A Picture of Lakshmi
Lakshmi is four and a half years old. There is cautious anticipation in her eyes as she gazes into the camera – a look that conceals more than it says. Still and obedient she stands, a neat, folded, white handkerchief pinned fastidiously to her shirt, well-groomed, and perhaps tall for her age. This strikes a bit of a contrary picture because Lakshmi is known to jump and clap her hands with abandon, even write, hesitantly but with relish. In the backdrop are the children of Anganwadi III, Girani Chawl, Hubli, Lakshmi’s friends, with whom she mixes and mingles.
Abandoned in a Public Toilet
But Lakshmi has a speech impairment that hinders her ability to learn. What she says is incoherent. She is a trier though, and makes spirited attempts to speak and sing. Her story has a long history. It began in 2008 when Lakshmi was discovered by Sushila Narayankar in the toilet of a Hubli bus stand, abandoned and crying. She was a little over six months old and had suffered a grave injury to her head. Sushila had been waiting for a bus and the sound of an infant crying wrenched her. She picked up Lakshmi and went around asking people if the child was theirs. No one knew anything about her.
Lakshmi was an unknown entity, already forgotten, already written off. Someone suggested that Sushila take her to the police station and file a complaint. There, the police advised Sushila and her husband, Mariyappa, to keep the child with them till they could locate her parents or relatives.
Till today, no one has come forward to claim Lakshmi, and so she stayed with Sushila and Mariyappa who happily took care of her. For the childless couple, married for twenty five years, this was God’s gift, an answer to their fervent prayers, and they named her Lakshmi. Their recriminations had been endless all those years, directed at a God who had failed them. Now, they believed their Tirupati deity had heard their pleas, a little late in life – Mariyappa is forty eight, Sushila, thirty nine.
“Oh My God”
As Lakshmi grew the cracks began to show. She had a weak memory and struggled with speech, both of which were attributed to her head injury. Sushila and Mariyappa, a low-income family, peons at Basel Mission School in Hubli, spared no effort to get Lakshmi assessed and treated. They did the rounds of hospitals and tests, but the damage seemed irreversible though doctors held out the hope that Lakshmi would improve with time.
Sushila and Mariyappa were understandably distraught. “Oh my God,” they despaired. “God has given us a child like this.” They did not have the resources for advanced medical treatment or long-term care-giving. What would become of Lakshmi, they wondered? Sushila and Mariyappa went back to the police station to find out if anything was known about her biological parents. To which the police said, “Why come so late?”
At the Anganwadi
Lakshmi’s faltering development was a big blow to Sushila and Mariyappa but the initial shock, the alienation they felt from their child, soon transmuted to a generosity of spirit and a steely resolve. They began exploring alternative avenues for Lakshmi, in keeping with their means. They noticed that the girl was a friendly child, eager for company her age, with a pronounced interest in school life. Anganwadi III in Girani Chawl, close to where they live, seemed a viable option. Sushila and Mariyappa admitted her there in early 2011 and Lakshmi seemed happy.
Trouble soon cropped up. It had always been difficult to toilet-train Lakshmi and now at the anganwadi the problem became acute. There were behavioral disturbances as well. Neither Hema Kamble, the anganwadi worker, nor the anganwadi helper were equipped to deal effectively with Lakshmi. Hema would often call Sushila and recommend that they take Lakshmi to a school for children with special needs. Helpless, the foster parents pleaded with Hema to keep Lakshmi in the anganwadi for a while longer.
Ratna Arrives on the Scene
It is then that Akshara’s Field Coordinator, Ratna, who is in charge of 26 anganwadis in Hubli, appeared on the scene. Ratna had qualifications that gave her a competent edge in managing Lakshmi – a three-month course in handling children with special needs, a two-year tenure with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), taking care of such children.
Ratna had been observing Lakshmi every time she visited the anganwadi. She saw Hema’s fraught attempts at coping, the helper’s helplessness, the lack of positivism in the whole engagement. Being one of the 109 anganwadis in Akshara North Karnataka’s preschool programme in Hubli-Dharwad, Ratna had access and acceptability. She began training Hema in how best to tackle Lakshmi.
It took time. And then everything changed. The transformation in Lakshmi is nothing short of a minor miracle. She is today toilet-trained. Her socialization processes with her peer group are well-cemented. Her speech has cleared to some extent. Lakshmi asks her teacher for toys to play with and the words are legible, though there is a long way to go yet.
Lakshmi is happy, never happier, though, than when she is playing with the toys that are a part of Akshara’s preschool programme kit. But there is a special warmth that Lakshmi reserves for Ratna. She is overjoyed when Ratna makes her frequent visits, jumping and clapping with joy, her face wreathed in smiles.
What will Lakshmi’s future be like? Sushila and Mariyappa contemplate it with some disquiet, even as they acknowledge with deep gratitude the efforts Ratna and Hema have put in to restore their child to near-normalcy. “We worry if Lakshmi will speak properly,” say Sushila and Mariyappa. “We would like her to be a teacher. It is a noble profession.”
Akshara North Karnataka – Part of this Change
As for the Akshara North Karnataka team there is a sense of quiet achievement. “This is a great positive story for us. I feel very happy to have been part of this change,” says Angelina, District Facilitator. “This anganwadi is in our preschool programme. That is why we could do so much.”
As for Ratna she is receiving affirmations for her work with Lakshmi. The Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) told her she was doing a wonderful job, while the Department of Women and Child Welfare commended her for triggering change in Anganwadi III, Girani Chawl, and asked if she would join as their Resource Person.