I shouldn’t think about 11-year-old lame Ramaa as much as I do; after all I got to know her only after she died. But I think of her, constantly these days, because she was the first person I could have helped and didn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t seen her funeral procession pass by our house that summer afternoon when I was seven, I fear I would have remained oblivious to her existence.
Our lives were intertwined, Ramaa’s and mine, simply because we inhabited the same piece of earth. We lived next to each other – she in a shack on an unclaimed piece of barren land and me in a large house with a high compound wall. The pomegranate, almond, cashew, guava, and mango trees lining the inside of the wall kept the outside world outside, hiding the shack from view. I had to climb all the way to our terrace and look down to see the shack and, even then, I could only see its roof – a blue tarpaulin sheet fluttering in the breeze, something I would have used to build a make-believe house to play in with my friends.
I went to our roof terrace often, not to see the shack but, to gaze at the noisy, colorful, bustling city below and the boats on the large blue lake where the rolling plains met the horizon. People often stopped to admire our beautiful stone house with its numerous balconies and impeccable gardens and no one noticed the shack with the blue roof set back from the road.
We lived next to each other but a lot separated Ramaa and me and I learned all this only after she died. She was born lame; I was born whole. Her father was a drunk and her mother took on odd jobs to support the family; my parents were educated and I was sheltered by their love (and that of my grandparents who lived with us). Ramaa attended the decrepit local school; I went to a posh, competitive, private school.
Yet, there was also a lot we had in common if only I had bothered to pay attention. We were both children. We both had our dreams and disappointments. We both wanted extraordinary careers (she wanted to become a doctor and I wanted to become India’s Prime Minister by 40). We both wanted to make our parents proud. We both loved blue. All this, too, I discovered after Ramaa was gone.
The fault wasn’t completely mine because shacks like Ramaa’s were a common sight in the city and no one seemed to give them a second thought. That is, until the day my grandmother noticed that her holy basil was dying. The gardener scratched his head and wondered how a thriving plant could suddenly die. My grandmother considered this a highly inauspicious sign and called upon the astrologer who told her the soil by the holy basil was impure, filthy, and nothing could live in it. Of logical and scientific mind, she then consulted the soil scientist who got to the bottom of the problem within minutes.
The basil plant was close to the compound, right across from where the shack stood, and toxic chemicals were seeping into our garden soil from the barren land next door, the scientist said. Where were the toxins coming from, my grandmother wanted to know. A factory, a few kilometers away, was using the land as a waste dump yard, was the answer. Soon, the soil scientist said rather gleefully, all the trees in our garden would die.
My grandmother was devastated but there was nothing to be done as the factory belonged to a powerful politician who did as he pleased. (He didn’t realize that the toxic waste from his factory would one day reach his own palatial house on the city’s outskirts). We all sighed and became preoccupied with the garden, watching for the slightest signs of wilt and wither.
Our garden preoccupation ended when the gardener came running to my parents one seething summer afternoon, out of breath.
“The girl next door is dying,” the man panted. “We have to find the mother. The drunk doesn’t know where she is working today.”
The gardener had taken some food over for the family after lunch and found the girl on the floor of the shack, unconscious and bleeding profusely, her drunk father sobbing at her feet. She had been beaten on her way back from school by a gang of thugs her father had borrowed money from.
My father rushed to call the physician and the household scoured the neighborhood looking for the mother. They found her cleaning a house in a nearby neighborhood and brought her home. Minutes later Ramaa died. I knew the exact moment she breathed her last because her mother’s agonizing screams rented the still, hot, air causing the squirrels in our garden to scurry away in fright.
I went to the roof terrace to watch the funeral procession later that afternoon even though I had been forbidden from doing so.
It was the first funeral I had seen and I will never forget it. A small body covered in a dirty white sheet was being carried on a hastily-made, crude, wood stretcher. I tried to imagine the lame, maimed body underneath and couldn’t. It was a scant procession, befitting a poor, lame girl. I couldn’t take my eyes off a woman sobbing uncontrollably, trying to drag the white sheet away. I knew she was the mother. After a while all I could hear were her sobs. It was so quiet, not even the stray dogs barked and the flies seemed to have quit buzzing.
That is when my interest in Ramaa began. I questioned everyone around me and if they dodged my interrogation, I threatened to go to the shack and talk to the drunk and his wife. I learned so much about Ramaa, my neighbor, after she passed.
I discovered that the entire household knew about Ramaa and her parents. My parents had been sending food and even money whenever they could. Yet, they had subconsciously shielded me from the desperation in the shack; Ramaa had never been invited over to our house to play. I was angry and it made me want to go out and see every horror there is in the world.
There were no pictures of Ramaa, of course, so I tried to imagine what she must have looked like. I recreated her days, her nights, her life. I tried imagining the pain of the beating that killed her. I wondered what she felt as she breathed her last. Ramaa haunted me those first few weeks. I wanted to come to terms with her death. I couldn’t.
Life goes on.
A few months later the drunk and his broken wife packed their shack and moved away. They couldn’t bear to live in the place where their daughter had died, my mother explained. After that I couldn’t bear to look at the barren piece of land. Ramaa had been murdered there by the thugs that beat her, an alcoholic parent who couldn’t protect her, a society that looked the other way. Perhaps I was to blame as well. If I had noticed her, befriended her, would it have helped in some way?
I will never know.
The politician using the land as a waste dump yard was ultimately held accountable and an environmental group undertook the task of its reclamation. A glorious park was planted there. I watched the trees grow, the marigold, bougainvillea and roses bloom. I watched children congregate there every evening to play and fly their kites. But even though the park thrived nothing grew in the spot where the holy basil had been. I was grateful – I wanted it to stay that way so I never forgot the Ramaas of the world.
Over the years, I pushed Ramaa to the back of my mind and she became a missed heartbeat, a sigh, a flicker of an incomplete life.
Except I now think about Ramaa all the time. I remember how the high compound walls of my house kept her out. As an adult I feel certain that as long as I share this planet with people like Ramaa, there is no keeping their sorrows, their toxins and “filth” out of my life. The toxins will seep into the soil and kill my garden; the grievances of the unfortunate will touch me no matter what.
So far, I believed the United States was a benevolent country, or at least one that doesn’t proactively seek to be cruel. I believed it was a society where equality wasn’t just a pretty word, a nice concept to think about. I believed I was in a place where humans were treated with dignity.
I was wrong.
The walls we are building today will run between countries. They will keep out entire continents. They will control who enters and on what terms. They will prevent us from leaving and exploring the world completely (think about all the countries we can’t visit now because they have banned us just as we have banned them). We will take xenophobia to a new level, become the most hated and hateful nation on the planet.
And while we are trying so hard to protect ourselves, the filth will keep seeping into our garden. No walls, however tall, can keep the world out. Someday, when it is all over, when our garden is dead, we will realize how wrong we were in not embracing the world and its problems.
So, please, LET THEM IN. Or we will have to watch the funerals of millions pass by our gates. Little beaten-to-death lame girls covered in dirty sheets that we could have saved.