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Blog Action Day on Poverty (short story)

October 15, 2008
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This post is in honour of Blog Action Day 2008 (15th October 2008) – an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. The issue is POVERTY. I decided to re-publish an old post as I’ve written a lot on poverty (links at the bottom of this post). I picked this one because it’s a little different. It’s fiction.

She was a real lady. Soft spoken and gentle, with a constant half-smile on her face. Never would she complain or show any distress at the hard work she had to do all day. She accepted this as her fate. She was born into the grinding poverty and could see no way out of it.

From dawn to dusk she would toil, her day beginning at the crack of dawn. There were times when she could barely drag her thin body up from her ragged bedding, but there was no way she could fall back in bed. Who else would fetch the water from the water-pump? Who else would cook breakfast? It was slow and painful work, but she did it without a tear, ignoring her growling stomach and the nausea that rose up to her throat. She couldn’t eat, because the men had to be fed first. So once the water was brought, she would quickly light the choola, make hot sweet chai and then start to make the bajra rotis. They finished as fast as she could make them, wolfed down by the men with onions and pickles. It was only when everyone had eaten that would she sit down to to eat. Today there was only half a roti left, and though she wanted more she had no energy left to make it. So she made do with half, and was grateful for it.

It was time to wash and clean, and she always did it with a song on her lips. Today, she sang the dhoom machalo dhoom song she had heard last night from the raucous television next door. She was happy. She felt she was lucky because she didn’t have to work at a construction site, a fate which her friend next-door had to suffer. She had to stay at home, to look after the baby.

She heard him cry, and rushed to his side. In a jiffy she changed the rags he lay on and filled a freshly rinsed bottle with diluted milk. Then, with the baby on her lap, she leaned her skeletal frame on the door of their hut, and watched the colourful cars flash by. Sometimes if some of the chai was left over, she would sip it slowly, trying to imitate the gurgling sounds of the baby.

This was the best part of her day. She could rest, and look at the people on the streets. She looked with simple curiosity, not resentment. They were all well-dressed and fat to her eyes, but she felt she was lucky too. She had a family, a roof over her head, and one good meal a day. And the baby to play with. She couldn’t ask for more.

That was where I first caught a glimpse of her – her frail body almost invisible against the door. The powerful camera brought her up really close and as I focused on the tired, undernourished face, I felt as if I were intruding into her private space. But I could not drag the camera away from the beauty of that face, a beauty that only innocence can beget. I also could not help approaching her.

Ignoring the stares of the neighbours, I started to speak to her. Her name was Chanda she said, her face lighting up. She touched the silkiness of my sari, and the leather of my purse, and when I asked her, she willingly told me her story. As she spoke about the baby, the tiredness seemed to lift from her eyes. I was glad that she couldn’t fathom the pity in mine.

I gave her a chocolate and she laughed as she ate it. For her, it was the little joys that mattered. The taste of chocolate. The touch of silk. The smile of the baby, or just half a roti. After all, she was just seven years old, having been elevated to being the lady of the house when her mother passed away a few months ago, in childbirth.

(Published in the Times of India as a middle)

Note1: This story was inspired by a real incident, while I was out on the streets of Mumbai. The latter part of the piece is purely my imagination. I never did speak to the girl. The “middle” has been very slightly edited since it was first published. The photo is taken by me and very recently, in Mumbai. It is copyrighted.)

Note2: The aim of Blog Action Day is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion. Give India sent a request about this. The organisation is encouraging as many bloggers as possible to take part in this movement. By asking thousands of different people to give their viewpoints and opinions, Blog Action Day creates an extraordinary lens through which to view these issues. Each blogger brings their own perspective and ideas.

Thank you for reading.

My other posts on poverty: Growth is not leading to development in India
The gap between the rich and the poor in India is not that wide
Instead of making the rich poorer lets make the poor richer
Is poverty declining in India?
The poor in our country simmer with discontent
No humanity towards trafficking victims
Increase in income and life expectancy don’t always go hand in hand
A glimmer of hope for domestic workers
Naxalism – some reasons and some solutions
The root cause of child labour isn’t just poverty
Want to see Mumbai’s underbelly? Take a guided tour!
Trade is better than Aid!
Child workers, are often exploited and often abused
Something seriously wrong with the diet of Indian children
Almost 45,000 kids go missing in India

26 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2008 9:48 am

    @ Nita

    It is almost appropriate and apt that Aravind Adiga’s novel – about the faceless poor in India in general and about one man in particular – should have won the Booker Prize.🙂

    If I manage to put my work to bed today as planned, I will try and write something today.

