Thursday, June 02, 2005

One little girl

Was checking out Atanu Dey's blog and came upon this, and a four-year-old memory just came back to me.

I was walking down a narrow pavement, from Lower Parel station to the Mid-day office, manouvering between shoppers, shopkeepers, commuters rushing to catch the evening locals, hangers-on, fisherwomen... and there was this crowd blocking my way - about fifty people gathered round something I couldn't see, their backs turned to the street.

I almost crossed the road to bypass the crowd... almost. But I didn't. I stopped. (I still haven't figured out why, because I am not in the habit of checking out mini-mobs on already mobbed streets). When I finally elbowed my way into the centre of the circle, I found that a little girl of about seven was being slapped out of her senses by two grown men.

She was crying - howling and screaming, really - but I couldn't hear her screams because this mini-mob was collectively louder - the buzz of whispers was deafening as it egged on the men - 'teach her a lesson'.

Somehow, I have no recollection of the next few seconds. there's a memory lapse after which I remember being on my knees, holding the girl, and being stared at by half a dozen very surprised men.

One of them was talking to me. "You don't know these children... she's a thief. Don't go by her innocent looks."

Another spoke up, "They're trained to do this sort of thing."

I remember barking back, "What sort of thing?"

"She's a thief, I tell you."

"What did she steal?"

"An item from my gift shop.. I saw her."

I looked at the child. Her clothes were - or had been - torn almost off her body. Tears running down... she cowered and shrank away even from me, as if I was about to hit her next.

I asked her, "Did you take anything from this man's shop?"

She just howled louder and shook her head.

The men started their buzzing roar of whispers again. "She did... she did... I saw her."

One of the men reached out to drag the child away from me, and began to slap her again.
Again, there is a slight memory lapse; I have no idea what exactly happened, but this time I was standing and holding the girl very tightly by the wrist.

The men were angry with me now. "You leave this to us, madam... we will sort this out."

"By beating her?"

"She deserves it... she's a thief."

"So what if she is? She is a little child."

"Madam, this is not your business... You have no right."

"You have no right either... this is not your daughter, for you to teach lessons to. Save your beatings for your own children."

"Madam, get out of the way. We don't want thieves around here..."

"Alright then, why don't you call the police?"

"What? The police?"

"Yes, call the police. I will hand over this girl to the police."

The men exchanged glances. Frm somewhere in the back of the mob, I heard a small voice, "It wasn't worth that much... you'll have to give mor to the police to register a case."

"Isn't worth that much? But it is worth enough beating the life out of this girl? Or were you just having fun doing it?"

Finally, one by one, the crowd dispersed. There was just the girl. And me. In a sudden silence.
The girl was still crying and I was still holding onto her wrist.

For a long time, I did not know what to say. Finally, I asked her, "Did you take anything?"

She shook her head.

I tried again, "I'm not going to call the police. But did you steal?"

This time, she just kept crying quietly, neither admitting it, nor denying it.

"Do you have somebody here, in Bombay?"

"Yes, my father."

"Do you know the way home?"


She was beginning to strain away, but I was still holding on firmly. I considered my options, briefly - calling the police, calling some NGO, calling the government shelter for homeless kids, calling a helpline, calling my office...

Then, I gave her a cursory one-line lecture - 'Don't do it agin, ok?' - and I let go of her wrist.

But I knew she would do it again. Even at the risk of her life.
It can't be easy, stealing for a living, when mini-mobs begin to thrash you... It can't be easy. But she'd do it again.

I don't recall feeling particularly brave. In fact, I felt guilty - as if I had been responsible for getting the child into that horrible situation. As if, in some collective sense, it was my fault as much as anyone else's. As if we were responsible for this one, and all others like her. I had only just salvaged my pride, by stepping in when I did.

I also remember thinking, "Perhaps she should go to an NGO... but I remember pinching colourful pencils when I was five. I didn't get beaten up... Mom just collected all the pencils in my bag which she didn't recognize and gave them back to my class-teacher... I didn't need to steal, but I did. And I didn't go to a juvenile home. I didn't get arrested. I was not taken to a shrink. I wasn't handed over to an NGO.... I was five. She is seven now, eight maybe... maybe all children steal. Maybe..."

