There was a time when someone pointed out to an issue I seemed to have had and it even got labelled as 'chronic happiness'. It supposedly confused people; 'How could a person be happy even in the oddest of circumstance?' they told they wondered. Think it bothered them and many others during that time. Those were days when I faintly remember that nothing was too big that my shoulders could not carry or anything too difficult my soul could not handle - everything was doable and any challenge posed was only a motivation to complete the task at hand with ease. Life was fun.
Think it was an influence cast upon by some really strong people who suffered pain yet chose to smile - many who I had met during my wandering days... people who chose to live when all that went around them called them to die; people who faced struggle with courage; people who talked less and did more. The one incident, when I look back, that shattered me is an incident where I met a little kid who endured a painful life without a grudge - even attempting to reduce the pain of her parents bearing her own without a whimper. Think I must tell this story...
This happened when a bunch of us from Loyola were called to document a human rights violation issues in a small God-forsaken village that was getting marooned due to sand mining and other such related corporate greed in a place close to Madras. Once there, we split into teams to cover the story on behalf of each stakeholder - the elders, the mothers, the fishermen, the children and so on. I was part of a team to cover the story of children from a Government School in a small island nearby. Once the catamaran reached the spot, curious children came to have a look at all the cameras, lights and equipment that reached their otherwise ignored and isolated part of the world.
After a little bit of rapport establishment and ice-breaking, we set to talk with them regarding how life was treating them, how they perceived issues and how they managed to live through their struggles. This was supposed to be both interesting as well as crucial as we were attempting to see issues from the children's point of view. Children often provide multi-dimensional clues to issues as they not only boldly point out to issues without any restriction yet also reveal an adult world from what they have absorbed as silent audience to their interactions - once again with no restriction.
The day went on and on as complaints piled one above the other - issues ranging from lack of regular teachers and computers at school to dirt on food served as part of the mid-day meal, their complaints were many.
Amidst all this (by then a nauseating discussion), I could not fail to notice the bright smile on a little girl's face. She must have been 6 or 7 years old then. Perhaps, that must have been the most brilliant smile I have ever seen in my life by far. I was curious as hell to know how on Earth amidst all these complaints, she managed to smile. I asked her. Her reply was even more positive: 'Our teachers are good, they manage to teach us as much as they can; why do we need a computer(?!) when we have so many books to read? and our cooks can't do a better job than what they already do... in a home of just four don't we find at times a small stone or dirt in our rice(?!) wouldn't we then just pick it, drop it and continue to eat without complaining? Just imagine how difficult it must be for the ayyahs who cook for so many of us. This is the best we can have and I am always happy for all that is there..." she said and continued smiling.
By now, the other kids around her withdrew and sneered at her. They were perhaps confused and angry that this one effortlessly blew all the facade they were creating so far, Finally they concluded, 'She has to be happy. What else can she afford to be? She is going to die soon after all...' There was a halt on that smile on the kid's face and was replaced with an unreasonable shameful silence.
A little shocked and being rocked back to reality, I sought clarity. I tried to ask the kid to tell me what others were talking about. She didn't. The others filled the silence and said, 'Yes, she is going to die. she has a hole in the heart that her father can't afford to treat and soon she is going to die.'
I asked the little girl if it was true. Tears rolled down her eyes and she said, 'Yes.' She continued, 'It hurts. And at times, it hurts so much in the night. To get to a doctor, my father has to carry me on his shoulder through the water as we do not have a boat or a catamaran to ferry us from our village to the other side of the land to reach the hospital at night. At times when the tides are high and my father carries me on his shoulder, I can see my father's face go down under the water as he pants for breath. To see that, hurts me more.' 'So these days,' she said, 'I do not cry at all when it hurts. I have seen my father and mother skip their food because they have to spend on my medicine. I know my father will carry me on his shoulders no matter how high the tide and I cannot to see him suffer.'
I asked her what she does instead. She said she bears the pain. 'If it hurts too much, I bite my blanket hard and try not to make a noise that may wake my parents. I bear the pain' she said.
I believe anything one does must affect him or her - be it a relationship, watching a movie, cooking, reading a book or even writing; otherwise the things we do are not worth doing at all. This is one incident that affected me the most. Watching such matured endurance at such an young age, positivism to the core, the constant and continuous sacrifice, respect and love that runs in their family that I got to see, surprized me.
For a person who lives an everyday life amidst chronic dissatisfaction and suburban drudgery in a concrete jungle, where even the remotest discomfort has to be amplified and cribbed about, a time when we live in a world where we pick on issues to talk about rather than work on solutions to overcome the same, living amidst people whose favourite pass-time is to discuss issues they have created or create issues so that they can discuss and remain the center of self-obsessed, self-centered and selfish conversations - because they have nothing better to do otherwise with life, this child was like a lesson straight out of the pages of a zen book to me.
I sought help for the girl at that time. People I took up her case to, took it upon themselves to advice me to concentrate on my own affairs and consider this incident unseen if it affects me again. Social Workers I met advised me that according to some paradigm and some theory, this was a natural process and by a certain cycle, this was a process she and her parents were meant to go through until they would eventually learn to help themselves - the highest form of undependency, self-reliance and empowerment - that I dare not disturb.
Seemed like I was just going through an unstoppable wind-chime of repeated advice on the same note from each person I set to ask for help. Nothing happened, none helped, not even the slightest offer of real help at that time. Life moved by and every time I saw trouble or a chance to complain, I would be reminded of this little girl and her smile. I would turn into this chronically happy monster who could always smile.
A few years back, I happened to visit the village where I had met the girl - now with the capacity to help with what life had granted me in the mean time. I inquired about the girl from this marooned village. The village was gone - they showed me. Like most human rights issues, the village now claimed unbothered advancement on the dead backs of the vanished and forgotten others. People from the submerged village had moved to the mainland I was told. Then a few young girls - who recollected having a classmate who fitted into my description of the person - must be the ones I had met during their school days earlier in that island, volunteered to take me to where the girl was now. We walked along the narrow lanes, now all advanced; they had self-help groups and even a co-operative store that sold traditional toys they made; there was a new panchayath building and a school that even offered a computer course. We walked all through India shining and we reached a spot where the girls pointed out to a little grave. They said the girl I mentioned had died a year after we had met as I stood there watching the cold-hearted tombstone that held the smile of a girl who had changed my life. I think I lost my smile then and there...