Monday, July 17, 2006

Deal of a Shoe-Polish Box

6 pm … Pune Camp area … riding on the bike … someone playing the song ‘aa aa ashiqui me teri’ … and I was imagining Isha Koppikar or Karina standing outside ‘West Side’ weaving hand at me.

It was a pretty long time since I had been to Pune camp area. This time the visit was going to be different … far different. Varun and Raga were already there (and not Kareena or Isha), waiting for me. I parked my bike and met them. We walked a few steps on road and saw two small children sitting by the road, as if they were waiting for ages. There was a small want in their eyes. I could not really make out if that was for some monetary help or something else. They were shoe-polish walas.

“Bhaiyya itana late kyun aye?”
(why are you late?)

I had absolutely no idea that the word ‘bhaiyya’ was going to astound me like anything in next few minutes. The visit was all about these kids. Varun had met them on the same street a day before and found them interested in schools. However they had their story and reasons why they walked out of school.

Our conversation stared with a deal. A deal of shoe polish box. They agreed to join the school if we give them a shoe polish box! The shoe-polish box was supposed to double their income. In a few minutes we realized that the elder boy, 15 years old kid, was able to comprehend English and was also able to speak a little. The deal of a box at the cost of education of 2 children was certainly a good one and also was not a big issue for us but then a few unanswered questions were still there. We were afraid what if these kids give up schools n studies within a week or two after getting shoe-polish box. Who will guarantee that their parents would allow them to spare time from the ‘business’ to ‘waste’ in school? And why would one believe or agree to us. We were just street walkers and strangers to them. Why would they care and understand the motto benefits this.

There were quite a few children on the road – some selling balloons, some polishing shoes – but all wondering on the road behind people asking for money. We talked to a few and the story was same everywhere. A father who drinks, a mother who begs and a sister whose marriage is these children’s responsibility –
“ma, behen bhik magnate hai to achcHa nahi na lagata bhaiyya, is liye hamane school cHoda aur yaha agaye polish karane ke liye” they lamented.
(it doesn’t look good when our mother and sister beg hence we left school and started shoe-polishing)

I could really see pains in their eyes when they said that. But then it was also true that they did not know what they have sacrificed.

We decided to talk to their parents to find the way out. I was with 2 kids on my bike. They were showing me the way to their home which was in Hadapsar - a pretty long way from camp – especially in weekend traffics. I was hero for those children now. After all a free ride on the bike was something very big for them. They started becoming more n more frank. And at the max what could be a child’s imagination? In a few minutes I had to redefine all my beliefs.

I remember, in my childhood, I used to show people the Mahalakshmi Temple near my house or a lake, or a park. Well … these kids started with a graveyard! They showed me one as if it was a zoo or a playing garden. The childhood for them was all different. I should have realized this fact when they talked about their sister’s marriage and father –

“baap to bekar hai, bhaiyya. woh ghar nahi ata, daru pike pada rehata hai kahipe! Tabhi to hame kama karana padata hai! (Smiles)”.
(father is a waste. That’s why we have to work)
These guys continued to guide me on the road showing and narrating all the pretty places like graveyard! They showed me the train track. Train is always an attraction to any child.

“parasu, yaha ek bachcha baitHa tha. woh sun aur bol nahi sakata. Train ne uda diya use. Mar gaya fir!”
(a dumb n deaf boy was got hit from the train on the tracks! He died)
I was shocked. Not because of the event but by the way they told me. The tone was like ‘I went to market and bought some vegetables and while coming back everything fell off’. How do you react to such situations? I seriously could not understand whether I was supposed to say some consoling words or was just supposed give some reply like ‘pick up the vegetables and go to home’!
I didn’t say anything.

They took me to a remote place. I could guess that they were adivasis. There was a series of small huts like a home we make out of playing cards. Lot many children surrounded my bike at the moment I entered the area. These two kids who were sitting on my bike were catching all the attention now. We got down and started talking to the people there. As expected, people had their arguments ready.
“inako padhayenge to khayenge kya?”
“subeh school jayenge to fir dhanda kaise hoga?”

(what will we eat if we teach them?)
(how would they earn if they go to school in the morning?)

We explained them the importance of education. The folks there also talked about cast and religion! Phew … and we say that we are in 21st century! We also had to explain them that education has nothing to do with cast and religion. At the end the people agreed. I don’t really think that we said anything different. Even now while writing this, I am not sure why those folks argued in the beginning and why did they agree at the end. We had not really addressed their concern about money. But then at least we got green signal from the community. There are lot many things still to be done. We need volunteers in that area – Vaidhwadi, Hadapsar. We need to get these children enrolled in the school and track their progress. But then the good thing was the dialogue with their parents which apparently appears me to be successful.

We came back to Camp. The same couple of children were with me on my bike. I wonder where do children get the question bank. They were not over. They started with even more enthusiasm.
“Bhaiyya, log kyon marate hai?”
(Why do people die?)

Like most of the earlier cases, I struggled to answer.
“Bhaiyya, agar log mar jate hai, to bhagwan unhe wapis kyon bhejata hai?”
(And if people die, why does God sends them back?)

Now this was really a genuine query!
No doubts these kids have been exposed to some weird truths of life but then still it doesn’t explain a child looking for an explanation about life and death instead of asking about cartoon characters and games. These kids also told me about Solar System! When asked where they learned it, they mentioned they had learnt it once somewhere. 10 years old boy who has left school a way back and working as shoe polish wala, talking about Solar System which he probably had read ‘somewhere’ was something worth giving a thought. That boy really had some good memory or grasping capacity. He was able to read English hoardings – no wonders – but he knew about Solar System as well.

He is still there on MG Road running behind people for show polish and dreaming about the shoe polish box which would double his earnings! Not sure, whether I was supposed to be happy to know about his knowledge or sad.

We let them disappear again in the crowd at Camp and came back to the place where we had started from. An education for one child at the cost of one shoe-polish box was really not a bad deal. We, At Dream India team, are going to try our best to make sure that these kids get some education. Would that solve the problem? Perhaps we don’t know the answer but surely it will make a difference.

We need volunteers who can visit this place and track the progress of these children – perhaps twice a month.

8 pm … Pune Camp area … walking towards the bike … someone playing ‘some’ song again ‘… … ashiqui … teri’ … and I was trying to find out those kids in the crowd standing outside ‘West End’ weaving hand at me.

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