    Thanks. Interesting read it was too. (I don’t really read fiction.:-/ But I can’t help but recall ‘The Space Between Us’ by Thrity Umrigar about a Parsi woman and her loyal servant, which I read and reviewed on Amazon).

  2. October 15, 2008 10:14 am

    I enjoyed reading that story, Nita.
    I did the BAD last year as it was for the environment, but I haven’t had time this year to come up with a relevant post. Oh well. I will applaud your efforts instead.🙂

  3. October 15, 2008 12:19 pm

    @ Nita : I think it is an irony that India is up there with sub Saharan Africa when it comes to hunger. There is not a single state in India that can claim to be hunger free. I read in the Economic Times today that the two best states in those terms are Kerala and Punjab and they can be compared with Vietnam! Now look at the other extreme where people are dying of heart disease and diabetes which are turning in to epidemics in this country. So one half is killing itself with hunger and the other half by over feeding itself!

    I often think about why India is poor. I think one of the reasons definitely is the lack of infrastructure. If you build more, you will employ more. The government here does not seem to infuse more cash in to public works projects as it should. I will just give you an example ever since the National Rural Get yourself a Job Program thing the amount of migrant labour here has significantly dwindled and those people are now getting work in their homeland in Bihar or UP. So the labour that stays behind here are now getting paid much better. It is massive programs like that which will ultimately fix this problem.

  4. October 15, 2008 4:36 pm

    a very nice and touching story.So that is why everyone is talking about the poor today…

  5. October 15, 2008 5:41 pm

    Seriously, people, I do not believe that using blogs we can fight something as big as poverty. How on Earth writing about it helps people who starve? Who die because they cannot afford water? Who are scared that the crisis that is upon us will break down their lives?

    I just do not understand all that hype – but I do not mind to participate, not in the least. Although I do believe that “writing about poverty” is not the same as “fighting poverty itself”.

    And even though I believe that poverty of mind (if I use the terms correctly) is way worse – since this is the only reason there is technical, monetary poverty in the world.

  6. October 15, 2008 6:05 pm

    Shefaly, thanks. Hope you manage to post.

    Amit, thanks. I had not hear of BAD till a few days ago!🙂

    Odzer, sad isn’t it that we have starving people in India today. A lot of public money even for midday meals goes in officials pockets!😦 Recently I read about a group of mothers who were so fed up with the watery dal and lack of vegetables in the midday meal, that they took permission to use the school compound to grow vegetables. And now the kids in that school are getting a lot of vegetables in their midday meal. It was really good to read that story. Just shows what a little initiative can do.

    Vishesh, thanks.🙂

    ioni, how do you know that the people who are writing are not doing something as well? I for one would never publicize what I am doing. Sort of takes away from it all doesn’t it. In any case I think Blog Action Day is a wonderful thing, a great way to raise awareness. Never underestimate the power of the pen. Maybe some post somewhere will inspire someone to do…that is why writers write. To inspire, to move.

  7. wishtobeanon permalink
    October 15, 2008 6:24 pm

    That is a very touching story, Nita. That twist at the end was too good and sad at the same time.

