This is Ashwini’s story, as pieced together from her own memory and thoughts from her teachers, and of course my own observations.
Ashwini is a beautiful girl of six or seven years old. Her native place is a village called Auravati Jilha in Maharashtra.
“Very far from here.” A teacher says, frowning and shaking her head.
Three years ago, Ashwini arrived in Mumbai with her family: her parents are construction labourers and came, as so many migrant workers do, to the city to find work.
Ashwini was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate. As a result, her face was left disfigured. However, Ashwini was able to eat and drink properly, and didn’t experience any pain. Her cleft lip and cleft palate didn’t adversely affect her until she began to study.
In November 2010, Mumbai Mobile Creches opened a center in the very area that her parents were working on: a construction site in Powai. Ashwini joined the other children who lived on the compound, and began attending informal schooling at the MMC center: it was her first schooling experience. She began learning all of the different subjects with a focus on Hindi. However, Ashwini’s cleft palate gave her difficulties with pronounciation. As a result, Ashwini became very shy in school. Her teachers observed her as a silent observer, speaking rarely because she was afraid to be ridiculed by the other kids.
The regular doctor’s visits to the MMC site were the first medical attention that Ashwini had received in her life. One doctor had heard of an American NGO called the Smile Train Foundation, which specializes in treating children with cleft lips and cleft palates. After contacting the Smile Train Foundation, the doctor went to Rajkumari, an MMC caretaker who knew Ashwini very well. Rajkumari accompanied Ashwini and her mother and father to a meeting with the Smile Train Foundation, and acted as a translator for them, as Ashwini’s family only spoke in their local dialect.
Ashwini’s surgery was performed in early May. In the days following the surgery, she had to drink only juice, but was very brave and did not complain.
“She had a lot of pain, but she was happy, she knew she would be more beautiful.” a teacher smiled and patted Ashwini on the head, like a cat.
When Ashwini emerged from her rest period, her schoolmates ran to her and exclaimed “Ashwini, your face has become beautiful!” She smiled a beautiful, brand new smile.
Two months later, Ashwini’s mouth is completely healed. Her teachers have remarked that she has has a renewed sense of confidence and ability. Ashwini used to come to school in dirty clothes and with her hair uncombed, trying to hide in the back. She now arrives at school every day very neatly dressed, wearing ribbons in hair to match her kurtas. She speaks up eagerly in class, as though to make up for the time that she had been so quiet. Now Ashwini feels like the other kids do, and doesn’t have anything making her feel as though she’s less. As a result, her progress in school has gone way up. Most importantly, Ashwini now feels that opportunities in life are open and available to her.