I asked him for his story, there was no smile. Was he the boy in the photo with the begging bowl? A wistful, soft reply warned me; “It’s a sad story.” “That may be so,” I answered, “but remember, Your story isn’t finished. You are fifteen, there may be a good ending?” A small, wounded smile wondered; “How can there be a happy ending?” He recited his story:
I was born in Ponta, but mother and father were from Tamil Nadu. Father settled in Gujarat. We didn’t stay in one place for long. To earn money, we moved from place to place so that the police didn’t catch us. Our work was not so good, which was why my background was also not so good. We were garbage pickers; we took things that weren’t ours. We’d find them in peoples’ yards, or in the premises of factories, railway stations, bus stations and anywhere else. We worked at night so there was less chance of being caught when we took things that weren’t garbage. We all needed to pull our weight with the work; but that never happened. Only Mom worked and took one of us with her. We were six kids and everyone needed to help.
Finally, we moved to Dehradun and lived in a colony near the railway station. That place is not at all pleasant; it is bad, it is wicked. You can feel evil as you walk in. So many wicked things are going on there. A fight starts up every night. Children are not safe at all. No one has an inside bathroom, and as you walk outside you may be accosted by anyone who may grab you and abuse you as they please. Everyone there is filthy and everyone is filthy poor. Like I said, we were garbage pickers along with the other women in the colony.
My mother worked hard, and though we really needed Dad to work, he didn’t work. He did the house duties for a while until he started drinking. My mother used to take my elder brother with her to work, but when I turned seven years old, she took me. We’d have to wake up in the morning at 3:00 a.m. in the darkness. I never wanted to go out that early. She knew someone had to be responsible and earn for the family.
One early morning, while my mother and I were working, she went into a house to steal something. The housekeeper seized my mother and made sure she stayed there until the police came. While this was happening, I stood outside waiting like my mother told me. She’d instructed me, “If someone comes, tell me.” It was a long wait and I was young. I fell asleep. At 7:00 a.m. I cried and called out for my mother. She heard me and answered, “I am her; I am here!” I went to my mother. The people in the house were holding her. The police came and took both of us to the jail.
After being at the jail a few hours, we noticed that the two policemen were not paying attention to us, instead, they were concentrating on smoking their cigarettes. One was helping the other to light his. They were totally engrossed in smoking. Mom thought quickly, “this is our chance —run!” We ran out the back door and found ourselves stepping into a drainage ditch full of garbage and excrement. We had to go right into that until it was up to our chests. It was smelly and all over us. Finally, we emerged from it and went down an alley where people wouldn’t notice us. We reached a friend’s back door and asked for clothes. We had no soap, but washed with water. The stink remained and wafted from us until morning. We stank so badly that even we couldn’t sleep that night. What we wouldn’t give for a bar of soap! At least we weren’t in jail.
In the morning, Mommy told Papa, “YOU have to work”. Papa actually listened and went for work, but whatever he earned, he drank away. He did not come home at night. He slept somewhere else and came the next morning. Mommy scolded him and sent him away. He went to a nearby shop to sleep there. We had to have money.
At 3:00am Mommy took me for work. It was raining heavily. I told her we should not go in this weather. I thought we’d both get sick. Every morning when she woke me up early, I’d say the same thing; “I don’t want to go,” and she would respond, “You shouldn’t say that, we have to work!” Then I’d go with her. That night was really not nice. It was a very bad, bad, very sad night. We really shouldn’t have gone that night.
[Continue “A Sad Story” next Monday; find out what happened.]