Kids Corner

Above: detail from photo by Vijay Sarathy. Below, both of the first two images from the bottom: details from photos by Nauman Khawaja.





"Bhainaaaaay!!!!!"* screams a small child's voice.

The minute I walk through the gate, I hear the high-pitched shout. It is full of love and affection for a complete stranger. Who am I? I am the foreigner who lives in the big house, while this child lives with his family in the verrah* to protect me.

Bittu's eyes are round and dark. He is a small boy, skinny, with a bulge for his tummy. He is clinging to his mother's side. He wants to come and talk to me, but I am too busy, too important to spend time with this small three-year-old.

Some days are different. His beautiful mother calls to me. She says  - come, sit, eat with us. She has made a wonderful hearty Punjabi meal. In the few dishes she owns, she puts some hot saag* and she hands me a fresh roti*.

I sit on the small peerrhi*. I cannot say no. They are simple people. They are strong people. She is offering me food. I cannot say no.

I wonder about this family. I cannot ask any questions. I am disconnected from them. But I am one of them. I could easily have been the small child screaming "Bhainaay!" from behind a tree to a stranger.

But my destiny was different. At his age, I was already a first generation immigrant in the land of plenty. In the same country as the owners of this house I now stay in.

My days of yelling "Bhainaay" instead gave way to learning "Jingle Bells" in a public school in Canada.

Little Bittu has a younger sister. She is an infant. She lies in the munjee* with her paternal grandmother. Bittu runs around the verrah on his side of the complex. They have a hole for a toilet and a small thatched shed for a place to sleep. The water buffalo live right outside their shed, not even ten yards away.

Bittu does not know anything else. He does not know how to live in the house I stay in. He is a child, happy to play in the dirt and be free and innocent.

His mother and father show the signs of hardship. They are young like me, but their life makes them look twice their age. They are stronger than me. They work hard, very hard. But there is very little future for them. They live the village life, but they do not have relatives abroad who can help them.

Bittu's love is contagious. He so openly and caringly greets me every day. He watches from his corner to see what will happen in the house today. He stands concealed behind the tree on his side of the yard. Peeking every now and then to see what the strangers will do today.

He laughed at us from a distance on the hot and sultry day when we all lost it and had an all-out water fight. He heard the laughing and screaming as we came at each other with little plastic water guns. None of us asked him to play with us. We were self-absorbed in our own play with our foreign toys.

This young child would have cherished the cheap fifty-cent water gun as if it were a precious gem, if only we had given it to him.

I don't know what it is about this child that his memory remains so important to me after all these years. It has been almost ten years since I first saw him. But I cannot stop remembering him.

There are many other people who I saw every day for years I no longer think about. But not Bittu; he is still vivid in the deep crevices of my mind, like a shining star on a dark gloomy night.

That long summer finally ended.

We left Bittu in his village. I went back a year later to find out how much my little brother had grown. I went to the house I lived in, but the family had left. They were now in their small home inside the village.

I saw Bittu's mother and grandmother. The year had aged them considerably. Their work had not gotten any easier. I asked about Bittu. They pointed him out to me with deep sorrow in their eyes. His mother told me, he does not stay well. It has been more than six months. I looked at the little boy who had had the sparkle and love in his eyes.

He had not grown at all. He was wearing a woolen cap on what I thought was a hot day. He looked tired: tired at the age of four. So much had changed since I left.

I never saw Bittu again. I don't have the courage to find out how he is doing. The fear in his mother's eyes lives in my heart.



*bhainaay = sister

*munjee = cot

*verrah = courtyard

*saag = spinach dish

*roti = flat bread

*peerrhi = small low to ground stool


[June 4, 2008]

Conversation about this article

1: Karamjit Virk (Chicago, U.S.A.), June 05, 2008, 10:10 PM.

I remember Bittu fondly as well. I'm glad you wrote this little piece. I could hear his voice saying "bhainey" when I was reading this. These are the gems that came and went from our lives and will remain forever in some corner of our hearts, bringing with their memories moments of happiness with subtle aches, to be cherished forever more. Keep writing, "Bhainey"!

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