Last Day of Another School Year for Keerthika
It's the last day of school for the elementary grades.
I fill my steel cup with hot tea and walk over to the tables where the little kindergarteners and first- graders are seated in the dining hall. From the satisfied looks on their faces I can tell that they're thoroughly enjoying the fresh slices of cucumber that they're having for their evening snack.
"So are you excited to go home tomorrow?" I ask, settling into the empty chair at the corner of the table. Heads nod in answer and I receive a chorus of a loud, happy 'yes.' But five year old, Keerthika, takes me completely by surprise when she comes over to me and says in her usual soft voice, "I don't want to go home."
The inquisitive psychologist in me immediately grows alert. I place an arm around her waist and ask her in a gentle yet concerned tone, "Why don't you want to go home, darling?" I fear I already know what her answer might be.
I am only too aware of what life is like for this child back at home under the care of an alcoholic father who drinks away his earnings as a mere labourer in a nearby construction site and beats his wife in his drunken rage in his children's presence.
But Keerthika is not alone.
Her friends, peers and the rest of the children at Shanti Bhavan have faced similar problems back at home -- physical and emotional abuse by an alcoholic parent, abandonment by either or both parents, loved ones resorting to suicide to escape accumulating debt, severe financial constraints that impinge on the peace at home, hunger, bonded labour, caste discrimination and other tough social issues.
These children are too young right now to control what goes on in their lives back at home but are old enough to remember them. I am no stranger to the feeling of gnawing powerlessness that accompanies my childhood memories of the discord at home. I know it only too well, having grown up just like Keerthika, in a family that was fraught by alcoholism and abuse. It is this knowledge that makes me want to comfort the child and try to protect her in any way I can.
"Keerthika, why don't you want to go home?" I ask again as the little girl had completely forgotten to answer me in her excitement at seeing another slice of juicy cucumber that is served onto her plate.
"I want to stay here. I like Shanti Bhavan," she says with a broad smile and takes a long, greedy bite.
I sigh in relief. I'm glad that she is okay and I feel silly inside.