When I was 6 years old I tried to run away from home. All those Famous Five books I’d read in which kids led such independent lives must have fired my imagination (never mind that Julian was a parent substitute). Or maybe I just wanted some time on my own, without anyone telling me what to do. I had always had dreams of being able to fly, and it’s possible this urge to run away was an extension of my nocturnal virtual wanderings.
But runaway I wanted to, so runaway I did. I dragged my little sister in on my plan. 5 years old to my 6, she wanted to know why we were making plans to leave a very comfortable home. “They don’t love us here,” I hissed, “They’re always telling us what to do. Now come ON!” And, imposing on her the same autocracy I was complaining of wanting to escape from, I dragged her away to pack.
What preparations we made! We packed our coin-filled Donald Duck piggy banks, some clothes, a box of chocolates, and made plans to leave early the next morning before anyone woke up. Well it’s one thing to want to get up at the crack of dawn, and another to actually do it. The next day the sun was shining brightly by the time we opened our sleepy eyes and remembered that we had important things to do. I might actually have changed my mind if not for having to stridently squash my sister’s plaintive misgivings. External opposition hardened my resolve and suppressed my screaming instincts.
Surprisingly no one was out of bed except my grandmother, who made some sort of swatting movement with her hand when I recited my carefully concocted narrative about what my sister and I were going to do that morning. We left her to her cooking, and sneaked out.
Ah the feeling of freedom when we reached the gate at the top of the driveway! I almost felt like I was growing those wings I had been dreaming about for so long. But the feeling was short-lived. A few steps beyond the gate, my sister, whom I would have been prepared to swear had been born with two left feet, fell down and skinned her knee. I yanked her to her feet, dismissed the scrape and urged her along.
“But Shobha, it’s painful,” she whined, tears forming in her eyes. I hardened my heart and pulled her along. “It’ll be okay. We just have to get to the main road and everything will be fine.” Really? How? I had no idea where the main road was, much less what I was going to do when I got there. I had some vague idea of finding a forest somewhere where my sister would cook while I went out and looked for work after depositing my coins in the bank.
We had barely walked past 5 houses when she started sniffling. “What now?” I asked, resolve wavering. The further I got away from home the less sure I was becoming of wanting to leave in the first place.
“It’s REALLY painful, Shobha,” she sobbed. And that, plus the blood I saw trickling down her leg, did me in. On my own I might have stubbornly pushed on. But I loved this gentle sister of mine too much to make her suffer for my whims, and so we turned around and headed home.
Home was alive and kicking! “Where have you been?” my mother screeched as soon as she saw us.
“Out. Walking,” was my predictably evasive reply. “How did you know we were gone?”
Apparently a neighbour had seen us from her upstairs window and phoned my mother to tell her that her two little ones were walking out of the estate carrying bags. I wondered why my mother hadn’t come looking for us as soon as she’d got this news but wisely kept my thoughts to myself. As my mother scolded us, worry and then relief apparent on her face, my father sat silently next to her, shoulders shaking with barely suppressed mirth. Only when I became a wife and mother myself did I realise how much this must have infuriated my mother!
Two little girls ran away from home and a neighbour spotted them. The same neighbour would give us a drink when we played in her garden some evenings. When we rode our bicycles, cars driven by our friends’ parents slowed down to make way for us, the drivers calling out cheerful greetings and warnings to ride safely. If my mother couldn’t pick me up from school some neighbour would be there in her place.
It took a village to raise me. I wonder what happened to it as I grew up. Today my son is roaming Singapore, trying to find people who will give him a job to do in return for donations for the Scouts Association. It’s Job Week, you see. I remember the Scouts coming by my house when I was little, and my mother giving them something to do like dust a bookshelf, before sending them off with a chocolate bar each in addition to the donation. My son says it’s getting harder to find people who are willing to open their doors to kids and give them work to do. Kudos to the Scouts Association for trying to hold on to a sense of community, but I’m afraid it might be fighting a losing battle. As my village disappeared, so too did the feeling of communal accountability and shared responsibility that it nurtured.
Where goes my village there goes my nation.