An excerpt from the final chapter of my book, Treasures in Dark Places…
“Pooja! Wake up. Get yourself out of that bed.” Fingers cracked and calloused delivered a shove to the shoulder beneath the tattered blanket. “Lazy girl. Do I have to rouse you every morning? Can’t you remember your duties and wake up on time?”
Brittle and yellow-tinged from malnutrition, her tangled locks stuck out from her head in every direction as she sat up. Rubbing her eyes with fists still grimy from digging roots last night, still clad in her mud-colored school dress with broken belt. “But I just slept a few hours. Is it morning already?” wondered Pooja. But the wizened mother had already turned and limped off to start the morning fire.
Readers of “Treasures in Dark Places” comment:
- “I couldn’t put it down!”
- “This is the best autobiography I’ve read since ‘The Hiding Place.'”
- “Compelling, heart-wrenching and beautifully written.”
- “A masterfully painted account of sacrifice and triumph.”
The blue light of early dawn filtered coldly through tears in the rag covering a square porthole in the thick mud wall. A chill January gust bit through Pooja’s thin garment. The only clothing she had to fend off the winter freeze, a threadbare shawl, had been applied atop the thin blanket for a tiny bit of precious added insulation throughout the night. Shivering, she snatched it with desperation and wrapped it around her shoulders.
The few steps on the icy floor from cot to shoes sent jabs of pain up her legs. Black nylon socks having long ago given way to gaping holes, she pulled them on then turned them bottoms-up, so at least her toes and heels would have a few threads between them and hard sole of her shoes.
The shawl had fallen onto the floor. Immediately chilled again, she feverishly flipped it back on and jammed her feet into the scuffed black shoes. The laces had long since broken and been cast away. They weren’t needed anyway, since she had outgrown the shoes two years ago.
Outside, Diva was popping buffalo dung patties off the wall of the hut where she had slapped them several days ago to dry. Her rasping cough at every fifth breath informed Pooja that Mother was still ill and might not be able to work in the field again today. “At least we have the buffalos,” she thought. “So long as we have fuel and milk we can survive.”
Diva was shoving the reed basket and long curved blade into Pooja’s hands. “Get along, hurry,” she muttered through a cough. “Minju is hungry and baby spilled his water bucket.”
The fog hung low and dense over the misty green fields and the weeds and blades of grass bowed across the path with a load of dripping water. They left their generous deposit as Pooja’s legs brushed past. By the time she reached the grassy area where the villagers gathered fodder for their animals, she was drenched from the waist down. A knot formed in her stomach while she worked laying fistful after fistful of long green stems across the basket. The knot subsided in a hungry growl. “I wonder if we’ll have breakfast,” she thought. Not a day passed that she didn’t fear starvation. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had three meals in one day. She envied the buffalo. They never went hungry. “I would be so happy,” she thought, “if someone who cared for me like Mother and I care for Minju.”
At last Pooja hoisted the basket of grass onto her head and set out for home. What she could carry would satisfy Minju’s huge mouth and stomach for a few hours. Mother would have to come and cut grass again at midday, but this early morning breakfast, insisted Mother, kept the milk flowing.
After pouring out the grass for Minju and her calf, Pooja assessed the water situation. Minju’s bucket was half empty and the calf had spilled his. Pooja glared at the calf, who stared back with dumb glassy eyes.
“You stupid,” she muttered. “Don’t you know how hard it is to bring you water?”
Extracting the calf’s bucket from the mud she set off, her shoes clacking and tripping on the irregular bricks stuck into the clay to create a primitive roadway through the middle of the village. Hugging the roadside with a few feet of space to spare were the huts of her fellow villagers. Like her mother, women were fanning wood and cow dung fires into flame. But unlike her mother, they were also sorting pebbles from rice and preparing roti dough and chopping into pieces green gourds and yellow pumpkins and green okra and greener spinach. Pooja’s mouth watered at the thought of a real hot breakfast of roti and such delectable vegetables. She could hardly remember the last time she had such a meal. The best her mother could provide was rice and daal.
She couldn’t help but notice that the huts she passed were in better condition than hers, whose bamboo roof was rotted and falling in and the walls eroded from the summer rains. “You must repair your walls,” she had overheard a neighbor saying to her mother “Or your hut will collapse with the monsoon and you will be killed.”
But her mother had no money or strength to repair the hut, and the villagers expressed no pity. Even blood relatives considered them outcastes. “Your mother is cursed woman,” an aunt had once whispered to Pooja. “When husband die, it means the gods have judged that wife is unworthy of husband and handed her over to devils.”
Pooja was not sure she believed this, but it scared her. Was her mother really a bad woman? Did that mean she, Pooja, was also a bad girl? Had she and her mother truly been handed over to the devils? These fears and questions piled on top of her fear of starvation, steeping her tender mind in turmoil.
“Psst! Come here!”
From the dwindling shadows emerged another little girl.
Poojas grim face brightened at the sight of her only friend. Neha’s family had moved to the village and apparently hadn’t yet heard the rumors surrounding Pooja’s recently-deceased father. Either that, or for some inexplicable reason they didn’t fear the devils, because Neha befriended Pooja while the other kids kept their distance.
