By Ayushi Shukla:
“Once upon a time…” makes a great beginning. But, it ain’t no fairy tale.
It was way past lunch hour, and I was returning home after field work, with a growling stomach reminding me of yet another skipped breakfast. As most dhabas here in Rajasthan use evenings as downtime for cleaning and for staff to rest, I knew it will be difficult to find food. But for a lack of options, I made a gamble, and applied the brakes after sighting a colorful board.
The dhaba was up and running. With a sigh of relief, I asked for the menu. While the waiter was searching for an abandoned, nearly-torn, plastic-coated sheet, my eyes covered the length and width of the hall. It was packed with middle-aged, liquor-gulping men who were more uncomfortable with my presence than I was with theirs. All the tables were occupied. I thought it best to get the food packed. The cook signaled by tapping his index finger thrice on his other wrist and uttered “time lagega (it’ll take time).“ By now I was starving but knew it was my best shot. I moved out of the humid, windowless hall for some fresh air and to feel fewer pairs of eyes on me.
He said he was eight. A boy who should not belong there, was peeling garlic. He was sitting on the only piece of furniture available there, a charpai. I sat by his side and started peeling garlic with him. He looked up curiously and resumed his work. When a couple of cloves made their route from a bigger tub to a bowl, I looked at him and said, “I’m Ayushi. What’s your name?”
“Ramesh*,” he said. I sensed a joy underlined with excitement in his voice. For the sake of both our entertainment, I continued the conversation.
“Where are you from?”
He named a village I had never heard of, his tone suggested it was far away.
“I live in a whole different state. Do you know where M.P. is?”
His eyes grew bigger, he nodded to the sides and asked, “What do you do here?”
“I work here…and you?”
“Me too! It has just been a month.” By now he had taken charge of the conversation, and continued, “I don’t have my father… uh… I mean he passed away.” He corrected himself, noticing my confusion. “So I have to take care of my family,” he said proudly, while his tiny fingers struggled with a large bulb of garlic. By family, he meant three younger siblings and his mother.
“Do you get paid here?” I asked.
“Yeah! Four thousand rupees,” the pep in his voice was nearly shouted.
I couldn’t resist asking, “Do you know how much four thousand is?”
“Bahut saare (a lot).More than I have ever seen.”
A dry voice called out his name. The kind of voice that has no sign of concern or compassion, one that comes from an occupied mind. I continued peeling cloves and did not see the face. A slightly bigger boy appeared at the door and the young boy followed him. Five minutes later, the little one showed up and continued working silently. I figured he was instructed not to engage with customers.
Child labor is banned. Everyone, but that little boy, knew that.
He is not even eight, I thought. Eight. I found myself amidst the thoughts of my niece back home. We celebrated her seventh birthday last October. I miss how lively she is, always running around, constantly chatting and laughing. Isn’t a child’s laughter the most beautiful sound in the world? But this little one was silent and still, doing as instructed. I couldn’t help but wonder how difficult it must be for him. Machines follow instructions, humans aren’t meant for that. What does he do when his mind wanders? Or has he mastered the art of controlling it? He is the man of the family, and he sure behaves like one.
“Do you like it here?”
“It has only been a month. I can chop vegetables and make roti now. Bhaiyya (the elder boy) is training me. ”
That’s not the answer to my question, I thought.
“I used to miss mother, in the beginning, especially at nights,” he added.
“And now?” The words slipped out of me.
“I’m usually tired, so it’s easier to sleep. Mother said to work hard.” The same dry voice called him and he rushed back in.
He left behind a charpai, some peeled-unpeeled garlic, countless unanswered questions and me, with only one thought: “How do I help him?”
But the more important questions were: “Does he need help? Is he really calling out for it? And if he is, how capable am I to help him? In what ways?”
The least I could do was to peel garlic, and I continued doing that.
Can taking him out of here, “rescuing” him, and returning him to the warm embrace of his mother, enrolling him in a school be called “help”? Could all that assure an improvement in his life, or is he better off here where he has found a purpose, and a more dignified life?
What if I put him out of work and his family has to try to survive in a worse situation? Scarcity and poverty often result in stress, which finds its expression through emotional and physical abuse. This one child, by working, might ensure a better life for his younger siblings. Above all, his sense of purpose, isn’t that vital? He sees himself as a bread-winner, a champion. How would he accept being a dependent, and dealing with the guilt that follows? Here, he can afford to have some dreams, maybe!
What about millions of such young children, who are working in every city that we know of in India, and in other third world countries? The brands that we fancy, the industrialisation that we take pride in, the amount of production that we measure a country’s growth with; they’re all built on a basic economic principal. If one achieves the reduction in cost of production, it brings down the cost of produced goods which means cheaper and more competitive products. This way, one can sell the goods at cheaper prices and still manage to earn good profits. That’s a win-win situation. ‘Cheap labor’. That’s what we call them. Labour cheap enough to buy innocent smiles, and snatch millions of children away from their mothers. Cheap enough to deprive generations after generations of a sense of security.
I consciously tried not to think about their working conditions—worse than you and I can possibly imagine—which we know no human being deserves to work in. While I was entangled amidst all these thoughts, the food was readied. I looked around for a goodbye, but he was out of sight.
On my way back, I kept asking myself who was responsible for this. The economy that feeds over the poor? Capitalism? Or us, consumers who easily get lured by discounts. What do we do with all the laws? Before I knew it, I was back in the office. I kept staring at the roti, probably made by that little fellow, and got back to work. That night, I couldn’t sleep properly. Perhaps I wasn’t tired enough.