By Ishani Tikku:
It was the first time that I ever dealt on a one to one relationship with poverty, ready to face it in all its honest deplorability. I joined an NGO and was excited at the thought of doing something I loved. I was 18, away from everything to do with the word discomfort or hardship. Did I know what a tough life was? No way! Well, not yet. We went to the crannies and corners of Old Delhi to perform a street play in order to raise awareness about the RTE (Right to Education Campaign). We were young and loaded with the usual zeal that college students mostly have. We assembled ourselves, our props in one of the small communities near Jama Masjid. It was a perfect winter morning, perfectly sunny and chilly at the same time. A large number of Muslims lived there along with Hindus. We decided to start with the usual drill, screaming excitedly, “Aao, aao Natak dekho!! Natak Dekho, Natak Dekho!” It was my first street play and I was my usual excited nervous self. Yes there were shirtless children, barefoot, unkempt, unfit, malnourished and generally weak.
The usual sight on any of the south Delhi Traffic signals, usually holding on to bunches of roses, freshly sprayed with glitter and some holding on to piles of Jeffery Archers, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Argumentative Indian, and Chetan Bhagats of course! They were usually seen with their families and a large number of children performing tricks mid street. They usually seemed desperate for our attention, needy for the money, looked hungrier than ever and vied for our attention. Except today they were the ones who we needed something from. We were vying for their attention and Yes! They did reciprocate. In large numbers they gathered around our group wondering what could be the possible reason these rich brats entered their territory, far from clean air, luxury and comfort.
We performed our play and got a few to laugh too! It wasn’t the most fantastic theatrical performance but we had a message to convey, and so we did. As we finished we were surrounded by a large number of hopeful people with children holding their hands who had just heard that education was free and accessible to them! They implored us to make their children go to school. I happened to note down the names of a few, the first man was a rag picker who had only one daughter. He told me how he never wanted his daughter to live the contemptible and filthy life that he had had to live and that he hoped she could live a cleaner and more meaningful life. I realized what it must feel to be stuck endlessly in a pit of hopelessness, knowing you will always live that a pathetic life and can never get out of it.
A few small boys were together in a group and I asked them what they felt about the play and if they wanted to go to school. This boy turned to look at me dead in the eye and abused me and walked off. He was about 14 but had overgrown features and had developed a beard and a manly voice. The others apologized on his behalf and said he doesn’t have parents and is always drunk and on drugs. I was bewildered at the site of that young boy. I can never forget his face. It displayed no emotion, complete fearlessness and his eyes looked woebegone. There was a glint of anger in his eyes. I moved away from the group discouraged and instead headed towards two mischievous looking boys sitting in the corner. Now they seemed the perfect age, around 6 years old. When I asked them their names and other questions, they seemed coy and did the usual shy giggle that kids do when spoken to.
A young man came and started scolding them and told them to throw away the handkerchiefs they were holding on to. Until then I didn’t notice what they really were doing with the handkerchiefs. They were probably chewing on them. It didn’t look suspicious to me. I asked the man why he was scolding them. He told me they were sniffing petrol from the handkerchiefs and that is what most of the people there were up to. That was the poor man’s addiction. He explained to me that in winters in order to sleep on an empty stomach they needed that drugged warmth which was difficult for these children to now live without. When I turned to look around and notice, every one of these young boys were chewing on ends of the handkerchief or sniffing quietly. I was devastated at the site of these poor children who live such pitiable lives which ended in nothing but hard labour. The Delhi winters which everyone looks so forward to, the charming blooms, the gardens fresh with flowers and the beautiful winter morning … for many in these winters, a small handkerchief comes to the rescue.