The room is cramped. The ceiling is low. The house is in a slum in the Wazirpur Industrial Area of Delhi. In the past one year, 10-year-old Meena and 13-year-old Manjula have got used to the living conditions. But there are days like today when they find themselves pining for the children’s home in Kanpur where they spent six years after going missing.
It isn’t the girls alone who feel the disquiet. Their parents had bought 5 kg of laddoos to distribute around the slum when their daughters were found, but now Uma, their mother, worries constantly about their future. “The girls deserve more, they went through so much. And the locality is not good. Drugs, alchohol, hooliganism are rampant,” Uma, who works as a labourer painting houses, says.
Her husband Lal Diwan, who is also a labourer, employed in a steel utensil manufacturing company, adds, “Har din kuch ghatna hoti rehti hai jhuggion mein (Everyday there is an incident in the jhuggis).”
As we enter their house, Uma instructs that we duck. “Room thoda chota hai, pankha sar par lag jaata hai (The room is a little small, the ceiling fan can hit the head),” she says, apologetically.
As Meena plays with two of her brothers, Uma and Diwan’s eldest son, who is 17, comes in with a bottle of cold drink. Meena gets up to offer it in plastic glasses. Manjula, now into her indifferent teens, keeps her eyes on the movie playing on TV.
“After the girls returned home last March, we wanted them to continue their education. Meena was studying in an English-medium school in Kanpur and we put her in an English-medium school here. She goes to a private school in Ashok Vihar and her fees is Rs 1,400 per month,” says Diwan. They also hired a tutor for her.
However, Manjula goes to a government school as the private one wanted a certificate that she didn’t have, says Diwan. “The government school is okay as of now, but we are looking for a tutor for her too. In the slums it is difficult to find one.” While Meena is in Class 5, Manjula is two classes senior.
The parents are also scared to let the two out of their eyesight. “We never allow them to go anywhere alone. A van takes Meena to school and drops her back home, while Manjula goes and comes back with friends,” says Uma. She adds that the girls are not scared to go out alone, but they don’t let them.
Manjula only brightens up when Meena says she wants to see “woh walla video (that video)”. She is referring to the video made by The Indian Express on the reunion of the girls with their parents a year ago. As the video starts playing, the sisters are glued to the screen, their eyes sparkling.
When the scene of Manjula dancing, as Uma watches, comes on, the sisters are struck at the sight of their mother crying in the video. Uma had not been reunited with the two at the time. The girls glance at their mother for a second, then turn back to the video.
Looking on, Uma remarks that the girls have not spoken to her once about their time away from home. “I am waiting for the day they speak about it,” she sighs.
However, one thing they do talk about frequently. “Papa humein Kanpur jaana hai (we want to go to Kanpur),” Meena says, her voice solemn. She says she misses her friends at the Kanpur private children’s home they stayed in. “Wahan ke teachers aur dost achche hain. Sab kuch accha tha (The teachers and children there are nice. Everything was nice there).”
Diwan assures he will take them to the Kanpur home one day. Manjula has again turned back to the TV.
The girls admit they have made friends here though. “Isha” is a common favourite.
They remain in touch with the caretaker of the Kanpur home, Sanjula Pandey. Pandey tells The Sunday Express she calls up once in a while to find out what is happening in their lives, particularly if they are continuing their schooling and if anybody is mistreating them. “Ab itne din yahan rahe to thoda lagav to ho hi jaata hai (Having spent so much time together, one gets attached),” Pandey says.
At the time Manjula and Meena were at the home, there were 18 other girls like them there, who had got separated from their families. Pandey says that soon after Manjula and Meena left, the parents of one of Meena’s friends, Anita, were traced, after a gap of four years. They live in Amroha in Uttar Pradesh.
Pandey says that cases of children reuniting with their parents after so long are rare. “We keep finding parents of children who have gone missing for 10 days or a month,” she says.
Uma and Diwan know they should count their blessings. But they also understand why Pandey keeps calling. Pointing to son Shiva, Uma regrets that he dropped out of school, and doesn’t work either to support the family. Their entreaties to Shiva have fallen on deaf ears, she says, and her fear is that living in the same atmosphere, her daughters too might turn out the same way.
All that they can do is hope for the best, Diwan replies. “Apna ghar to hai yahan. Bahar jayenge to paise kahaan se aayenge (At least we have our own house here. Where will we get the money if we go to another place)?”