As an adolescent growing up and experiencing the hormonal surges that often can be overpowering, I found that being in India during these critically formative years added to this mix in an overpowering manner, many a time, and not always positively. We’ve all been privy to this mystical and spiritual label that India is bound to raise in the eyes of all living or passing through it, first by the Raj looking to “find themselves while saving the heathens,” later by the Orientalists, the Beatles, and a slew of poets and artists, and most currently by the Incredible India nation-branding campaign.
I had my personal epiphany in a rather unusual manner.
Between discovering that my 10th Grade English teacher could not spell, and calling her out on this big shortcoming (after all, what ENGLISH teacher cannot spell. It’s their entire job description!), I became the recipient of the school’s highest form of correctional activities: the Saturday Morning Detention, or SMD, as it was called.
Previous folks who had gone through these correctional detentions spoke at length about having to scrape off chewing gum from the bottom of the seats in our assembly hall, or if the invigilator was feeling happy, then cleaning up windows, or raking up leaves. Some rumours even suggested that one of the invigilators for SMD went so far as to collect chewing gum in a jar, and then make all the SMD kids pick and chew the rotting gum from this creepy jar.
Needless to say, I wanted to avoid these ludicrous punishments at all costs, and upon speaking with some friends who were also fellow geeks, found what I thought was the most perfect and ingenious loophole in the system: “charity” work.
Come the next Saturday, along with a group of about 20 other adolescents, most of them more noble volunteers than me with my scheming, we descended down Mussoorie in the old school bus, winding down the 200 bends in the slope and proceeding to get thoroughly car-sick in the process
Once back on stable land in Dehradun, we went to one of the local orphanages. We were supposed to play with the orphanage’s schoolchildren, help them with their homework, and other such activities. Instead, I found myself sitting with a six year old girl called Sultana, painting her nails and listening to her speak about how she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up.
Sultana was an unusual girl. She had been literally been binned by her parents. The orphanage picked her up from a trash can at the age of two, when she had already begun to develop the brain tumor that made her little fingers hot as coal to the touch.
When I met Sultana, the brain tumor had already begun to take over her beautiful and striking face, and a ghastly protrusion, the size of three tennis balls, sprouted from the left side of her head. It was so big that Sultana couldn’t even sit up without having to lean on something.
“Just leave her, and play with us,” some of the other children chimed up. They were playing hopscotch. Feeling out of place and helpless, I left Sultana with her prettied nails and her darkened room, and stepped outside to do the less honorable thing- to try and shut out her pain, and focus on all the brightness that sunlight brings with it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her though. Before leaving the orphanage, I found out that the doctors had given her another six months to live, at the most.
During the drive back to school, another classmate, who I shall call S, to preserve some semblance of confidentiality, told me that she had had similar overpowering reactions to Sultana when she had first met her. When she spoke about Sultana to her parents, S’s parents were willing to send Sultana to the United States in order to receive the chemotherapy and rehabilitative treatment that would save her life.
This is where the story became a cruel one that would come to haunt me for the next twelve years: the orphanage was unwilling to part with Sultana.
They claimed that instead of trying to save one life, we should all be focusing our energies to saving more lives, and spend the cash on bettering the lives of as many children as possible, instead of focusing on a “lost cause.”
I was shaken to the core by this revelation, seething, mind you, and absolutely flabbergasted by this disturbing sense of distributive justice.
Over the next two months, I went back to the orphanage every weekend. Sultana’s condition deteriorated before my eyes. The cancer spread to her left eye, then her right. The last time I saw her, her breaths were sharply drawn, and she looked pitifully tiny, shorter than a one year old baby.
She seemed to recognize me, regardless. “Didi, paint my nails,” she would say, every time I walked in and sat down next to her. I spent my 16th birthday with a group of close friends painting her nails and playing with her.
The last time I saw her, the cancer had robbed her of her speech, and she couldn’t say a word to me at all, and her eyes were glassy and unmoving.
To this day, I mentally kick myself for missing out on the last possible time that I could have met her. I had an exam, and being the geek that I innately am, I decided to study, instead of taking the drive down the mountains that always, invariably, and indubitably, made me physically sick, and mentally was taking a toll on me.
She died that Sunday, a day after what would have been my last time spending time with her, had I not been so focused on my grades.
Years later, I’m still not sure what to make of the tragic end that Sultana faced. I find it singularly agitating that she had to die when she could have survived. For me, Sultana was as much a victim of the “system” as the “system” was a victim to being incapable of thinking beyond the box. The situation has always made me wonder where our helplessness comes from, and are some lives more expendable than others? I certainly don’t think so. But having grown up in countries which are always competing to be violent, and corrupt, I remember Sultana. I remember how horrible I felt the day she died, and when people ask me why I am in the field of human rights, I am guilty of not wanting to be emo with them, or speak about the one story that still makes me feel ridiculously helpless, regardless of all the other facets in my life that I have been able to control: a little girl, who just wanted to have a future, and who was denied this very conceivable reality, because of something pathetic like opportunity cost and economics, for the “greater welfare of all.”