Puja's Lesson

By Erica Boulay ’11 | March 1, 2011

Wearing the same pink shirt she has worn for 11 days straight, Puja holds her thumb to her face and studies its swirls and spirals. With her other hand, she carefully recreates the complicated patterns on a piece of white paper. Each finger, she notices, has a different design. Puja looks at her work and wipes the beads of sweat from her forehead.

It is June in Nepal, and humid air bears down over the concrete schoolhouse, baking its tin roof like an oven. Outside, sludge-covered ducks waddle up from the Bagmati River and noisily try to mate. The river reeks of sewage. Puja turns to her little brother Prabesh and helps him find the swirls on his fingers. A small black puppy ambles into the classroom, wanders over to a boy contentedly drawing elaborate designs onto his paper, and licks the salt off his bare feet. The boy gives it a savage kick. Dogs are not pets in the slums of Kathmandu.

The wind changes direction, blasting a cloud of sand into the classroom. The 14 children instinctively duck their heads down. When the gust subsides, Puja picks up her head and says, “Miss! Finished! Look!” She raises her completed project aloft, a colorful drawing illustrating the dermis and epidermis of her hand.

Puja is 14 years old but looks about 10. The Mechi Mahakali School, where I interned from May to August 2010, serves approximately 50 migrant children whose parents generally have little education beyond the eighth grade. Most are part of the Dalit minority, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system. The children live with illness, hunger, domestic violence, drug use, and the constant pressure to help their families survive. As the English, math, and science teacher for the second grade, I had to remember that for most of them, just showing up at school was a major achievement.

One morning, while checking math homework, I noticed an absent face. Puja had only been coming to school for a month, but this was the third day in a row she had been absent. Her brother Prabesh said their mother was sick in the hospital. This reason didn’t make much sense to me. Why could Prabesh come to school while Puja had to stay home? The students were just taking out their books when there was a sudden commotion: the students ran outside and jumped along the riverbank. “Puja! Puja!” they shouted. I put on my sunglasses. Across the river, I could see a thin girl poking around a mountain of garbage with a bag slung over her shoulder, hoisting a giant chunk of Styrofoam triumphantly over her head. The students around me applauded, and calculated the going rate for such a treasure.

“Puja!” I shouted across the river. “I miss you! Come to school!” She shook her head. I watched as she turned and walked away down the riverbank, past gaunt cows and other children carrying bags, her long arms swinging with the weight of the Styrofoam, until smoke rising from burning trash obscured the view and her pink shirt faded out of sight.

Puja came back to see me six days later. Her eyes showed she had been crying. After lunch—she was hungry—she took me by the hand and led me into the street. Dodging motorbikes, taxis, pedestrians, vendors, and air-conditioned government vehicles, we arrived at the gates of a maternity hospital. I was beginning to understand. Her mother was expecting another baby and was in no condition to work; her father was absent. Puja looked in my eyes, not wanting to let go. Her hand held mine tightly as we said goodbye for the last time. Helplessly I watched as Puja’s thin legs and knobby knees carried her past the row of guards to the ward where her mother lay.

A few days later, I walked to the one-room shanty, made from bamboo, tarpaulin, and pieces of plywood, where Puja and her family used to sleep together on string mattresses over a cardboard floor. I knocked on the door, and it blew open. The blankets, shoes, plates, and cups were gone. Puja’s neighbor told me that the family had returned to the small village where they had lived before the war. The only signs that children had lived here were a few chalk drawings scrawled on the walls.

I walked home from school and noticed the people on the street. Children missing parts of themselves, a few fingers, a foot, breathing together out of a bag filled with glue; a woman lying in the street nursing a tiny baby; a man with diabetic abscesses on his legs held in the arms of his elderly wife. When I went to bed that night, I heard feral dogs barking as they traveled in packs through Kathmandu’s dark and dank streets. I remembered how Puja had dragged her little brother to school. When I returned to school the next morning, I kept looking for Puja.

The reality is that Puja may never go back to school. The pressure to take care of her family will be intense. In a year or two, she will probably get married and have children of her own, and even that is an optimistic scenario. With her low level of education and her family’s economic hardship, Puja could become one of the 10 to 15,000 women and girls from Nepal who are trafficked into the Indian sex trade each year.

I felt that I had failed her. Perhaps I had been naïve in believing the school could help Puja overcome all of the challenges she faced. But looking into the eyes of the other students gave me resolve to carry on. They were not daunted in the face of Puja’s and Prabesh’s departure. These kids didn’t have time to be sad. It was then that I realized that making the world a better place doesn’t begin with breaking the cycle of poverty; it starts with one joyful day in the life of a child who might otherwise be hunting for Styrofoam.

I may never know what becomes of Puja, and this is difficult to accept. Nepal is chaotic, and the future is uncertain. I feel haunted by Puja’s memory, the ghost of someone who is still alive.

When I left Nepal in August, my students gave heartfelt speeches at an assembly. Not even the smallest nursery student made a sound to interrupt. They asked me to remember, and worried I might forget them. There is no way I ever will.

Tags: Cool Projects, International, Service