We finally returned to Mahendranagar after the most grueling bus journey yet. The trip from Kathmandu is never an easy one, but the belated emergence of the monsoon meant that the road was impassible in several places, forcing us to spend hours waiting on the roadside while industrious passengers filled the large trenches cutting through the highway with pebbles- A tedious process indeed! Thus it was 22 hours after leaving Kathmandu that we at last reached our normally peaceful home.
Unfortunately, our timing could not have been worse, as we arrived home in the middle of a heated domestic dispute. Naam, the 11-year old Tharu girl who toils as a servant for our landlord’s family, was bitterly crying on the front porch while the grandmother attempted to console her. Catching sight of our approach, the grandmother managed to communicate that she wanted us to take Naam inside our room for a while to try to calm her down.
However, Naam was having none of this, and she continued weeping hysterically until the mother of the family emerged from the back of the house. After a brief animated exchange, they began to violently struggle with each other over a scarf, and my wife and I were left to gaze on in awkward astonishment, uncomfortable over the physical nature of the dispute taking place in front of us, as well as our own inner turmoil regarding the appropriateness of intervening.
During a brief lull in the struggle, the mother explained to us that Naam had turned on the television while she was making a phone call, and that she was fed up with Naam because she was a “bad worker” and she wanted Naam out of the house…tonight.
As Usha had previously explained to me, Naam works in the house because her family is unable to afford to feed her. While more privileged 11-year old girls are attending school or playing with friends, Naam wakes at dawn to prepare breakfast and then works all day as a babysitter, maid, cook and laborer. In exchange for all this effort, she is permitted to eat some of the food that she has prepared each day. With no education and no alternatives, hers is a life predestined to hardship and submission. Naam’s situation is not unique, in fact almost every upper-caste household in Mahendranagar has a young house servant (usually Tharu).
Aware of her situation, I was always shocked by how upbeat and carefree she seemed. I thought that she was an example of how the optimistic spirit of a child could endure all hardships and find joy in the simple wonder of living. Ha- boy am I naïve.
As Naam repeatedly attempted to run up the stairs to the roof of the house, a male relative of the family finally arrived on the scene. His English appeared to be decent enough, so we attempted to find out just exactly what was going on. He smiled and in a derisive way motioned towards Naam. “She is trying to commit suicide,” he stated with a hint of amusement.
So much for the childlike spirit of wonder. Naam was struggling for a scarf so she could hang herself. Naam wanted to go upstairs so she could jump off the roof. Naam saw that her future was a black void of physical exertion, societal contempt and hopelessness.
The last time we interacted with Naam , who had consistently blessed us with her bright smile every time we returned home, was when the landlady/mother thrust her into our room during the conflict. Unable to communicate, we had exchanged helpless and exasperated looks. That was the last we saw of Naam. The next morning she was gone.
I want to believe that Naam’s family welcomed her back with love and understanding, but with no alternatives, it is just as possible that they were angry with her for being kicked out of the house. Most likely, they will find another household for her to toil in. I just hope that Naam hangs in there. I have no idea about the suicide rate of child servants, but something tells me that it happens more frequently than people admit.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Aug 15th, 2007