Monday, December 11, 2006

Children's stories

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!


Anonymous said...

I think you obviously mean stories written for children, and not children's stories.
I'd like to strangle that sadhu with his own saffron cloth I would.

smriti said...

i cried just reading this. how did you manage while they were telling the "stories"?
the slightest cut and i carry the wound and mourn about it for have knives thrust in your chest, fire set to it, to have your parents chop you up...

can these children identify the people involved? will there be punishment for the kidnappers, the parents, teh sadhus etc if they were identified...not that it would set things right? but could it be possible?

Anonymous said...

I'm curious what you think of Bhima Sangha. From what I have heard, they have done a lot for children's rights, but haven't gotten much support because they are a children's labor union, and supporting them means supporting child labor.

Nitin said...

yaaa i agreee with you i with your support because they are a children's labor union, and supporting them means supporting child labor.

Wanderer said...

Thank you for this post! (thats all I could say...)

Anonymous said...

I was just bitching to myself about my job, my boss, my life. This certainly puts things in perspective. You write beautifully, with an honest voice.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

yaaa i agreee with you i with your support because they are a children's labor union, and supporting them means supporting child labor.

On the other hand, they may be doing more immediate good in the lives of working children than any organization that simply wants to outlaw child labor, and they also help the child workers not to be taken advantage of and take control of their own destinys.

Is it child labor itself that is the problem, or the abuses that people perpetrate against the child workers because they can get away with it? What if we could have one without the other?

Anonymous said...

Duniya mein kitna gum hai,
mera gum kitna kum hai...

Shocked, moved... punched my table and Damn!

LinZi said...

thanks for the great post..really brings some important things to light...

I still can't wrap my mind around how people can justify doing this to children...

Annie Zaidi said...

anangbhai: it is strange what a disconnect there is between real children's stories and the stories we adults deem appropriate for children.
smriti: i doubt the parents will be punished. they should be, but on the other hand, i think of the child and whether he will or should be made to testify against his mother. and if he does, how that will affect him... that sadhu must have disappeared, am sure.
how i managed, don't ask. i cannot forget the boy's face, his accent, his smile, or his saying 'they would not even let me scream'.
anonymous: in principle, am opposed to child labour. esp when there are enough unemployed and willing-to-work adults around. child labour itself, given its context, is a problem. as far as the question of 'what will happen to them' is concerned, there are plenty of answers that i will elaborate on later.
nitin: not sure who you were agreeing with.
pawan: it is. you know what they say about truth and fiction...
lovemarks, iz: thanks
abby: easy, easy. we need those hands.
linzi: neither can i.

Anonymous said...


PS: just stumbled upon your blog. keep it up.

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