When I think of the young girl "Jyoti" (Name changed) I met on my graduation days in 2000, I smile. I was a social work student; my college was located 12 KM away from the highway in a small village. Those days we had to go 12 KM to make a phone call if needed. As social work students, we spent a lot of time in nearby villages as part of our fieldwork. Migration to Metro cities for better income was a usual practice among villagers. Young girls used to go in groups to work as house helps and other similar jobs. These girls used to get disconnected from their village. We often heard, "there is no news of the girls, and many never returned."
Coming back to the story of the little girl Jyoti, I was in my second year of college, and I met this little girl around 10/11 years, a new face, filling water from the tube well next to my hostel. I got to know she has come to stay with her uncle here as her mother can not take care of her studies and she is also from my home town which is almost 300 KM from my college. She had a big smile constantly, and I often saw her playing near the hostel after school. Months passed, and the University Exam preparation days arrived. Three of us from my batch decided to stay back in the hostel and prepare for the Exam while others left for home. I noticed Jyoti was babysitting our hostel cook's daughter frequently. Sometimes she was around in school. I found out her uncle had refused to take care of her, so she was doing babysitting to get two meals a day in return.
After a few days, our hostel cook came running to us and said, "Didi, Jyoti's uncle, is planning to sell her as a house help in some Metro City, and any day Jyoti can leave." We were young, and it was also a sensitive case. We asked Jyoti to sleep in the hostel and study there at night. I had a little idea about an NGO in Cuttack, around 350 KM from my college, providing shelter and education to needy individuals, including children and older people. I took the phone number from my diary and went straight to make a phone call to the NGO, and the other two friends were also encouraged. I spoke to the Founder, a kind-hearted lady, asking for help for Jyoti. She said we would get back. But two months passed, and no reply came.
It was July 2001; we were in our final year of college. It was a rainy morning in the village. A white jeep came to our hostel with a new student, and a lady in a crisp cotton saree came along. She was the Founder of the same NGO we contacted earlier. With all courage, I said, "Madam, we tried to reach you for Jyoti, and still she is struggling."She smiled and said, "Call Jyoti." Jyoti was working in a paddy field; when she came running to the hostel, hoping for a better future. When the NGO personnel asked her if she wanted to go with her for studies, she said, "Yes, I want to study, go to school, and go with you." Jyoti's uncle signed the consent letter as a guardian very reluctantly for her better future. Jyoti left with Ma'm for Cuttack city. After she left, our college principal called us and said, "You have done something hazardous without telling Jyoti's parents, and you should not repeat this."
Those days were no mobile phone days or no landline phone in my college, so I was unaware of what was happening in my hometown. I met my mother in December 2001, and she scolded me a lot as I sent Jyoti to someplace unknown. I took a bus and went to meet Jyoti at the NGO. She was pleased there, and she told me about her new school. She also told me that she is learning dance and art. I left for home with a relaxed mind. I went to check on Jyoti till 2004, and then I lost touch.
In 2008, when I was a student in the Netherlands, I decided to call my Graduation college senior to have a quick chat and know the college's current situation, who was working as a lecturer in the same college and the warden of the hostel. After a few minutes of our conversation, she handed over the phone to someone.
From the other side, I heard, "Didi, remember me ? I am Jyoti, the same girl you sent to an NGO". My heartbeat went up. I said, "Why are you back again in the village? I sent you for a better life." She said, "Didi, I am in my 1st year of college and doing the same course you did ". I was happy and could not thank God enough for all these years.
Again years passed, and I got busy with my work. In 2020, I tried to reach out to Jyoti to check how she was doing. I searched social media pages and had no luck. I called the NGO home, and they said, "Jyoti is not staying here anymore as she got married. She is also working as a social welfare officer". Still, I wanted to hear from her. I tried with her changed surname and found her on social media. She shared a few photos of her new family and her work. I asked her if I could write her story one day. She agreed and replied, "Apa, don't forget to write in your story that I have also studied in Vihabandh BSW 2010 pass out and MSW".
Jyoti, in my mind, will always be that little girl with a big smile I met in that village. She has made her way, struggling with all odds. I wish her more and more happiness in life.
Maybe someday I will meet her personally.