Children's stories are such perfectly choreographed dream sequences, aren't they? Despite the wolves, the witches, evil stepmothers, greedy kings, the eternal sleep, the eternal wait for one kiss of redemption... and it all comes right in the end.
But whenever I meet children who have lived dangerous fairytales, who have suffered the witch and the wolf and lived to tell the tale, I can't help wondering whether it has come right. Whether it can ever come right.
A while ago, I had written of Bubli, of Sukku, Sohail, Budhiya; these children's stories exemplify why it was so important to ban child labour. Not necessarily because kids should be in school, not necessarily because kids have a right to food and education, but because kids are vulnerable. Because kids don't always know what to do to protect themselves, or indeed, if they have any right to seek protection against adults.
A few weeks ago, I met my own question in the shape of Kalu.
Kalu. Dark-skinned teenager with a genuinely shy, genuinely pleasant smile. An obvious wonder lurks just one layer deep in his eyes. He is very willing to talk.
We met entirely by accident. I had gone to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan office to meet the founder, the general secretary, the adults... but there was this team of excited teenaged boys in maroon sweaters (the kind I wore to school), hauling backpacks off a bus. They'd been on the road for days, driving around the countryside, staging plays and raising awareness about children's rights.
Kalu was introduced to me as the boy made famous by the Clinton visit; he was photographed with the former president of the US and subsequently splashed across many a newspaper and magazine. It made him blush - the teasing from the teacher about how famous his face was. But he recovered soon enough and began to tell his story with confidence. With such guileless, unflinching confidence that it made me flinch.
Kalu comes from village Murho in Madhepura, Bihar. When he was barely six or seven, he was kidnapped when he was out minding the goats (or were they sheep?). Two strangers showed up where he and another small boy sat, while the animals grazed. "You know how kids are, ma'am. They love sweets. These two men gave us sweets. They lured us away, making promises of more sweets, and saying that they would take us to the cinema. That was how we were kidnapped."
First, Kalu was taken to Allahabad, and for that first week, he was given good food. Next thing he knew, he was put to work on the carpets. Day and night. Day and night. For meals, he was given rice and water. Old sarees were used as blankets. And he was beaten.
Once, he feel asleep at the loom. The punishment was severe. The adults supervising him assaulted him with a knife. He received two wounds on the chest. "They did not take me to the hopsital. To prevent infection, they would burn the wounds. The wound was filled with the 'masala' that you see on the tip of a matchstick. This was set fire to.... the other boys stood on my arms and legs to prevent me from moving. Somebody used to clamp an arm down on my mouth. I was not even allowed to scream."
I stared with a stilling horror at this class ten student, smiling at me, genuinely smiling. The questions dried up suddenly, as I tried to imagine the boy at eight. The boy with fire on his chest, several pairs of feet pinning down his limbs. I did not want to see the scars.
Kalu extended his hands. There were more scars. "Every time I made a mistake while weaving the carpets, they would drive knives into the back of my hands. Again, they'd set fire to the wounds, never take us to a doctor."
There was not that much to say, was there?
Before I could recover from the searing numbness of one story, I met another.
Pradeep is younger, about 13. He's a student of class seven and a little less articulate. Or perhaps, just less willing to talk. He only answered the questions put to him.
He belonged to Agra's Kamlapur village. His dad was a driver. His mother was told by a sadhu that Pradeep would bring ill luck. Not just to the family, but to the whole village. The village had indeed had problems with water scarcity. The sadhu persuaded Pradeep's parents to sacrifice the child during durga-puja.
They blindfolded him and took an axe to him, at the local temple, but he was struggling so that the axe fell on his head rather than his chest. The sadhu decided at this point that the sacrifice ritual had been interrupted, and therefore, was rendered invalid. So, they left the boy there at the temple where devotees found him in the morning. He was taken to the hospital but the boy was so scared that he would be attacked again that he ran away to Agra. Once there, he began work at a dhaba, from where he was rescued by BBA activists.
The chairman himself went to the village, to persuade the parents to accept the boy, but they thought of him as a curse and did not want him back. So, he lives at the ashram in Rajasthan, with other boys. Studies. Travels.
When people like me come to ask questions, he tells them the story.
I tell you... children's stories!