  8. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 15, 2008 7:16 pm

    Touching indeed! I do hope I get a chance to read the other stuff you’ve published on poverty.
    Two other stories that I can share with you.
    My rakhi brother, A works very long hours so he was getting back from office and took a rick which passed through Bandra creek and the area where slums are seen. It was too dark (past midnight) and when he reached home, he realised that he had lost his mobile. Next day, a man called him and asked him to pick his mobile which he found near his jhopdi. So A now offered teh poor man money for his kindness and honesty but he refused saying that he rather get his son a job!
    When I did my Masters in Economics at the Bombay University in Kalina, a friend’s friend who’s father is an industrialist dropped in at Kalina. On his way back, when he passed Vidyanagari and back to Santa Cruz, some begger boy, probably 19 or 20 years old, stopped at his car on the signal and asked for money. The industrialist said that he would rather give him a job in his factory and if he was interested, he could join him. At this the beggar retaliated in Hindi if he was mad – didn’t he know that that the beggar-boy made definitely made more money by begging and it was all tax-free!
    Odzer, you are absolutely right about the one half starving to death and the other half overeating to death. Infrastucture is important for increasing employment or for getting food in the right time to the hungry. But that’s not the only reason. A big reason is copying the west especially the wrong stuff. India was quite self-sufficient, chief employment being agriculture for which we only need good soil. I just looked at your blog, Odzer and came to the point where you are fighting against the Chandigarh state on the plastic ban. Remember that your grandfather or great grandfather also did without plastic. Also it takes ages for plastic to degrade and when I was on the outskirts of Delhi, I was shocked to see miles of plastic lying, spoiling the nature. The same with Ladakh, Kulu, etc. All that ground could be used for agriculture if not soiled by plastic. India also banks a lot on tourism – in Frankfurt or in London or the BBC and German TV, you have loads of ads on “Incredible India”. Spend that money on making it incredible – green, plastic and chemical-free. Same with chemicals, farmers use chemicals and grow cotton and when they don’t get the yield they expect and cannot pay back their debts, they drink the same pesticide and die. So many cases lately in India. Previously Indian farmers did everything traditionally – no monoculture, no pesticides, insecticides or artificial fertilisers. They had enough produce for their family and for sale. By copying the west and trying to intensify yield, the whole mess happened. Politicians are to be blamed and corruption and scandals. Would you invest all your money only in one company – buy all Lehman Brother shares and now they have defaulted, so you become penniless. Similarly with agriculture, implement more polyculture. Each crop has its own set of growth factors, resistance, etc. and by planting different crops next to each other, you not only naturally have a higher yield but you diversify your risk in case one crop fails. Dr. Ranga Rao is trying to implement polyculture and teaching and convincing to get back to the roots, to practise traditional farming techniques like theri ancestors did. If you can read German:
    http://abenteuerwissen.zdf.de/ZDFde/inhalt/4/0,1872,7384996,00.html
    In Germany, someone spoke to me about child labour. One of them said probably the small hands are the ideal tools for weaving carpets or sewing clothes. I get very cross because these very people who talk, buy all the cheap goods produced by child labour. Look at H&M, C&A, Zara, Mango – all produce their garments in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia for peanuts and make huge turnovers. Ban these shops if possible. Buy fair trade products. Where are the human rights gone? Also in Europe it was no different, the shoemakers’s sons helped him when they were kids to learn the art and to join teh guild and become master shoemakers. Everything had to be learnt early. The problem arises when children are used only for labour, stealing their lives – no school, no play and that is the folly. Most poor people do bank on their children. Many moths to feed means many hands must help. Why is birthrate so bad in the EU – because children cost and they don’t contribute economically. Had people lived here like in the middle ages, there would be ample no. of kids here like in India or Africa. It is very easy to blame and point fingers to other countries.

    Ioni:
    Obviously no one can fight poverty through a blog but you are not talking some golden words. Everyone knows that. We are all sensible. But through the blog we can move people to live right, do stuff to fight poverty. Discuss reasons and do something to eradicate it. So you don’t have to make a scene about it. Rather practise some fair trade f you can. That is also one vital step you can take.

  9. October 15, 2008 8:15 pm

    OH ..inever knew about BAD till now . A very nice initiative actually .. IT is bound to help in atleast one or the other way when so many people write about a single topic .
    and the fiction is really touching ..There are thousands of girls like that in our country like that ..really a pity for country that aims to be a super power one day😦

  10. October 15, 2008 9:13 pm

    Very thought provoking. Thanks for telling us about Blog Action day. I am a new blogger and would like to post on the topic, although I have not experienced poverty in any way myself. Can I link you?

    You should link Blog Action Day. The image of BAD is linked, so use that link as well as the image. – Nita.

