There is a pair of dark brown ink-liquid eyes gazing up at me from somewhere amongst the scratchy surface of a raffia mat. There are so many pairs of deep eyes and smooth, light brown foreheads. There is a nervous, thin feeling in the air that is ripped apart moment to moment by a flash of excitement as one girl relaxes, then remembers herself and closes up again – the spark is gone. But slowly the thin feeling dissipates and a warm light is suffused from each brilliantly white smile – white light in a dark face that is suddenly there and illuminated and then gone again.
Describe a usual day to me, Preeti.
Pinki, aged 12: ‘I wake up at 5am and clean the house.. I sweep all the rooms and make tea for all my family. There are 8 of us. I wash the pots and then the clothes. Then I start out for work, a ten minute walk away – I work in a pickle factory’.
What time do you finish work?
Pinki, aged 12, slim, too slim, amazing smile: ‘I start at 7am and I finish at 7pm. I have half an hour off for my lunch. I go home to eat. On a Saturday I go home for 15 minutes and then come here to UMANG for 15 minutes, and then I have to go back to work’.
Pinki shifts her weight from one foot to the other as she crouches in front of me on the mat. I am sitting on the edge of a rope bed. It is uncomfortable and sticks into my thigh at a painful angle. I wouldn’t like to rest my face on it at night, I think, and then reprimand myself for even thinking something as material and trivial as that as I watch the small bony girl before me. She is so beautiful and so young, and she snatches my hand often as she talks to me, and tells me that I am the first stranger that she has met and that if she hadn’t come to UMANG she would never have met me, and even if she had seen me in the street she would have walked past me because she would not have had the confidence to come and talk to me.
When you come to UMANG, do you learn about anaemia Pinki?
Pinki, aged 12, scratchy nylon dress that looks like its come out of the 1990s, at least two sizes too big: ‘Yes, Didi tells us about anaemia. It is caused by a lack of haemoglobin in the blood. Now I know I have to eat sabjee and palak every day, and eat fruits to get Vitamin A’.
A girl displaying a drawing of a healthy family
Can you show me any tests for anaemia? Show me how I know if I have it.
Pinki, aged 12, grabs my hand once again and pulls it under her gaze. With eyes screwed up, inspecting my nails very closely, she presses hard on my thumb nail, to see if I have the tell-tale white marks that mark me out as anaemic.
‘No’, she smiles up at me, ‘your nails are ok. Let me look at your eyes…’, she pulls down my lower lid and examines my eyes. ‘No, you’re still not anaemic’, she grins.
And then, with some embarrassment, she tells our translator that she would like to see my ankles.
Our translator laughs and tells her to go ahead. Shyly, she pulls at my salwar kameez. I help her out and yank the trousers up to my knee. She finds my leg very odd I think, and giggles at me whilst she stares at it, then at my ankles, which she prods. ‘Not swollen’, more grinning, still crouching, she reports.
When I have finished my questions, and sung for the girls, danced with the girls, told them what I like to eat and what I like to do in England, announced that I am not married and heard that they would like to find me a husband… then I have to turn my back on these smiling, tired, wonderful, piercing faces. ‘Please come back soon, Didi’… ‘Don’t go. Stay here with us, Didi’… and then I have to turn my back and walk back to the car and into the icy air conditioning and drive back into my report and chai, and meetings in board rooms and coffee waiting for me there and calls back home to England and three meals a day and the cinema at night.
And so I sit in the cinema that night and I watch Superman saving another leggy American brunette and I think to myself about what those girls are doing now and what a fraud I am for going there in the heat of the day and then spending my evening wallowing in popcorn and coke and Western materialism and easy scenes that remind me of home and make me feel comfortable and comforted, even though I don’t like that about myself.