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SOLIDARITY
     PujaRam, Salman & co.Ganges floods 2013

Puja

We met Puja in 2005. In Banaras, a religious ceremony (aarti) dedicated to the holy river Ganges takes place every evening at sunset. One day we went to see it. A tiny little girl was hitting cymbals with a mallet during the entire ceremony, which lasted fourty-five minutes. We were so moved to see such a small child perform her task with such dedication, that we came to watch her everyday. It seemed as though she was asking something to the holy river. One evening, she took us to meet her father and they invited us to eat with them on the ghat (the steps going down to the river) on which they lived. We asked her "What do you want?" "Boat", she said, one of the only English words she knew. She wanted a boat for her dad; she was 5 years-old. The meal was delicious; it was fish cooked in Ganges water.

Her father, Ramdhani, comes from a family of boatmen (his cast), who for generations had been transporting goods on the river from their home city Chunar, a few kilometres away from Banaras. But one day the family boat sank tragically and since then trucks have replaced river transport, so Ramdhani lost his job. Puja's mother died when Puja was only two. So Ramdhani left Chunar with Puja and they came to Varanasi, where they started living on the banks of the Ganges with no source of income. We only reconstructed this part of the story a few years later.



As we were so moved by this girl, we wanted to help her realise her wish. Doesn't the goddess Ganga make all dreams come true? When we went to enquire about boat prices, a fat boatman boss told us clearly that it would be impossible for Ramdhani to own a boat in Banaras, as he comes from Chunar. Still, we organised a concert on the rooftop of the guesthouse in which we were staying, with some musician tourists and violinist Sukhdev Mishra whom we had recently met. The evening was successful and we made enough money to buy the boat (which cost around 120 €).

Seeing the success of our concert, and as he too was fond of Puja, the fat boss changed his mind and finally accepted to sell us one of his boats, provided that Ramdhani did not take any tourist on the boat. He would only be allowed to use it as a home or take it out to fish. We told Ramdhani: "Ok for the boat, but only if your daughter goes to school." He was happy with our offer and accepted it straight away.

Someone told us of an alternative pedagogy school that had been founded by an Italian in Sarnath, 10 km away from Varanasi: Universal Education School, which is home to many Tibetan refugee boys. We let Ramdhani and Puja choose between either a governmental school near the Ganges so they would stay together, or the alternative school in Sarnath. After visiting it they selected the alternative school. As there was no boarding facilities there for girls we had to find a host family near the school.

Fate would have it; a young teacher was willing to receive and take care of Puja for a small pension. We had already left India when Puja went to school for the first time in July. We were told that it really was not easy for her to leave her father, live in a new family and start school two years late. She cried a lot. We believe that she was angry at us to start with, because when we came back later in October she seemed sad and distant.

As she was an outcast, Puja had no formal identity; she had not even been registered at birth. We had to get organised and see a lawyer in Chunar so she would get a birth certificate... and pay a so-called fine for not having registered her on time!!! Ties were re-established with her family after we met. We questioned her family and neighbours in order to try and find out her real date of birth. Her father did not remember well; people told us around 1998 or 1999, around Shivaratri Festival in March. Shivaratri does not fall on the same date every year; the nearest Shivaratri that fell in March happened in 2000, on 3 March.

Again fate helped us deciding on a date. Amazingly, a dear friend of ours sent us the picture of a tiny little girl he had taken in 2003 and told us: "I too was moved by a small girl on the Banaras ghats". And it was her! Of all the children in Banaras, and they are many, he had take a photo of Puja! Clearly, she couldn't be older than 3 on this picture; so we chose 3 March 2000 for her date of birth. We celebrated her birthday for the first time in 2010, for her 10th birthday. She was so proud! Now she had an identity and a birthday. It was a big party.



We believe it is very important that she keeps contact with her father, and he goes to Sarnath to see her from time to time. She is very happy in her foster family, a small family of farming owners who live almost self-sufficiently on their farm. Her "mum" the young teacher has returned to school and got married in 2009. In contrary to Indian tradition she still lives in her own family with her husband because she wants to finish his studies. This is quite remarkable, as it is extremely rare for a girl to live with her parents after marriage in India, especially in rural areas (normally a woman goes to live with her husband in his family after marriage).

Every year, we take Puja and Ramdhani on a 15-20 day trip round India so that she  discovers her country whilst spending time with her father. Thus they have seen the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas, a zoo in Delhi, the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and we even took then by plane to see the ocean. In 2011 they came with us during one of our "accompanied trips" with a group of six. Every year our relationship with Puja deepens more, and we communicate more easily as she starts to understand English well. At the end of 2011 we celebrated Christmas with her, we taught her to ride bicycle and to swim in the sea! We would love her to come to France on holiday so she could know our country... For this we need to apply for her passport... and wait until she is 18. But it is only one year away now!


Our meeting Puja may well be the main factor that has changed us from curious travellers into solidarity actors in India.