Sweety, all of fourteen, is the talk of her household. She paints and sketches with the ease of a virtuoso, she dances with the grace of a swan, her intricate needlework is shown off with pride to guests and visitors, certificates won by her adorn the walls, she aces her studies and every teacher at the convent school she goes to, swears that it is a pleasure to have her in their class.
And yet, when you meet Sweety at her home, she will not be sprawled lazily on the couch sipping lemonade and gloating over the latest addition to her expansive repertoire. Nor will you find her ensconced in a family scene with parents and siblings in the safety of a living room. You might find her, as I did, frantically arranging for new sheets of canvas for the next picture she wants to paint. And who does she ask the money from? Not from her parents, no. But from the Secretary of the home called All Bengal Women’s Union, where Sweety lives with around 200 other girls like herself.
However, there is much that sets her apart from the other orphaned girls who reside here. Sweety’s art has won the admiration of one Valerie Armstrong, a painter and photographer based in London. “Valerie is my sponsor.” Sweety declares, handing me a picture of a woman in her 50s. And indeed, this well-deserved sponsorship has enabled Valerie’s protégé to attend an English-medium school, be a Girl Guide, win drawing competitions and scholarships to sustain the expenses of her hobby which is fast transforming into a talent. “My drawings were published in the newsletter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).” she tells me and sings out the full-form as she hands me the newsletter, beaming.
Sweety also receives aid from an aunt, and aspires to become like Valerie, her sponsor, mentor and pen-friend from London. (She shows me all her letters.) Not everyone who lives here is an orphan, but they have all been orphaned; and not necessarily by the demise of their progenitors. For some, orphan hood came along when the fulfillment of filial needs became too expensive for their parents and parental responsibilities were butchered at the guillotine of poverty. Some were conceived when their mothers walked the primrose path; and who while giving birth, cut off much more than just umbilical cords to distance themselves from their unwanted progeny. They have all found a home here. Not as fortunate as Sweety perhaps, but they all have reasons to smile. A group of lithe, sturdy- looking girls is playing hockey with gusto in the evening sun, calling out to each other in fluent Bengali. Only a few days ago, they won an inter-school hockey tournament for the ABWU, which is also their school. Punishment for them, whenever required, is invariably to be disallowed this evening hockey ritual. It is very effective, I am told.
Dickensian stories of orphans and the lesser privileged are not unheard of, especially not in India and especially not in Calcutta. However, at the danger of sounding mawkish, I must add that there is something different about these girls. Their lives do not invite pity but a happy admiration. And I, who, in the safe cocoon of my gilded existence, have often glorified my struggles and underplayed my natural blessings, find a lesson here; for even in the open-plan bivouac of their lives, these girls have achieved a tenacious optimism that makes them laugh off the hurdles and keep a smiling, up-to-date census of their blessings, few and hard-earned as they may be. Even the youngest toddler here knows that she has a precious smile and is thoroughly exhilarated and ready to pose each time someone points a camera at her face.
[The All Bengal Women’s Union is a not-for-profit organisation in Calcutta that has been working towards aiding girls and women in the city and beyond. To know more about ABWU, click here. To get in touch with them, click here]