To Begin in New Delhi

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| This is the 407th story of Our Life Logs |


In the north of India, we pride ourselves on our “superior sophistication,” as we are fair-skinned and beautiful. Unfortunately, the north also houses some of the poorest and least privileged of the country. Labor can be as easily bought and sold as milk on the market—which is where my story comes in.

I was born in 2003 in Patna, Bihar. As a farming family, our lives were dictated by an ungenerous hand-to-mouth financial situation. Pockets were always empty, clothes were always handed-down, and chores were always in plenty. My parents raised us six children with meager means in the best way they could, but the Lord gave them four daughters to wed off. It was an unspoken curse for a family with little to no steady income.

Marked by consistently empty stomachs, my childhood was anything but smooth. But we didn’t need a lot to be happy. As is customary in many villages in India, our electricity would go out five or six times a day. So, most of our time was spent outside where the sun-bleached our hair light brown. We weren’t attracted to the luxuries of a screen. We didn’t even have access to any. We had nothing but each other. And the mosquitoes in the summer, of course.

Our days passed in a blink of an eye. School went by so quickly, followed by afternoons spent kicking pebbles or playing hide-and-seek. We didn’t even realize when we suddenly became “adults.” Once I reached the age of eight or nine, I can’t remember exactly, the burden of feeding my family placed itself unsteadily on my still-growing head. I slipped into adulthood, like the drops of the first monsoon clouds, except less graceful and far too early.

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When I turned 16 years old, my parents decided it was time for me to move to the city of New Delhi. There was no question, no option of a “no.” I had anticipated this. As I was the second eldest child and as my elder sister already married, I had earned that title of the breadwinner, but I couldn’t believe it all the same.

But then, what was my alternative? Stay and never help my family get out of poverty? Get married off to a man twice my age? Girls as young as 13 were already hitched in the village. I had to make a choice. Move to the city or suffer the same fate as many of my friends—getting wed early in life. And, given that my father couldn’t afford a good dowry, who knows what person I could have ended up with. Sure, the city was bad but nearly not as much as having my freedom taken away.

Leaving was the most practical solution.

I had to brush back tears every time I thought about being apart from my family, trying to get by, desperate and praying that their daughter could send money back home to fill their bellies for the first night in a week. I begged my heart to find solace in knowing that my older sister lived in the capital with her husband and daughter, and would be waiting for me. And yet—

I think no matter how necessary—or rather, inevitable—it is to leave home, nothing can truly prepare you for the day you leave—the day you set off on your own.

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Moving to Delhi was both an alienating and familiar experience. I could draw comparisons to life I’d always known, yet it was also so different. The concrete replaced the farms. The smog replaced the sunsets. The space between my feet where the soil peaked through was replaced by the city’s rubble. But I was determined to make my way through it all, and with a smile.

I wasted no time in searching for a job. My sister, her family, and I lived adjacent to a posh colony in the South Delhi area where she did domestic work, so she already knew a few people who might be in need of a cleaner or cook. Within a week of moving in, I’d begun work as a maid.

The beginning of my new life was intimidating. I had to learn safe routes to walk home because a ride in an auto-rickshaw was not a luxury I could afford and was unsafe for women. And that’s not to mention the millions of pairs of unfamiliar eyes that flooded every street, each gazing with such bluntness. That kind of attention sure can make you feel like a foreign object.

It’s a harsh truth, but there were plenty of times when I was not paid as well as you’d expect. It’s a constant competition of who can give the consumer the best deal. But luckily, I still found work, even if it was smaller jobs. While I enjoyed some clients, others treated me as nothing more than a maid—a person who cleans the house, should not make noise, and will quietly leave without a trace. In those moments, I had an irremovable feeling of being “something” rather than “someone.” This made me shy in some households. I just did my work and left. With whatever meager means I came by, I helped my sister in buying groceries. Then, I sent quite a bit of it back home to help my family.