  11. October 15, 2008 10:20 pm

    @ Bombay Wada….eater : My great grandfather and his great grandfather also did not have access to penicillin or pain killers. In fact my grandfather did not have access to buses most of his life. It does not mean I should want to live like them. I am fighting the plastic ban because I find it irrational, in fact worse for the environment to begin with and because IT AFFECTS MY LIFE STYLE. If you read through my posts you would realise I am advocating recycling plastic and proper waste management. Instead of a lazy government banning plastic just to avoid doing its job.

    Agriculture though a short term solution to sustainability does not provide adequate means to alleviate poverty. Blaming the west will not solve anything, we need to keep up with the rest of the world while improving conditions for the people that surround us. This requires improving the quality of governance and effectively managing poverty. Poverty has disappeared in many countries before India and it can be replicated here as well.

  12. October 15, 2008 10:21 pm

    @ Nita : I apologize about bringing the plastic thing here, I hope Bombay–can leave his or her comments at the appropriate post. Thanks for your words, poverty is an issue that I feel that we can deal with within one generation if we all pitch in.

  13. October 15, 2008 11:02 pm

    Touching story and apt for the topic on the blog action day.

  14. October 15, 2008 11:51 pm

    A very touching story Nita. Education can help to remove poverty, but the way we are multiplying, I have my doubts.

  15. October 16, 2008 3:15 am

    This was a hard read, and very convincingly written, Nita. The ending was a killer, and wrenched my heart, in fact, the whole story did. There is poverty in the west, it takes slightly different form. We have homelessness, hopelessness and addiction well entrenched in our higher standard of living societies. We do have some social safety nets in place which help to alleviate the extent of these problems. However, there is alsoa tendency to blame the poor for their own problems – it works to keep thought of causes of poverty at a remove and maintains attitudes of entitlement. G

  16. October 16, 2008 6:31 am

    Hi Nita,
    I have to be thankful to you and your blog, because it is very inspiring, informational, entertaining…..and so on..your blog one among the reason for me to start a blog..though I donot write nicely.
    About todays post …story is very touchy..it really hard to be contented and happy like her…problems grow with your desires and dreams…I have also written a blog on poverty ( written whatever I felt like)…..
    I should mention about the appropriate photos in your blog..its goes well with the page and contents.

    Great work…Keep doing..
    Regards,
    Subha(Dewdrops)

  17. October 16, 2008 7:42 am

    BAD is an interesting and responsible idea. This short story is brilliant. It has some “Indianness” to it. It is difficult to address any socio-economic issue and at the same time not being verbose. This short story has succeded in doing so. Apart from reflecting the small joys of home-keeping , what this story exploits is the stark reality of how children are effected by poverty. What a wonderful story!

  18. October 16, 2008 9:21 am

    wishtobeanon, Dineshbabu, Manoj, thanks.🙂 🙂

    Bombay wadapav eater, thanks for sharing. Two contrasting stories very endearing ones…it was a blog post in itself!

    Arvind, thanks. Well, we need to get rid of corruption and this will start to happen as we get transparency in government. We have the money, but not the will!!

    Shilpa, I’ve replied to you in the comment itself.

    Amit, have faith! I firmly believe that things keep improving, not worsening. Or maybe they have to worsen so it will shock people into improving!

    suburbanlife, a comment from a fine writer like you is compliment indeed. I am not a great writer, but I can tell a story!

    Odzer
    , no problem. It was quite interesting to read!

    Dewdrops, thanks. I hope you keep writing and expressing your thoughts!

  19. October 16, 2008 8:01 pm

    That was a beautiful story Nita. I have seen this happen to so many children of construction workers where the parents leave the first born to take care of the younger kids. And when I see them smile in the middle of all this hardship, it seems to teach me a lesson and their smile is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

