Monday, April 08, 2013

The first blow

Heard about the six year old in Punjab? Daddy used to burn him with cigarette butts. The parents were trying to get divorced and Daddy had custody of the child.

I'm thinking of that kid, wondering what would have happened if he had not described the torture to the court? What the violence have escalated? What if the kid had decided to run away? What if he could not find his mother and, like millions of other children, ended up begging. Or scavenging at garbage dumps. Or working at food stalls.

He would have survived perhaps. Amin Sheikh did survive, though he must have suffered more than he cares to put into words. His book, 'Bombay Mumbai. Life is Life. I am because of You', is a memoir of growing up on the streets and railway stations in Mumbai, is a surprisingly generous, optimistic one. He mentions the 'bad things' that happened to him, and loomed darkly over his little sister. But he chooses to dwell mostly on the fun he had with the other kids, and the people who helped him along, in small ways and big. Those who fed him, or taught him a new skill, showed him ways to stay alive, took him in and prodded him further.

Sheikh now runs a travel company called Sneha, after 'Snehasadan', a home for rescued street children. He managed to get a little bit of schooling, found a series of jobs – as a shoe-shine boy, a newspaper vendor, a chauffuer, an errands boy, and eventually was placed in a household where he was treated more like a family member than an employee. He picked up some English, expressed his desire to travel and acquire taxis so he could go up in the world. He saved hard, and eventually did make enough to support his family in ways that he says he hadn't imagined.

Of all the events that shaped Sheikh's life, one fact sticks in my head. The violence he first experienced was at home. It's not like he could not find his way home, or that he did not try to return after he ran away the first time. But the violence continued.

Hunger, sexual abuse, loneliness, disease – that little child was willing to brave it all but he did not want to take beatings from his mother or step-father, or abuse from his employers and their customers. His younger sister too felt the same way.

It is easy to dismiss feelings by saying things like 'children don't even understand...' but surveys supported by our own government show that the majority of children between 5-12 are physically and verbally abused.

When a child puts up with violence at home and the pressure to bring in money for the family, she/he must also feel emotionally betrayed. From strangers, you expect so little protection or loyalty. And once you leave the family home, at the very least, you are free to suffer your own choices. The illusion of a safe home, the fig leaf of 'parents always have the child's best interests at heart' takes away even this smallest of freedoms. So of course, kids run.

There are no recent surveys but older data suggests the number of street kids in Indian cities is over 4,00,000. It could be as high as 8,00,000 too (Unicef estimates run into millions). And lakhs of kids are going to keep running unless we can start building a nation where violence within the household is not tolerated and every family can afford to feed itself without forcing the kids into jobs.

First published here

If you want to buy Amin Sheikh's book, the ebook is available on Amazon 

1 comment:

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