Yes, my new life was unnerving. So, in the quiet moments of longing and pity, I had no other remedy than to tell myself what was now possible. Away from the village, I have a chance to fulfill my dreams and help my family. I promised myself that if I saved enough money, I would return to visit my family once or twice a year and receive a little escape from the hustle-bustle of adult life and scrubbing house floors. On the hardest of days, I could dream of returning to the land I love. And to my mother, of course. That remained my shining light.

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Over time, I fell into my work and became comfortable coming “home” to my older sister and her daughter. After a long day of work, it’s good to return to our cozy little home and cuddle with my niece as we browse through my phone (which I bought proudly from my initial first few months of pay!)

And what’s more, I began to work in houses where I was treated like family. Being away from home, kindness like that was a warm hug to walk into. Some families offered me tea after I worked, showed me their photos, and talked openly about their lives. In those moments, I didn’t feel so alone, and I began to see good in the city.

I kept in contact with my mother when I moved to the city, and I don’t think I could have made it there without her. She remained a constant pillar in my life, and I spent every free second calling her to chat about my new life. I was away from her the first time I experienced menstruation, when I had my first crush, when I first bought something with my pay. We have giggled away over choppy telephone lines and distance since I left the village, and that has given me hope to keep working, to keep dreaming. It’s helped me get to a point where I didn’t feel bad for enjoying myself away from my family.

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I’m sure you’re thinking, who really enjoys working? Especially at an age as young as mine! Very few. But very few are in a position like mine. I not only want to help my family, but I have my own dreams I wish to see come true. I wish to travel someday like the young girls in the houses I work for. I always stare in wonderment when they go glossy-eyed as they describe the places they’ve been. It’s like hearing a fairy tale. I dream of seeing far-off places like them someday.

I dream of going to the best places to eat (in hotels, I’m sure). I dream of driving through Patna in a BMW and feeding all the little kids in my village. I’d smile as they giggled through their half-broken teeth and splattered their fingerprints all over the car’s windshield. I wish I could show outsiders our field in full harvest in spring when the rice swells and looks like it’s smiling at you. I think they’d love it, perhaps as much as I do.

But most of all what I dream of is being educated. What can’t you do in the world with a degree? As someone who had limited scope of ever educating herself, I dream of holding a book and being able to lick through it completely. I dream of using that knowledge to help others. But for now, I’m focusing on fulfilling smaller dreams, like learning English and experiencing new things such as going to the mall and riding in a car.

Some of the girls from the families I work for have helped me fulfill these dreams. They’ve happily taught me a little bit of English, and I must say I’m quite a fan of music in English. My pronunciation may have you laughing, but I’m getting there! They fondly share with me shoes that were worn once or dresses that they must’ve loved years ago.

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Gratitude and appreciation for the little things are instinctive when you’ve got very little to begin with. There is very little room for selfishness when you’ve lived a life like mine, but I allow myself to dream and hope. If you give up hope, there’s very little left.

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This is the story of Rumsum Kumar

Rumsum currently lives in New Delhi, India, in a city that she isn’t a foreigner to anymore. Her story is one that echoes with the practice of child labor that remains prevalent across the subcontinent even now. Growing up in poverty, Rumsum felt it was her duty to move to the city where she believed life would be better. It was hard to see the positives living there away from her family at first, but when she allowed herself to start small with her dreams, she found peace in city life. Although she has adjusted to life in the city, Rumsum aspires to one day be able to visit her hometown in stylish clothes and cars in fashion and give back to the community she rose from. She dreams of education and travel, like any other girl her age. Rumsum has laughed through life and has lots of love to share despite all she’s been through.

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Rumsum with her family’s pet.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on July 22, 2019.

| Writer: Shanai Tanwar | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

One thought on “To Begin in New Delhi

  1. This is a story I will never ever forget, it echoes my story of which I am about to submit some about two weeks time. Samson Rotich

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