  20. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 16, 2008 10:46 pm

    Thanks Nita. Just wanted to share the stories. Too dumb to blog and have no time as well. Actually I should be doing household chores instead of typing now when my baby is asleep but can’t help – just addicted to your blog.🙂
    Sorry that I mentioned Odzer’s blog’s plastic ban fight but I thought it was relevant just to prove how land instead of being used for agriculture is turned into a wastage dumping ground. You mentioned about the school grounds used to grow veggies which is amazing. Even after recycling, you can use a plastic bag five times after that it’ll tear and is thrown, right! My very good friend has a PhD and works for IMF in Washington told me that India buys garbage from the USA and many other countries!!! Metal gets recycled but plastic just lies around in landfills or gets dumped on some ground. We could use the same land for agriculture. I remember from my first lesson as a kid that “man is a social animal. His basic needs are food, clothing and shelter”. So don’t you agree that when we talk of poverty, we chiefly mean that most people in India don’t have money to afford a proper meal. FOOD is what comes first on the list. India was self-suffcient with agriculture being the chief employment. So I disagree with Odzer when he says that agriculture is a short-term solution. If people have full stomachs, we have already fought half the poverty problem. If they can produce more food than they consume, they can sell that and with that money, they can buy clothes and other necessities or even luxuries. Sustainibility is achieved when we learn to respect the earth and maintain the nature. Short term was the green revolution – using all sorts of chemicals and hybrid, genetically manipulated seeds in order to produce loads of food for what?? In the end it has turned into a disaster, ruined land. In Central and South America, farmers have stopped growing crops and rather grow rapeseed and sugar cane which gets pressed to extract oil to be used instead of petrol or diesel in cars. Have you heard about the hunger crisis and riots in Haiti? This is because the EU stresses on being environmental friendly and the CO2 emissions and petrol prices going up whereas alternative oils for cars is cheaper. Many farmers in India don’t want to grow eatable food but cotton to become rich overnight. Cotton is not easy to grow so the heavy use of pesticides and then water shortage or other natural catastrophes to produce a poor yield and the highted-debted farmers committing suicides by drinking pesticides leaving the remainder as destitutes. Isn’t that a vicious circle?
    Odzer: Indeed your grandfather or great grandfather did have access to painkillers and penicillin. Penicillin is extracted out of mould. They could have just left a roti to stale and soon they’d have penicillin if the mould was right! Same with painkillers – I am not an Ayurveda expert but there are many herbs in India that can kill pain. Arnica is a good painkiller and it is homeopathic. And coming back to the plastic ban issue: Remember you mentioned employment could fight poverty so note that India banks on tourism and no one would come as a tourist to see miles of waste and plastic. Why produce plastic in the first place and then think of ways and means of degrading it?
    Like you tell me don’t blame the west which I am not but blaming people who copy wrong things from the West, I’d say don’t blame the Govt. It has many more important things to handle than finding ways of where to dump old recycled plastic. Check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic and you will see why I am happy about the plastic ban and hope it spreads in the entire world. I try to avoid plastic as much as I can but unfortunately even organic food products here are packed in plastic. In Europe, you hardly find unpacked goods like rice, flour (no “baniya ka dukan” available). Here in Germany, we have excellent waste management. You can produce bags which look like plastic and are water-proof made of potato skins, bamboo and other starch, celluslose and it is 100% biodegradable. Even if you threw these carelessly near the Himalyas in Ladakh, they would disintegrate and not hamper the nature. Or do you expect the govt. to have terrific waste mangement and employ people to go into the woods or in the mountains to collect them?? Have you heard that many cows or fish die due to plastic consumption/ suffocation? http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/2089720.cms. Don’t we call cows holy? I am not old-fashioned but I don’t find it unsexy to shove a cotton bag in my pocket or reuse my biodegradable bag which is waterproof and made of potato starch in case I can’t let go my sudden shopping whim. I use cloth nappies for my baby but also organic ones with covering made of starch and is plastic-free. It only costs much more since someone has to invest to produce the machinery for that whereas plastic is cheap. Only we as consumers can change. Even recycling costs a lot of energy and power and you know of power-cuts in India, don’t you? Unless people would start using solar energy. I just wanted to convey the message to all readers not to create garbage that take useful space which can be rather used for agricultural activities – to produce food and fight poverty. Find and use the alternative for plastic and never preached you to live without it like in middle ages. So get my point. Peace alright!

    Thanks Bombaywadapaveater. My knowledge of agriculture is not that deep and I certainly need to study this issue. However I do know that there are those who will agree with you and those who won’t. As you are interested in the vegetable growing story I thought I would provide a link here.
    And I agree with you 100 percent about plastic. I have written a post on it here. – Nita.

