Across India and the world, the institutional experience of being apart and away, locked in, and separated from society carries a huge number of wounding life experiences along with it. Sometimes the impact of the profound rejection and isolation from community causes people to go inward, so they survive by being quiet, compliant, and not speaking above a whisper. In some situations, this is a survival instinct that can save life or limb in the dangerous places that are the custodial institutions in which people are locked away, sometimes for life, simply because of a disability label. Ms. Vinita had been abandoned at just such a place, rejected by her own family. One can only imagine the circumstances that would lead a family to feel they had to abandon their sister, or their mother, or their daughter. Bowed down by circumstances, totally abandoned by her family, she lay lost and alone, a stranger in a strange land; she did not know the language, the people, or the circumstances that led to her incarceration. She could not speak in Hindi. She was compliant. Obedient. Broken. Nearly invisible.
But someone actually saw her in that place, in that state. And because she was noticed and reckoned with, life opened up for her unexpectedly, as a small home in Herbertpur shared by three women with some supportive staff invited her to consider moving away from that place of hurt and harm, and into a real home, a real community, and place of possibility and life. Tentatively, and very unsure, she did agree to move, not at all certain that good things were even possible for her.
Initially, Ms. Vinita remained quiet and obeyed everything she was asked to do. She could not understand the circumstances around her and seemed baffled, but she knew one person who spoke a bit of her native tongue, and she began to teach her more and more words so they could communicate. Her first reaction to everything new was ‘no’ and yet, she was compliant. As she slowly started getting acclimatized to this new place with an entirely different atmosphere, with connection to the very society that has rejected her, she also started expressing her opinion, here and there, and with hardly a whisper. It was slow and hesitant initially, but you could almost see her confidence building. And then it was suggested that she could possibly work at the local general store. Her immediate answer was “no, I will not go.” However, her allies started talking to her about it. They took her to the store for a while to shop, just to look around, meet the people there, and consider what it might be like to work and earn there. Then the day came when she joined the store as staff. Her hesitation at going there was still present, but her allies agreed to accompany her, and so she accepted. The day of her first paycheck was a time of rejoicing, the smile on her face a mile wide.
Regular work, a slice of real life that most would say she would never get to experience, increased her self-esteem. She started carefully choosing the clothes she would wear to work and the make-up she would use, modeling herself after her co-workers. She made friends at the store and spent her time there chatting along with others. All the relationships at the store were freely-given relationships, something brand new in her life – a first since she was left at the institution. Her colleagues connected to her, and her confidence increased. Now, when she is willing to express a choice, it is sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no.” A trip to Delhi as a tourist – a first for her, an unimaginable experience, strengthened her even more. She stands taller, smiles less tentatively, and works steadily on her way to being an independent woman with her own choices and life on her own terms. Her courage amazes.
Wounds such as Ms. Vinita has experienced may never fully heal. And yet, the other aspects of her identity, her shining humanity, her personhood, grow stronger and stronger and allow space for a future that is not yet written.