Usually, at 17, teens start negotiating their way through life. In Pooja Singh’s case, it is literal, finding her way around with the help of her cane. She was born with absolutely no vision and has experienced plenty of heartache already. It took years for her eyes to open even, according to her mother, Hemlata Singh.
An ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker in an anganwadi in Bhopal, Hemlata said the day Pooja was born, her husband declared he wanted nothing to do with her and refused to support his wife and newborn financially. “I went to my parents’ place and stayed there for one and a half years. Then my in-laws came and insisted I return. But my husband’s behaviour remained unchanged. That is when I decided to take up a job.”
Like all ASHA workers, she is paid a pittance, just ₹5,000 a month. With that she supports her three children. When Pooja was around four years old, her sister Khushi was born. This baby was welcomed with love. “This used to make Pooja very sad and she used to cry, asking me why nobody loved her. But I used to make her understand that I love her the most.”
Things got more poignant when Khushi started school. “Pooja used to cry, begging me to send her to school too. I went around asking everybody to help, but they all laughed at me saying, ‘Why would you want to send a blind girl to school? Why waste your money on her?’ Some told me to send her to a hostel for the blind, but I am a mother; how can I send my child away from me?”
Not one to give up, Hemlata went around asking for help. Finally, the local MLA then, Vishvas Sarang, suggested she approach Arushi, a non-profit organisation working with persons with disabilities. “I went there with my brother and met the principal. She initially told me the annual fee was ₹5,000 but then brought it down to ₹2,000.”
This opened up avenues for Pooja. She now studies music and theatre, has learnt Braille, and knows how to use a computer. She likes history and political science too.
“It’s been six years since she started going, and now she also assists the teachers by teaching. They tell me she is very good and talented, and ask me to send her to a [mainstream] school, but I do not have the money,” says her mother.
Hemlata’s struggle has been unrelenting. Khushi was going to RST Memorial Public School. “But I am the only one who earns. I can’t feed and pay for their education too. Khushi had to quit her school in Grade 7 because I couldn’t afford it. It hurts me, but there is nothing I can do.”
Hemlata’s youngest, Tanu, now 11, is in Grade 6 now, and it is difficult to afford her fees and books. “Tanu doesn’t even have proper shoes. My children and I stay under the same roof as my husband but he pretends like he has nothing to do with us and does not support us in any way.”
As if to compensate for their father’s callousness, the sisters are very attached to each other and do everything together. “If I playfully threaten to send Pooja to a hostel, they beg me not to. It gladdens my heart to see their bond.”
Meanwhile, Pooja is thriving in her school and adores her music teacher. “I love singing as it makes me happy. My favourite song is ‘Tere sang yaara’ by Atif Aslam.” She says Hemlata had always wanted to be a singer. “But due to circumstances, she could not. I feel especially happy when she sings ‘Choti si pyari si nanhi si’ by Alka Yagnik.”
The school sends its students to perform not only in Bhopal but also Mumbai. “I really love my school and like spending time there. I have two very dear friends there, Mahima and Purvi.”
Once back from school, Pooja helps her mother by cutting vegetables and doing the dishes. “I use a cane for moving around and don’t need any help and can manage everything on my own.”
Her ambition is to be a singer or get into the arts like theatre. “When I was small, I used to feel very bad when my extended family members would show love only to my sisters and not me. But then my mother has always stood by me, been my biggest support, and loves me the most.”