Pooja is the second eldest girl in the ashram. If you ask Pooja to tell you something about herself, she will tell you about her brother, Vishal. Vishal lives in Mermier Bal Ashram for boys and Pooja, on several occasions, would tell me how much she misses him. I get the sense that Pooja feels somewhat responsible for her brother’s wellbeing since both of their parents have passed away. During one of the workshops, the children were asked to answer questions about themselves, one of which was, “If you could change something about the world, what would it be?” Pooja answered, “That my brother might always be happy.” I don’t believe that Pooja’s brother is unhappy, but Pooja often worries about him.
One of the most memorable evenings was my last night in Vaduz when I was finalizing the children’s stories. Pooja knocked on the door of my room, along with Fatima, and in her hand was a small photo album. “Diddi,” she said (which means big sister in Hindi), “I have something to show you.” Up until this point, I knew that Pooja’s parents had passed away, but I was unaware of the circumstances of their death. Pooja sat beside me on my bed, with Fatima on the other side, and she began to flick through the photos. One of the photographs in the album was one i had mailed to Pooja’s brother last year after my stay at his ashram. The photograph was of me and Vishal, and plastered on Vishal’s face was a huge smile. I asked Pooja why she, rather than Vishal, now has the photograph. “He wanted me to have this so I may always see him smiling,” she said.
As Pooja continued to flick through the album, she came to one of her father, her aunt and her uncle. “Diddi,” she said, “I have not told you the full story of my parents.” At this stage Fatima stepped in. “There is a longer story to her parents’ death,” said Fatima. Between the two girls, they recited step by step, the series of events that led to the death of Pooja’s parents. “It began with a rumour that was spread by a neighbour about my mother,” Pooja said. I get the impression that the rumours and lies caused a great deal of trauma for the family.
Pooja then handed over to Fatima to recall the events of the night that Pooja’s mother had ended her life. While the death was a suicide, Pooja’s father, who was in the room at the time, was charged with murder. A few months into the jail sentence, he too committed suicide, and Pooja and Vishal were left as orphans.
Pooja told me early on that she wanted the topic of her photojournalism project to be her childhood. But part of her wouldn’t believe that it would be possible to return to her slum. I must have told her at least five times that this was really going to happen, but it wasn’t until the day before our trip that it clicked, “Pooja, it’s happening. We’re going tomorrow.” Her smile was the most illuminated beam of joy I have ever seen, and shortly after this conversation she pulled me aside to explain what to expect. “Diddi, you must understand that my home is only small, maybe no bigger than that shed over there. But it is beautiful to my eyes.” I assured her of my view that any home with lovely people and a nice atmosphere is beautiful and, as I said this, Pooja nodded. In her mind, I guess she was thinking, “My home has exactly that.”
And she was right. As our rickshaw pulled up outside the slum area, Pooja was instantly recognized by a woman at a stall. The woman, who was obviously surprised to see her, handed her a packet of biscuits. As we began to walk through the slum area, Pooja ran. She ran like a master of the slum, with a knowledge of every corner, ditch and crevice. The ground was flooded in areas, with large, brown, smelly puddles. A different smell emanated from every slum and alleyway - odours I had never smelt. For Pooja, I can only imagine it was like coming home to the smell of your grandmothers cookies in the oven.
My name is Pooja. My name means “to worship God.” My age is 15 and I am studying in 8th standard. My brother, Vishal is staying in Mermier Bal Ashram and is studying in 7th standard. My hobbies are singing and dancing.
My project… is about my childhood, and for my story I travelled home to the place where I was born. We travelled by train, then we took an auto rickshaw, and my aunty was there waiting.
This is a photograph of my father, my aunty and my uncle. When I was born my father did not come to the hospital because he wanted a baby boy. My aunties came to the hospital to bring my mother and me home. Then after some time my father returned. My aunty gave my father advice but there were lots of problems and much fighting. For a short time, things became alright and after a few months my brother was born. His name is Vishal. For a while we lived happily together as a family. But it became bad again when I was aged four. Due to some quarreling, a misunderstanding and some lies about my mother, both my parents died.
I went to stay with my aunty who is pictured in this photograph. My cousins stayed with me too. Then after a few years I went to the centre for education, and my teacher Shobha helped my brother and me. She gave us a nice chance to study, and she also gave us clothes and food.
This is the slum area where I was raised. There are always people everywhere, and it is very colourful. But when I am at home I cannot study because nobody is there to look after me. But I like it here very much. We eat lots of nice dishes such as dhal, rice and vegetables. The lady pictured at the front of this photograph is my cousin and her name is Sangita. Here she is cooking vegetables for her family.
This photograph is of me with my aunty and cousin. We are standing in the temple which is in my slum area. When I was a child my mother used to go into this temple every morning to pray. I was very excited to come back to this temple.
In my slum area the men go out to work during the day and the women stay as housewives. This photograph is of Lalita and she is my cousin. Lalita has one child, a girl, and she is still a baby. When I visited my slum area Lalita was washing clothes.
In 2008 I came to Vaduz Ashram, and the teacher, Shoba (in the centre) brought me here. My brother Vishal went to Mermier Bal Ashram for boys and we started going to school. This picture is of the sisters and my aunty when they came to my home.
In Vaduz Ashram I have learnt many things from the Sisters, things like singing, dancing, doing craft and other activities. I also go to school now and, when I am an adult, I would like to help poor children in slum areas who do not have a place to stay. I would like to thank Father Francis for giving me such a nice opportunity to live and study in Vaduz. Thank you, Father.