“The children show their love in strange ways”, I said to Dhanno.

“They will run up excitedly and say ‘pranaam’ and then run off again. It’s not as if they talk much to me, or hang around me much. They will laugh and chatter amongst themselves, and be naughty.

But they are still shy of eating in front of me, shy of taking sweets, or any other treats. Once when I forced some cold drinks on them, because I knew they wanted them, they swirled the bottles around in their hand, until I had moved away.

They don’t touch me of their own accord, but accept the hugs I give, or the pats on their heads, except Pavan, the littlest one who will squirm a little.

Anjali when she knows we will be going away, will go away before us, will not come out of her house until her mother calls her, and will seem quite disinterested in the goodbyes.

Anuraaj will dance around excitedly, the last one to leave, until we leave, full of mischief even as we see him running off.

Harish and Ajay call me every now and then, and after the enthusiastic ‘pranaam’ it is up to me to ask them questions to carry on the conversation, and all they will say is ‘yes, m’m, no, m’m’.

But then, Harish will stand on the road between his village Aagar, up on the mountain and look down at the Ghimtoli market, where he knows we will come that morning, just to watch our jeep pass by.

Or Ajay will come with us up to the next village some 7 kms. away, ready to walk back if he does not get a ride home, just to have those few extra minutes with us. On the ride he will not say a word, just sit beside me in the front seat, and then get dropped off, wave goodbye and leave.

That is how I have to figure out that they love me”, I said to Dhanno.

“You should stay in Garhwal”,  Dhanno says.

I know she wants to say something else but is not. “Because I express love in the same strange way, isn’t it?”, I complete for her. She nods.

When she was younger, she would say, “Mummy, I love you”, and wait for me to reply back, “I love you too.” I would just look at her and smile. Soon, it became a game between us. When will Mummy actually say, “I love you too.”?

But the words seem so little to me, have always done. There is love, but there is also the piercing pain you feel every now and then, the irritation, the exasperation, and the resignation that you feel in your heart that you are not going anywhere, that you are never ever going to be able to let this person go. How can those words encompass all that? Sometimes she sulked, but I don’t think she ever doubted her place in my heart.

The children know that too. They don’t need me to hug them, or say how much I love them, to know how much they mean to me. Harish knows it when I climb up a few kms. to his house, after a day’s shoot, to say a proper goodbye, even if it is a huffing puffing one. He cries when I am unable to go the second time, though not in front of me.

Ajay knows it when I travel 21 kms., more than an hour’s drive in the hills, to meet him in his mother’s home, after his grandfather does not allow him to complete the last 2 days of the shoot. Ajay does not talk to me much even then, but looks proud and happy that I am in his home.

His mother does not apologize for her father, and she has nothing more to give us but tea and biscuits. A day or two, later she calls me, embarrassed, “I did not make any lunch for you.” I said I would eat the next time, she asks, “In our hut?” She has been calling me regularly all of last year, even though we had not met then, usually at around noon. “Have you eaten?”, she would ask. I would ask, “What are you doing?” “I am in the fields”, she would say. Or, “I am in the jungle cutting wood”, and I would feel such happiness receiving a phone call from the field or the jungle, from a woman I had never met, as if I were there myself. How could I explain to her that I had travelled those 21 kms. to meet her as much as I had to meet Ajay?

Harish’s father will call me from his job in Phata, a government office where he is a caretaker cum peon, taking care of buildings visited only now and then by his superiors on a routine visit, or their families on their way to Kedarnath. He too has nothing much to say except ‘Pranaam, sir! How are you? How is Sirji (Teja)? How is the little one (Dhanno, whom he has never met)?”

The children all live away from one or other of their parents.

Harish lives in Aagar with his mother and sisters, his father lives in Phata, almost 115 kms. away.

Anuraaj and Anjali live in a rented house in Ghimtoli with their mother, away from their village Talghar, while their father works in Amritsar.

Pavan lives in Ghimtoli market with his father who has a small clothes shop there and his sister Santoshi, only a little older than him, while his mother lives in the village Ghwans with her in-laws taking care of them and their house, a few kms. away. They meet on weekends.

Ajay lives with his mother’s parents and sister in Ghimtoli. His mother lives in Chandannagar, 21 kms. away with her in-laws, his father works in Mumbai. He catches a jeep and goes to meet her on weekends.

Ghimtoli has a small private school, marginally better than the government schools around, and almost 80% of the children live with one parent or their grandparents to be able to go there.

Pavan was only 6 when we shot with him last year. His father told us that he had learned to get ready and go to school on his own, since he was 4 or 5, as his mother was not around.

Most of the children turn up at school, unwashed, school uniforms torn and dirty, buttons and zips missing, noses running, not having eaten in the morning. At the shoot, the children dressed in their best, but they came without breakfast or handkerchiefs.

To us, from Mumbai, the children seemed so independent, so undemanding, also maybe a little  neglected, a result of the harsh landscape, the poor living conditions, the choices their parents don’t have.

To them, our concern about them being fed, cleaning their noses, seeing they were out of the sun, drinking water regularly, playing with them and laughing with them, letting them be naughty, and then scolding them, was more than enough love.
the children and me tickling

Cross posted on the Kaphal blog