It was way past the lunch hours, and I had managed to finish the assigned field work. For the last couple of hours, my growling stomach was reminding me of yet another skipped breakfast. I decided not to push it any further and find something to eat.
After crossing many tea and snacks joints, I left the tar-road, sighting a colorful board. As soon as I applied the brakes, a doubt overshadowed my hope. Most of the restaurants use these hours as downtime for cleaning and allow a tiny fraction of those hours for staff to rest. I knew it will be difficult to find food. Not that I had any other options, I gambled on my chances anyway.
The Dhaba was up and running. With a sigh of relief, I asked for the menu. The waiter looked at me funny as if I had asked for his kidneys. Courtesy in hospitality is a fairly remote concept here. While the waiter was searching for the abandoned nearly-torn-plastic-coated sheet, my eyes covered the length and width of the hall. It was packed with mostly middle-aged-liquor-gulping men. They were more uncomfortable with my presence than they assumed me to be. All the tables were taken. So, I asked for a parcel. The cook signaled by tapping his index finger thrice on other wrist and uttered “time lagega“. The waiter asked me to wait. By now I was starving but knew this is my best shot. I moved out of the humid hall, that had no windows, to feel some fresh air and lesser pairs of eyes on me.
He said he was eight, looked younger to me. A boy who should not belong there was peeling garlic.
He was sitting on the charpai, the only piece of furniture available there. I sat by his side and started peeling the garlic. He looked at me with curious eyes and before I could look up, resumed his work. When a couple of cloves made the route from the bigger tub to the bowl, via my fingers, and I was done thinking about last night’s game, I looked at the little guy and said, “I’m Ayushi ... whats your name?”
“Ramesh“,* he said. I sensed a joy underlined with excitement in his voice. For the sake of both of our’s entertainment, I continued the conversation.
“Where are you from?”
He named a village I never heard of, his tone suggested its far away.
Even smaller distances must seem far away, for feet that tiny. – I thought.
“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 the charge of this conversation.
“I don’t have my father … Uh … I mean he passed away.” He corrected 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. His family meant three younger siblings and mother.
“Do you get paid here?”
“Yea! Four thousand rupees.” – The pep in his voice nearly shouted.
“Do you know how much is four thousand?” – I couldn’t resist asking.
“Bahut saare (a lot). More than i have ever seen.”
He is not even eight, my mind recollected. A dry voice called out his name. The kind of voice that had no sign of concern or compassion, one can sense that its coming through an occupied mind. I did not see the face. A slightly bigger boy appeared on the door and the younger one followed him. I continued peeling the cloves. 5 longer-than-most minutes later, the little one showed up and continued working silently. I did not force stop the silence. I figured, he was instructed not to engage with the customers.
Child labor is banned. Everyone, but that little boy, knew that.
Someone once said, we connect deeper when we share silences comfortably, communication has little to do with words. “What is your name? Sorry, I forgot …” He said. His voice had a somber undertone now. I answered with a smile, thinking, he is just a child, how long could he follow the instructions.
Eight … I found myself amidst the thoughts of my niece back home. We celebrated her 7th birthday last October. I miss how lively she is! Always running around, constantly chatting and the laughs … Isn’t a child’s laugh the most beautiful sound in the world? This little one was silent and still, doing as instructed. I couldn’t help but wonder, How difficult it must be for him. Machine follows instructions, humans don’t. What does he do when his mind wander? Or has he mastered the art of controlling his mind? He is the man in the family. Well, he sure behaves like one.
“Do you like it here?”
“It has only been a month. I’m learning things. Bhaiyya (the bigger boy) is training me. I can chop vegetables and make roti now.”
That is 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, but the sadness lingered.
“I’m usually tired, so sleep comes easily to me. Mother said, work hard …” The same dry voice called him and he rushed in.
In a parallel world …
He left behind a charpai, some peeled-unpeeled garlic, countless unanswered questions and me. The all assuming me grilled over, “How do I help him?” But, the basic question was, does he need any help? Is he really calling out? And if he does … Am I capable of helping him? How?
The least I could do to help was to peel garlic. I continued doing so.
Does taking him out of here, “rescuing” him, back into the warm embrace of his mother, enrolling in a school maybe? Could all that assure an improvement in his life?
Is he better here? Where he has found a purpose, a dignity, What if I put him out of work and his family survive with very little, to only worsen the situations. 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 – earner. He is a champion. How would he accept being a dependent? And the guilt that follows? Here he can afford to have some dreams may be?
What about millions of young children, who are working in every city that we know of, and third world countries? The brands that we fancy, the industrialization that we take pride in, the production that we measure country’s growth with. They’re all built on a basic economic principal. If one achieve the reduction in cost of production, it brings down the cost of produced goods. Which means cheaper and more competitive goods. This way one can sell the goods at cheaper prices and still manage to earn good profits. A win-win situation, right?
‘Cheap labour’ that is what they call it. Cheap enough to buy innocent smiles? Snatch millions of children away from their mothers? Cheap enough to deprive generations after generations, a sense of security?
I consciously decided not to think over the working conditions, which we know, for sure, are inhumanly difficult, worse than you and I can possibly imagine. While I was entangled amidst all these questions, the food was ready. I looked around for a goodbye, the little one was out of sight.
Kept struggling on my way back. Who is responsible? This economy, who feeds over the poor? This capitalism, that incentivize greater profit margins? We consumers, so easily lured into discounts and sale signs? We do have all the laws in place. What do we do now? Before I could realize, I found myself back in the office. Kept staring at the roti, probably made by that little fellow, and got back to work. That night sleep did not come easily to me. Perhaps I wasn’t tired enough.
“He is just a little boy, who wants to be with his mother.” – were the words I slept and woke up with.
* Name changed to protect identity.