I still remember the day. It was a frigid Friday evening in the winter of 1989. My mother was busy preparing our favorite rice soup. There was a small mango tree near the main gate of my old, yet, neatly kept the ancestral house in Kerala, South India. I climbed the nearest branch and was about to snatch a green, little mango. Something stopped me suddenly. It was a jeep. It drove in. A middle-aged uncle walked towards the main door and put a notice on it. He was silent and looked away when his eyes met mine. I sat on the tree, watching the jeep drive away.

We lost our House forever

I went inside, screaming. It pierced the big beautiful house. Mom came out of the kitchen in a panic, adjusting her long hair. She read the notice and stood there, with stoic silence and profound grief in eyes. It is official now; we lost our house forever. The announcement on the door was actually from the bank. We failed to repay the loan. We were forced to pledge the property and apply for colossal loan, when my father fell ill, years ago. Mom thought that we would be able to repay the loan using the income from our paddy cultivation. But, unfortunately, excessive rain ruined our farm, and we couldn’t even get enough rice to support our daily meals. The loan multiplied and within a short period, it became a burden beyond our limits. Still, mom was optimistic and thought we would repay selling part of our property. But nothing helped us. And finally, we lost our house, forever.

The horizon was darkening, like our minds. It was the longest night of my life. I heard mummy crying silently. She was a perfect wife and mother. She observed all auspicious rituals perfectly, oiled and combed my long hair daily and braided jasmine for the prayers. Yet, even God couldn’t save our lives. But she was determined and wanted to survive.

The next day, we left our house. I looked sadly at the garden and the budding white lilies, my small mango tree and the pool…and bid farewell to our sweet Anand Bhavan- the house of happiness.

Colours vanished from our life

Colours of life turned since then. We began to live in a rented house in the town, leaving the village and its fond memories behind us. We got some money from the bank after forfeiting our pledged property. I have three brothers and three sisters.  All were studying. I was in 10th standard. I was good in studies and always stood first in the class.

Slowly and gradually poverty began to affect us. It is virtually impossible to live without a permanent income. My sisters started searching for small jobs. My mother approached relatives and friends. But nobody was willing to help a ‘useless mother of seven kids’. Many times the house owner shouted at the door for not paying rent on time. We sold all the household items including bed and book shelf. I sold my Webster’s Dictionary (It was gift from my favourite teacher), just for half dollars to pay my school fees.

It was terrible in the school as well. When my friends ate their lunch, I wandered the school compound with a whirling mind…asking myself thousands of questions about this predicament. With an empty stomach, I cried for days…Classmates used to stare at my shabby uniform. I cursed myself. All were beautiful except me. Pretty kids are coming from their lovely houses in princess-like clothes. I was always the ‘odd one out’. One day, when I failed to pay the fee on time, the teacher asked me to stand outside the classroom until I paid the fee. Wails gathered in me. Yet I controlled my deeply wounded emotions, ignoring the knowing looks on my classmates’ faces.

My Transformation

But amidst all the odds, I studied, day and night, with a sense of vengeance. When the final results came, I passed with flying colors and stood the third position in the school. I got the national scholarship for further studies. Hence, I joined college and continued my struggle against poverty, deprivation and the social stigma associated with itI learned the art of public speaking and began to participate in inter-college/ university competitions. When my friends wandered the campus with their boyfriends, I sat alone in the library, reading world classics. I became a voracious reader and famous orator. Wearing old, shabby clothes and cheap shoes, I participated in many essay writing/ quiz/ debate competitions. The ‘odd girl out’ slowly began to find her space in this world. I contested in the college election and was elected as the Chairperson of the college union.

In the same year, 1993, Government of India conducted an All India Level Quiz competition for University students across the country. I was selected from my state, defeating other contestants. The final contest was in Delhi, the capital city. There were 25 participants representing various states. I could see disgusting looks, grins, and flickers of uncertainty around me. I lost my confidence for a moment. But, I couldn’t refrain from thinking of the chilly evening of 1989 that changed my life altogether. I couldn’t help thinking of my mom’s ineffable endurance and sacrifice. I regained confidence and looked at the quiz master. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I was sure that I am going to win this prestigious contest. And that did happen. I won the show. As the entire crowd watched with disbelief and clapped uninterruptedly, I entered the stage and received the award from the Honourable Prime Minister of our country.

A cyclone of joy engulfed me, suddenly. He raised his face and smiled at me. I smiled back…it was a smile right from my heart. The moment erased all my pains. The shame, stigma, insult….everything vanished, and somewhere inside me, a little girl refused to stop smiling. A girl who lost her house at the age of 14….

My Old House

Sudha Menon is a senior research and documentation consultant with more than 16 years of expertise in development research with special emphasis on gender, labor rights, supply chain analysis, agrarian crisis, food security, SDGs, women empowerment and poverty eradication strategies. She has worked with international development organizations, academic institutions and reputed consultancy firms across the world. As an expert in the issues of informal sector women workers and home-based workers in the South Asian region, Sudha has published several research papers, reports, articles, policy briefs, supply-chain analysis studies etc. Sudha also played an instrumental role in building and mentoring Citizens Right Watch, an international NGO based in London. Since inception, she serves as the member of the Trust Council in Citizens Right Watch.

Image courtesy of Soragrit Wongsa.