  21. October 17, 2008 1:39 am

    @ Bombay…. : It seems you have a point of view. So lets just call it quits here with my last post on this. However I am going to say this very directly and without meaning offense. I believe that “saving the environment” is not something that man is responsible for. Whether you agree or disagree is of course dependent upon you. The world has existed for a longer while than man and it will continue to exist even after man has left. In my lifetime I aspire to do whatever I fancy. Save your potato skins for plastic bags or make fritters out of them it should be about CHOICE. Do not tell me how I should live my life. That is the problem with many environment enthusiasts. If you upset my apple cart, I will do whatever it takes to reset it. That is the problem with such idiotic bans.

    Plastic bags on mountains? So? Who brought them there? People did. I am not advocating littering. Are German mountains full of plastic bags? Get the people to stop littering, that is the job of the government. You can not completely do away with plastic because its an important component of modern life which you so detest. If you do not like the times you live in, build yourself a time machine and eat mould ridden rotis. I will pass it. Thanks but NO THANKS. Not everything about “India” is that fantastic nor is everything about the “West” so terrible. There is nothing wrong with copying the west to get us out of some sticky situations. There is no virtue in saving the environment. It is just that you think that it is something that matters. However it may not matter to everyone. In fact even if it does and I am quite sure everyone has their own approach to it. My ability to live a life of convenience is far more important to me than saving the bloody world. Thats how it is, if it sounds bad to people so be it. As is apparent, I do not really care🙂

  22. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 17, 2008 5:03 am

    Odzer dear
    I like the world and times I live in and try to make the best out of it and give whatever little I can to keep the world beautiful at least for the sake of my upcoming generations. I neither said you advocated littering nor did I ask you to eat stale roti moulds. Neither do I tell you how you should live your life! I am nobody and it is not my business at all! But you call the world “bloody”so probably you need to build a time machine. And yes, man is responsible for constructing as you know we are evolutionary but to a certain extent also for destroying nature. I just said we should use an eco-friendly alternative to plastic and why not when it is available and it is in our hands as consumers. If you read the wiki link, you’d know how difficult it is to degrade cheap plastic and burning it discharges toxins. You use a fridge, don’t you? Fridges used CFC which was bad for the environment and today it has changed for the better. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14119110.300-fridge-maker-freezes-out-cfc-substitute-.html
    Man produced a lot of things that made life convenient but destroyed the nature as well as labourers who worked with them like chemicals or asbestos. Do you know the contargen thalidomide scandal? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalidomide
    We learnt from our mistakes and produced sth equivalent to maintain the convenience standards and to ensure that nature also survives as well as us. I don’t want to get into any further dispute. Good luck with your plastic campaigns!

  23. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 17, 2008 5:16 am

    Thanks Nita. Neither am I an expert on agriculture. I rarely watch TV but some documentary films especially on India fascinate me. There they interviewed Dr Ranga Rao and his goal. In the west here, a lot of hullabaloo is made about the poverty in India and Africa. But India is in the limelight and people wonder that a country like that with so many millionaires still has so many poor who cannot afford a meal a day. How India was self-sufficient and how the EU and esp. US subsidies have ruined agriculture and other business in India and Africa. How the green revolution in the 60s destroyed India’s self-sufficiency, etc. etc. I am too naive on this subject and definitely agriculture alone will not solve the poverty issue but will definitely solve the hunger problem. Literacy indeed is the key I guess since it will bring more employment and fight poverty. But it is too difficult a topic and I am too unexperienced. These are just my views. When I travelled around Mali, Tanzania and Zanzibar, I realised that people live in harmony with the nature. We’d call them poor but they have enough food and are extremely happy. It is only when a natural catastrophe like drought or forest fire which spreads up to the fields, they lose their crop and have nothing to eat, hunger problems come up.

  24. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 17, 2008 5:27 am

    Just read your blog on plastic Nita. Thanks.
    Odzer have a look at that too. Perhaps you can comment and pass on your convenience theory to Prax. Well I jolly admire him and I’m on his side and Nita is on my side with the plastic issue.🙂

  25. October 17, 2008 7:58 pm

    Beautiful story!

  26. October 19, 2008 10:17 pm

    Usha, Reema, thanks!🙂 🙂

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