Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old. I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language. So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.
She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes. ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket. ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day. Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!
But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for? While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools, trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option. While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society. Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?
But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness? Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her? It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family. To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own? When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them? What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum? The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare. Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation. Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised. The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations.
 A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.