Mindful to stay on task despite her longing to stop and be a normal little girl, Pooja set her bucket under the spout and began pumping. After several strokes of the long steel handle water began to dribble out into the bucket.
“Did you study for the exam?” asked Neha.
“When can I study?” moaned Pooja. “All I ever have time to do is work. Mother is alone and sick. I have no older brother. No papa. What to do?”
“Not to worry.” Neha touched her friend tenderly on the shoulder. “I’ll help you rehearse on our way to school.”
Pooja brightened momentarily and managed a smile as she hefted the half-full water bucked off the ground and set off back toward her hut. But as quickly her face darkened again. She longed to study and to become an educated girl. More than fun and play or enjoyment she dreamed of having a real job someday.
“Study hard in school,” her mother had charged, “because education is the pathway to a happy life. Educated people aren’t hungry. They have vegetables and roti and even sweets. They have brick houses with real roofs and they even have electricity.”
Thus Pooja’s dream, and her mother’s dream for her, was to go to school and learn to read and write. Then someday she could marry a good educated husband, and maybe even get a real job.
But she couldn’t concentrate on school. Instead, hunger kept jerking her mind back to mother’s fire and the paramount question – whether there would be any nourishment cooking besides watery tea with a dribble of Minju’s precious milk.
Neha’s mother raked a near-toothless comb through her hair making her wince and deftly tied the belt of her mud-brown school dress. “Are you ready for the exam?”
The mother took Neha’s face in her hands. “Look straight at me. Both eyes.”
But try as she might, only Neha’s right eye could look straight ahead. Her left eye rolled uncontrollably to the side giving her a retarded comical look.
Her mother placed a hand over her right eye. “Can you see me?”
“No. I see the wall.”
“Please baby, try to see me,” she pleaded.
“I’m trying but I can’t,” moaned Neha. “My eye won’t go straight.”
The mother stood with a hopeless sigh. The doctor’s words haunted her: “Unless you have your daughter’s eye corrected, she’ll go blind before she’s twenty.” But the operation cost over 20,000 rupees or $300 – more than the family’s entire annual income.
The mother forced a smile. “You must study well and become a good educated girl. Then you won’t be poor and oppressed like your mom and dad.”
“Yes mother,” replied Neha. “I will be a teacher and help other poor children become smart and happy.”
“Very good. You can be a teacher, but you must do well in your classes. Now eat your breakfast.”
Neha’s mother pressed a tiny bowl of wheat porridge and a cup of black tea into hers and her brother Inder’s hands then turned abruptly back to the fire to flip a roti.
The children held their meager victuals, somber gazes wordlessly grieving that there was no porridge left for Mother. This was a lean day. When there wasn’t enough for everyone to at least have a little, and not even a few peas in the porridge or a dribble of milk in the tea, it meant times were hard. Either Papa hadn’t been able to find a land owner to hire him, or it was time to pay the rent, or other unforeseen expense had arisen and consumed the tiny remnant of money available for food.
“Eat,” urged their mother without turning from her fire. “You can’t study on an empty stomach.”
Into each little plastic tiffin boxs she placed one precious roti and a sprinkling of salt – a lunch for which they were deeply grateful.
After their scant breakfast the children donned their book bags and set out for the only school their parents could afford. Their mother watched their receding backs and shook her head. Typical of rural government-run schools, the teachers were known for being late, absent, abusive toward certain children and preferential of others, and occasionally even drunk. Though Neha and Inder studied hard, they weren’t learning much. The teacher’s instruction confused them, while she and their father, being illiterate were helpless to provide tutoring. How she longed to send her children to one of the grand private schools where the teachers cared for their students and taught them English and where they might even learn about that unfathomable piece of intimidating technology – a computer.
One hope existed by which such a miracle might befall her family – God. After the children were out of sight she unwrapped from a plastic vegetable bag the only new item the family had owned in years and by far the most precious – a Bible. She couldn’t read it, but she hoped that one day her children could.
Pressing it to her breast she prayed. “Lord Jesus, I don’t know you very well yet. I am like newborn baby. But I believe you are the living God who answers prayer. Pastor Kamal taught the Bible says if we ask we will receive and if we knock we won’t be turned away. So I’m asking you please, please don’t let my daughter go blind, and make a way for my children to have good nutritious food to eat and a good education. Let my children not have to go hungry to feed their children and let them be able to read your book to us.”
NEHA: TellAsia Ministries learned of Neha’s situation and rescued her into Blue Haven Children’s Home. Today she not only knows how to read and write, but is at the top of her class in 12th Grade. A gifted leader, she teaches Sunday School, leads worship and organizes youth meetings! She has a very bright future.
POOJA: We were unaware of Pooja or of her plight. Soon after Neha was rescued into our children’s home, Pooja was trafficked into a brothel. A year later, her mother was told that Pooja had committed suicide.
Neha (red blouse) was rescued but Pooja (ghost image) was made into a slave.
Pooja is the “missing face” whom we wish we could have rescued into our children’s home. What is the solution to child trafficking? Children’s Homes and Education.
Please help us rescue more children like Neha and Pooja before they are trafficked, abused and enslaved! Your gift will help TellAsia Ministries to:
- Provide a basic education to children who will otherwise grow up illiterate.
- Rescue abandoned girls and orphans into our children’s home or place them with loving Christian families.
- Establish high quality rural schools.