Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tomtom's house


published April 19, 2013, MST, page A5

On a row of townhouses in the generally middle-class neighborhood, the house of Tomtom—a small, thin boy who is perhaps four but could be eight—sticks out.
All the houses are the same. Each unit has a respectable floor area, with three bedrooms upstairs. There are two bathrooms, one for each floor. The kitchen is separated by a wall from the dining area. Aside from the individual gates for the residents, there is also a big gate at the entrance to the compound—never mind that the guard is too old and too slow for the job. There is not much guarding to do, anyway, just opening and closing the wide gates of the “Townhomes”.
The residents, either homeowners or lessees, are also generally comfortable. They are not rich but are able to meet their basic needs —plus a bit more, occasionally. They have cable tv and Internet access. One unit, for instance, is occupied by a lawyer; beside lives a large family running a mom-and-pop store. On the opposite block are households with a migrant worker, a teacher, a  businesswoman. A mix of SUVs and AUVs, sedans and tricycles, comprises the daily parade of vehicles. The children, most of whom attend private schools, feel safe enough to play outside.
Tomtom’s house is of the same size and structure as the others, but the similarity ends there. While all the others make a little effort to make the exterior presentable, or at least organized, Tomtom’s family does not seem to care. There are piles of wood, discarded items, old sacks, broken glass, makeshift curtains.
One would know if Tomtom’s father is home. He is usually drunk, loud and emotional. He yammers on about the rich and the poor being equal. Mostly, he picks a fight with members of his household—his wife, his mother, another male housemate. From the shouting matches, one can eavesdrop enough to get to the root of the confrontation—hanging clothes in non-designated areas (apparently the members of the household have their respective clotheslines) or failing to contribute to a fund to pay for utilities.
But these are perhaps the adults’ individual quirks. What is disturbing are the children’s stories. There are at least five kids of grade school age in that house.
Tomtom does not talk at all, but his constant presence outside their gate and his piercing gaze are most troubling. He asks passers-by for coins or food, and sometimes if does not receive anything, he flashes his middle finger or spits at the passer-by. He does not go to school.
Older brothers throw stones from their window to the windows of neighbors. They have boasted of committing petty theft to the other children in the compound, whom they bully and curse when they get the chance.
Two girls cannot be more than five years old. They may be small but they are certainly heard.  They don’t just cry; they wail. These episodes last for more than half an hour at a given time, numerous times a day. One wonders why there seems to be no effort by the adults to hush them up and comfort them. What could be happening to merit that kind of agitation? Are they hungry or thirsty or sick? Are older siblings playing pranks on them? Are their parents hurting them? Horrors—what unthinkable, unsayable things could they be enduring?
Worse, in the past month or so, there has been no power at all in Tomtom’s house.  Perhaps somebody neglected to pay the bills, or refused to do so to spite some other housemates. I cannot imagine how the kids could live, day in and day out, in this scorching heat, without electricity.
Some neighbors say they are tempted to call the Department of Social Welfare and Development to investigate what makes those children cry that much. Then again, they are held back by the fact that it’s a family thing, that they should not step in, that at least the children have a roof over their heads—a townhouse unit, no less.
But how can we expect Tomtom and his siblings to grow up into productive, persevering, responsible individuals when this is the environment they grow up in? If and when they do something wrong, how quickly will society judge them for being “bad” without giving any thought to the forces that shaped them in the first years of their lives?
Some tragedies occur occasionally and are caused by nature. Other tragedies happen day after day and are overlooked as “life”.

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