Edward Hower recounts the rewarding experience of his first meeting with Deepa, a girl in Orissa whose education he had partly sponsored…

A few weeks ago, a boatload of five Indian social workers arrived on an island on Chilika Lake in Orissa, accompanied by a pale, white-bearded American in a wide-brimmed canvas hat. I was about to visit a 14-year-old girl named Deepa, a fisherman's daughter, whom I'd been exchanging letters with for about a year through an international agency called PLAN. My annual donation of about Rs.1,600 has helped subsidise her education and the social welfare programmes in which her family is enrolled. The agency sent me a photo of her, an earnest-looking girl in a blouse and long skirt. Today would be our first meeting.

Painted on the wall of a building on the shore I saw a picture of a mother holding a baby, with a message in Oriya about modern child-care practices; farther along the shady path was a posted record of the villagers' health statistics — inoculations and clinic visits. These charts were the work of both PLAN and the People's Rural Educational Movement, or PREM, an advocacy group for marginalised people — Dalits, tribals, and fisher folk. Devashis Puttnaik, one of the social workers, told me that local families had recently spoken of their reluctance to send their girls to be educated because the schools had no separate toilet facilities for them, so PLAN/PREM responded to requests to teach villagers to build inexpensive latrines. One of PLAN/PREM's goals is to promote the idea that educated girls can provide as much prestige and financial help to their families as boys can.

First look

As we turned into a narrow lane, Deepa and her parents appeared to greet us. Deepa looked as serious as she had in her photo, her high cheeks brushed with a few freckles, her narrow eyes following every movement around her. A social worker had told everyone that today I was turning 70; their first words to me were “Happy Birthday!” This put everyone in a celebratory mood.

Like most of the homes where the island's three thousand people live, the building had hard mud walls and a roof of woven palm fibre which extended over the doorways, providing shade where people could sit and socialise. Deepa's extended family, about 10 adults and children, slept in three small, immaculate rooms all in a row. There was space enough in one for me and the social workers, along with Deepa and her parents, all of us sitting on a woven mat. With Mr. Puttnaik translating, we exchanged formal greetings. PLAN encourages sponsors to visit children from Europe and America and, recently, from India as well, where appeals have begun appearing in the media.

The room went silent, everyone staring at me. I felt like a magician who was expected to pluck a rabbit from a hat. So I did my best: I asked if they'd like to hear one of the folk tales I'd collected in rural Rajasthan during my first stay in India in l985-86. It was about a clever princess who rescued her husband from seven witches who leapt down from a tamarind tree and carried him away to a tower. The tale brought a lot of laughs because, as I was told, everyone knew there were no witches on this island. The ice had been broken.

There may be no witches, but behind the green, almost idyllic appearance of the place, a great many social problems are lurking. Though PLAN/PREM has begun helping people to grow fruit trees, fresh vegetables are scarce and nutrition is poor. Wells produce brackish water; rain-harvesting programmes have been started with government and PLAN/PREM assistance, but progress has been slow. Electrification came to the island only three months ago, and is just beginning to spread to the interior. Not enough latrines have been built, so open fields are used, producing a variety of health problems. And the lives of fisher folk are dangerous, hard, and precarious.

Deepa took me on a tour of her high school, a long, metal-roofed building, with classrooms opening onto a shaded verandah. In each room were four rows of attached wooden desks and benches where about 25 boys and girls faced a blackboard. Outdoors, boys were busy hacking away brush to clean up their volleyball court in the sandy recreation area. PLAN/PREM has set up children's committees everywhere to encourage student initiative and responsibility. It has also established “punishment-free zones”, encouraging teachers to give up hitting children and to adopt “positive discipline” programmes.

At the primary school down the lane, the teachers invited me to join a cricket match in progress. “Child-friendly” slogans had been neatly painted by PLAN/PREM-encouraged teachers on the outer walls, along with a picture of a happy boy and girl riding on a giant pencil. It did appear to be a busy, productive learning centre, though a big pile of bricks in the yard had yet to be turned into much-needed new classrooms.

Working with the system

“Children are the present of society, not just the future. Their rights must be respected and protected,” I was told by Valerian D'Lima, Project Director of the PLAN office in Puri. Though heavily financed by private sponsors abroad and in India, PLAN depends as well on government support everywhere it operates. “We have to work within the system and also work around its abuses,” Mr. D'Lima said — a constant struggle, which includes battling entrenched caste prejudices that oppress the poor. When I've visited other sponsored children in Mumbai, Chennai, and Sri Lanka, I've found all the PLAN staff to be highly dedicated men and women fighting heavy odds.

At the wharf, I was sad to be leaving Deepa. In the space of an afternoon, she'd recovered from her shyness and become a confident, cheerful young woman. As our boat putt-putted away from the wharf, she kept waving until she was too small for me to see. Only then did I stop waving back.

My visit to Deepa and her family was the best birthday of my life. I hope that many others, in India and abroad, can have such rewarding experiences.

Novelist Edward Hower was a Fulbright professor at Loyola College, Chennai. Email: edwardhower@hotmail.com

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012