By Debasmita Dasgupta
During the early days of my career as a social development practitioner, I used to travel across different rural, urban and semi‐urban communities. Each time these visits used to create a realm of realization for me that became the alpha and omega of my existence. My visit to the Dhobiatala slums in Calcutta was no different.
About nine years back when I first entered these slums, the sky was still soaked with the afternoon sun. It was a congested, filthy and damp locale. The rutted street was lined with a row of low roof houses and an open sewerage system. The snarling of feral dogs was all over the place. Human and animal turds littered the entire neighborhood. Clanking of cooking pots and children’s shrieks filled the air. Most of the people in these slums used to earn their living from carbon extraction and rubber‐straps making. The people in this locality eat drink and sleep carbon day and night.
The purpose of my visit was to attend a workshop to discuss reproductive and sexual health related issues with adolescent girls from Dhobiatala. When I stooped inside one of the houses in the shanties, there were about 10‐12 young Muslim girls in the age group of 10‐16 years. Their shining eyes and innocent smiles were full of curiosity. Most of them were school drop‐outs and victims of child marriage. Those of us who still believed that child marriages are only common in villages, their myth came face to face with a stark reality ‐ the slums of Dhobiatala were situated at the heart of the city of joy.
I remembered my adolescence when I was glued to the glistening facets of life. A time when my parents were my biggest supporters; books and school were my best friends. But it was a different teenage for these girls. Going to school was never so fascinating for them. Heavy household chores and looking after their younger siblings had made them matured than their real age.
As the workshop took off, I expected the girls to throw a lot of questions to the trainers. However I was wrong again. At this tender age these girls were well aware of birth control measures, contraceptives and their side effects. Albeit they also knew that they hardly had any right to exercise this knowledge without the consent of their husbands.
During the talk, Shaheen (original name withheld), one of the youngest in the group, was sitting beside me holding my hands. Shaheen was 11 and was getting married in next three months. She had a bright little face covered with a red dupatta (scarf). After an hour of discussion when I was about to leave with the trainers, she pressed my hand and asked, “Didi, will you come again?" I looked into her eyes that had a sparkle in the corner. I said, “I will try.”
With the sinking sun I silently departed from Dhobiatala. My mind was racing faster than the traffic on the main road. As I approached the bus stop I could hear the rumbling of the cloud and it started to rain.
(This article is a sharing of a personal experience. Being a student of “Development Communications”, I had an opportunity to visit the ‘Dhobiatala’ slums in Calcutta. An eye opening experience that made me think ‐‐‐ our knowing is so incomplete. The rail of life is rattling on the lines yet; too many remain unleashed between the lines…)