As a city bred individual, I’ve always had my stereotypes about the lives of the people who are less privileged than I am. They were always safe and intact in my head. I was so satisfied with my conclusions that I never tried to question them even once.
All it took was a stroll around the city of Udaipur to come back home with a million questions. It was a hard day, especially for a person who is dyslexic with navigations. With fifty rupees in my pocket, I set out for the assignment in the absence of a mobile phone. The task was simple. To choose one of the stereotypes that you strongly believe to be true and figure out the accuracy of it. The one that I chose to investigate was a stereotypical stereotype. It was about the burden of urban poor kids who had to work after school. I always defined them as the underprivileged. I spent the whole afternoon trying to figure out if the pictures in my head matched their actual lives.
I walked for a good twenty minutes around Fatehsagar lake hopelessly to find something that I was looking for. At that point of time, various images of the kids at the traffic signals of my hometown began to unfold in my head: The ones that sold balloons and notebooks; the kids who were heavily disregarded by the crowd waiting under the scorching sun for the traffic to clear; the various occasions on which I refused to buy the same notebooks from the same kids. Interestingly the locality I chose didn’t have any kids of that sort, at least in the distance that I covered during that twenty minutes on that particular day.
An odd realization then was that I was unconsciously hoping to find kids who are bound to work. The idea that I didn’t find any was a bit frustrating. Ideally, the situation should have been the contrary. I should have been glad that the city doesn’t have as many underprivileged kids. But I wasn’t. At last I found this little sandwich cart nestled between a few more carts on both sides. Khalu, a fifteen-year-old was taking care of the shop. Engrossed in his new android phone, he kept ignoring the questions I kept asking him. He worked part-time in his uncle’s sandwich stall after school. Khalu was blessed with a good family; had access to latest gadgets; went to school; knew everyone who passed by and greeted them with a smile. He was one of the happiest kids I have met in a while.
After this encounter, I randomly ended up in a village called Sisarma on the outskirts of Udaipur. It was a really long journey for a ten rupees share auto ride. As I walked down the narrow lanes of this happy little hamlet, I stopped by a house without doors to get a glass of water. Entertained by my broken Hindi, a few kids in the neighborhood began to engage in a conversation with me. All it took was a glass of water to decipher a few complex ideas of mine. After a long conversation with the children, a pattern seemed to arise. Every boy I encountered went to play after school, while most of the girls were engaged in household work. But both went to school.
It was difficult to draw a conclusion from the two contrasting events encountered on that day. I almost forgot the reason why I set out on this journey in the first place. It was only questions that remained in the end. All these years of my life I have never questioned what defines the line between the privileged and the underprivileged. Should I consider Khalu as an underprivileged kid just because he works in his uncle’s shop after school? If so, then what about the kids I encountered at the traffic signals? Is it even moral to call them underprivileged just because they did not fit into my definition of privileged?
I felt a little pinch to know that the girls in the village did not go out to play after school. Even Khalu didn’t. Just the knowledge about his access to expensive things made me look past the fact that he also had to maintain a balance between his work and education. Both Khalu and the girls in the village did miss a part of their childhood that would never come back. At least that’s what I think. But they looked completely content with their lives. I did not sense even a single sign of regret on their faces.
No matter how hard we try, we will end up with a single story. It is our own perception that decides the conclusion of the story. What seemed like a burden to me was quite normal for these kids, maybe we are all conditioned to think in different ways. I am no one to decide what is privilege and what is not at this point of my life. At least after this incident in specific, it is clear to me that judging a condition from a single frame of reference can be a disaster. Most importantly, it is important to acknowledge that you do not know enough. Because reality slaps across your face at times. It is then you pause for a moment to look into the unknown. That profound moment of realization that you could have been wrong all the while is worth the slap.