I had convinced myself that the girl deserved to stay at home, with her family, and if she needed to steal to stay alive, well then - so be it!

But after all this time, I'm wondering... whatever happened to that little girl?


Anonymous said...

"It can't be easy" - oh but it is so easy to get all 'moralistic' about the whole thing - willing to bet each of those men (assuming and hoping there were no women in that mob scene) are guilty of minor lapses every single day of their lives - small white lies, stealing in some form or the other, cheating on their wives...

eV said...

My two cents on why people react the way they did hitting the child: I think they feel helpless about all the corruption that happens around them, and when its a kid (more so, cause she was unaccompanied) they view the kid as a symbol of this system of corruption - and take it upon themselves to thrash the kid. At the same time if the child seemed like belonged to a well-to-do family, I doubt if they'd react in this manner. So I guess its also got to do with a stereotype in our minds - that kids from poor families (like this little girl) tend to become anti-social elements and hence its upon us to "correct" them.
But most of all, they do it because its easy for them to do so and feel good about themselves. And your action that day would have gone some distance in at least dissuading them from repeating it - if not repenting for what they did.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if it would dissuade them from repeating the same thing. Still, kudos to you Annie. I don't have that sort of courage to do the right thing.

I remember a similar beating (our euphemistic terminology is public pasting) was being given to a twenty-something pickpocket at Borivli station. I recall overhearing a person saying "saale ko achcha tapli maara, mera bhi kisi ne pocket maara tha". I don't know how right or wrong the public beating was in that case (I lean towards the latter); but perhaps I know where this public ire comes from.

R. said...

Its heart breaking. I have been in such situations where one has no clue immediately as to what has to be done, one of which i've written about in my blog, under the title 'of a walk across the road' , the frustration is in not knowing what to do.

There was an incident once where this 5-6 year old kid grabbed my leg on the pavement and said that i have to buy a packet of ear buds from him. I told him i didn't need it. He said I just had to coz it was only 10 rupees and was a bargain plus he needed the money for lunch. So i told him that I'll give him some money for lunch but i didn't need the buds, he said he didn't want my money as charity but wanted me to buy it and I did. I still have this in front of me in my office as a reminder of a child who lost his childhood and became an adult so fast. Didn't he deserve the childhood we had?

anumita said...

It's heart wrenching to see children beaten. But why do they say "spare the rod and spoil the child"? Who decides who deserves...?

Annie Zaidi said...

Charu - yes, morality comes easy. Though I don't think cheating on wives is a lapse. But then, I don't think stealing is much of a lapse either....
ev - yes, kids are easy targets. and it's easy to teach a lesson to those who won't turn around each you one, for a change. funny, though, isn't it, how most of the young criminals we hear of these days - none of them are from desperately poor backgrounds, where they might have needed to steal... quite the contrary, in fact.
niket - i know where public ire comes from too. what is maddening is that though we might 'tapli'fy pickpockets, i've never seen anyone gang up on someone like, say gautam goswami, and beat the living daylights out of him.

r - have very mixed views about givign money to kids. esp when charity is enforced on me as business. if a kid 'begs' me to buy a newspaper, how is that any better than a kid begging with empty hands? my reasons for giving/not giving remain the same.

anumita - who decides? 'We'... it's always us. we decide by actively participating. we decide by silently watching. we decide in all instances. its just that we dont often realise how many decisions we are making - by not making them

R. said...

I see your pov, I used to think the same way but don't anymore. Even if there is a 10% chances that the money gets that kid a lunch, im willing to go with that, enforced or otherwise. Maybe it doesn't solve anything but it just might get the kid a meal. The point I was trying to make though was that, those were very grown up words from a child's mouth, sometimes that can cause joy and sometimes sadness, like in this case.

Anonymous said...

hi annie,
well done.

i am glad you did what you did.

it's tough to be on the road and broke, with no hopes for future. the privileged ones really have no idea how unfair the whole scenario is.

but you did the right thing that day in mumbai.
bless you.


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