Bewaqoof! Says an elder, Bewaqoof ladki! He repeats. Idiot, idiot girl!
This admonishment is directed towards Begum Mumtaz, a dirt poor almost blind orphan girl living with her mother in the village of Nagaram in AP, India. The anger and irritation is because Mumtaz refuses to visit an eye specialist to check if a medical solution is possible for her eyesight. I am here, visiting this oppressively hot and muggy village to oversee the construction of sixteen homes for extremely poor families.
I chance upon this pretty girl lurking in the shadows of her hovel, one eligible for a new and small but decent home that will not flood this coming monsoon season. I ask her to come out of the shadows and present herself; she is shy, reluctant. The elders of local community accompanying me encourage her, sweet-talk her and Mumtaz shyly emerges into light. I take to her almost immediately, a tug to my heart, for she can be not much older than my own Maaha Zainab. How pretty Mumtaz is, maasha’Allah; I experience pain and sadness at her plight.
I ask her name, her age, whether she goes to school…she replies coyly at first, then gains confidence and talks. She thinks she is ten, maybe eleven; she used to go to school but has now stopped. Why, I ask? I can’t see, she says, and the teacher gets frustrated at me, so I stopped going. An elder thrusts five spread fingers very close to her eyes and demands to know how many she can see. Four…no, five, five, five! Well, I ask, have you seen a doctor about your eyesight? You can still see close up so there should be something that doctors can do for you. There is an embarrassing silence for a few seconds before an elder leans towards me and whispers, they are poor Sir, they don’t have money to see doctors or worry about surgery.
For some inexplicable reason, I feel an acute irritation at that remark and an even greater urge to rebuke the guy but I breathe deeply and remain calm instead. Well, I volunteer, CAI will be happy to pay for her surgery if resorting of her eyesight is possible. Is it? The elders look at each other and I can tell it has not even crossed their minds to inquire or research. Weeeell, they all start, but I cut them off. Can you guys please take her to a good specialist eye doctor and find out if surgery or any other treatment is possible? Don’t worry, CAI will foot the bill, just make sure you see a good specialist doctor. Please do this on an emergency footing.
While the entire troupe of elders erupts in joyous celebration of the good tidings and sing inevitable and customary (but always awkward and uncomfortable) praises of CAI and me, the subject person is forgotten. But when she speaks, everybody listens and the joy becomes instant surprise that turns to shock and unbelief.
Mei nahi jaaunji. This comes from Mumtaz, confidently, unequivocally. I will not go to the doctor, she whines. They will poke into my eyes and hurt me. I heard one girl with my condition was killed and her body parts stolen on the operating table. No, I will not go to any doctor, leave me be!
Everybody looks at Mumtaz Begum in astonishment; I gape at her while one elder call her bewaqoof, an idiot.
Now to the point of my writing this piece. I have come across many cases in my line of work where people, many educated and experienced, refuse (or can’t or don’t) take the initiative of simple first few steps that would make help possible and easier; this inevitably irks and dismays me. Here is obviously a serious problem with Mumtaz’s eyesight, everybody knows this, but nobody takes the initiative to find out if there is a solution to this problem. Okay, Mumtaz is a child and immature and scared; she will come around insha’Allah and we’ll try and get her the medical attention she needs.
I go to homes with acute needs or communities that are in critical poverty and all they will do is complain they are poor. When I ask how CAI can help, they have no clue, apart from direct financial assistance that is short term in nature and a quick fix; this is terrible defeatist mentality. This opinion or feeling of mine is probably unfair and false, there may be other factors and variables at play, perhaps; still, I cannot get rid of my irritability. It maybe has to do with lack of education and or poverty that drives this stubborn mentality. Surely a possible solution is available for every problem and this can be identified and entertained?