Mother came home tonight with a surprise guest. Her name is Mariyam, she is 22 years old, and she comes from Tinsukia.
Mariyam is a girl with a great purpose. She has been talking to women who work on the tea plantations, especially the younger girls who are picking tea instead of going to school. She told us many stories about girls who have been treated badly at work or hurt because they disagreed with their family. “Girls need a place to run to, to escape their problems—even if those problems are members of their families.”
Mother lowered her head as Mariyam spoke, and sometimes nodded. Finally, she said, “This is a terrible truth. Even on our plantation, where managers try to look after their workers, bad things do happen.” She glanced at me. “It is one reason I am glad to let you go to school, Nahji, instead of picking tea for a living.”
“You are lucky to have such a good mother,” said Mariyam.
“But what can we do about this?” I asked her. “Already, I am trying hard to get my mother out of the tea fields. But we can only do so much.”
“Tea clubs are one answer,” replied Mariyam. “With the help of charities, child protection organizations, and the tea planters themselves, a group of us are traveling through Assam. We talk to parents about girls working and marrying too young; we tell them about the benefits of schooling.” She leaned forward. “In a tea club, girls can learn to read and write. They can talk freely away from their families about their fears of marriage. They also can learn music, dancing, singing, and crafts like knitting and embroidery. We even play soccer and carrom sometimes.”
I smiled. It sounded like a busy place!
“Girls who have dropped out of school come, too, to keep up their learning.” Mariyam raised a hand. “We also discuss how to stay healthy and take care of themselves."
Mother invited Mariyam to have tea with us. “Satura will be home soon and I want her to meet you,” she said. “Nahji, why don’t you show Mariyam your ducks? And check for eggs in the chicken house.”
It was a beautiful evening, with a sky made of gold and red, like a Bihu dress. I showed Mariyam the ducks, especially my Mutka on her nest. I told her about the mealworms and the vegetables. I saw her eyes filling with approval.
“So, Nahji,” she smiled, “here you are, only ten years old, and you are learning to read and write, raising ducks, picking tea, and trying to grow vegetables and mealworms.”
“I also sew beads on sarees for Durga,” I added, then sighed. “But I think I will have to stop something soon. I have too much to do. My dreams are too big.”
Mariyam laughed and shook a finger at me. “Never think that! Always dream big in your heart, otherwise there won’t be room for all the things life can offer you. But, I agree, you are carrying a lot on your shoulders at one time."
“I don’t pick tea as often, anymore. But I need the money from the sewing to buy more ducks, at least for now.”
“I think,” said Mariyam, “that you should come and speak at one of our tea clubs—the one we are starting right here, near your village.”
“Here? Really?” I began to feel excited. “That will be wonderful! But—why would they want to listen to me?
“Because you could be an inspiration to them.”
I scratched my head. “But I haven’t done many of the things I want to, yet. I am only trying!”
“The difference is, you are not living with a lid on your brain, Nahji,” said Mariyam. “It is wide open and full of ideas. That is special in itself. Tell your story and other girls will learn how to dream, too.” She cradled a warm chicken egg in her hand. “Will you do this for them, Nahji?”
“If Mother says that I can,” I replied, and turned back to the house, thinking of a place where girls could learn and play and stand up for themselves.
Now the sky was like a saree of orange silk over our heads. I wanted to fly up into it like a bird.