the building and new furniture for a newly created study-cum-playroom and some cheerful wall paintings on the walls to give it a new look. Swings and slides were set up in the newly landscaped garden and the girls had a brand new place to run and play in. A generous mentor arrived one day with new cycles for the girls. Each of the girls had a new mentor who promised to be responsible for them till they turned eighteen. Birthday parties began to be organised for each girl, an opportunity for celebration and the creation of a happpier atmosphere in the institution for them.
As we went along help and ideas kept pouring in.Life was changing for these baby girls and suddenly a number of people in the city had taken up responsibility for their future. Laxmi’s smiles had returned. She had endured a tragedy at a very young age but she became the instrument for change for all the other girls in the institution.