Sunday, December 7, 2008

On god’s blind side

Toby’s an interesting character. He once learnt to ride a motorcycle while on a trip to Kathmandu and then bought his own– “a Royal Enfield, what else” and rode his iron steed all the way back home to “England, where else…” He now runs a voluntary organisation called Flying Kites that has been working with children in Kenya. But this is not his story. He’s merely the voice of the ‘greek chorus’, in a drama that is staged every day in the frame of our car windows…
I met Toby in a restaurant in Delhi. He was digging into baklavas and speaking passionately about an upcoming trip to India’s coal-belt. He was in India to make a film about street children, the ones we meet everyday on our way to and from work, begging for “ek rupaiya” or rubbing a greasy cloth on the windshield or brandishing ugly burns and wounds wrapped in flies and rags, hoping you’ll part with that “rupaiya”. And he was going to the coal-belt to find out what prompts so many children to leave the sheltered environs of their villages in the region and head for the capital’s streets. There seems nothing right about that choice, and yet, everyday would find scores of waifs, between 6-14 years of age, alighting from the train at a station in Delhi, in search of a ‘better life’- a life that in all probability will be over before they touch 30. Toby wanted know why…

“One of the boys I met at the Old Delhi Railway Station told me how he got here…” recalled Toby. “While back home in his village orchard, while up on a tree, he had dropped a mango on his father’s head who was sitting under the tree… His father dragged him to the railway station, bought two tickets for Delhi and once there pushed him out onto the platform and left him… ridiculous… maybe he was lying…” and maybe he wasn’t, for haven’t stranger things happened between parent and child?

As I’d once written in a previous column, I often wonder what one ought to do when these kids, from butt-naked toddlers to cocky teenagers, surround one’s car, their filthy happy faces, belying their bleak existence. Does one give in and give them money, or does one pretend, inspite of the persistent knocks on the window, as if they just don’t exist? Or does one holler at them for ruining the car’s paint-job with their grimy hands? “Maybe you’re better off not giving them any money. Once in a while, there might be a guy who’s starving and could really use the money, but most often, these kids, even if they’re starving, would only spend it to buy glue… to sniff it and get a high,” said Toby. “There are a few NGOs striving to rehabilitate street kids, taking them into rescue homes but the kids don’t want it. They’re just too hooked to their life on the pavements” sighed Toby with a sense of resignation. “One of these kids… he must’ve been 11, had puncture wounds running all along his arms… heroin! Through our translator, I suggested that we could take him with us to a ‘shelter’ and he could be tended to. While our translator spoke, the kid smiled at us. Then he seemed to get rather excited and we felt he was ready for deliverance – we would be saving a soul after all. But alas, it wasn’t to be, for even as our translator spoke, his expression darkened and he walked away. Apparently, he got excited because he thought we might be interested in buying the drug. But when he understood our offer, he was disappointed. About 30 percent of these street kids have already been to various homes and have in fact ‘escaped’ back to the streets. These children prefer the hazards of living on the street to the claustrophobic security of a ‘home’.”

These streets dehumanise these kids. Innocent urchins, mostly boys, many girls, reach the station and find their way to various night shelters. There, these mean streets drag them through a baptism by fire where these vulnerable children are sexually exploited by older inmates and even outsiders with ‘local influence’. Physical abuse and further exploitation, even by those they ought to have turned to for protection, strips away every layer of dignity until they’re left with nothing. “The child inside is dead before long. They act like cold hard adults before they hit their teens. But at times the glue brings old repressed emotions back to life, and like the Kosi, these dammed emotions erupt and all the shame, hurt and indignity consumes them. One boy at the station had a deep six inch long gash on his forehead. Once in a while when ‘high’ he would break down, cry and bash his head against a wall. When I met him he was being restrained by his friends but he wriggled out, and in tears, ran to the tracks and started bashing his head against the tracks even as a train hurtled towards him. His friends and I had to wrestle him away, and just in time too… he lay for about an hour in their arms, sobbing and screaming till his emotions subsided… At least they had each other…”

Many of them will graduate to petty crime and some, if they survive long enough, will graduate to worse. But there are some, admittedly a rare few, who’ve truly turned the corner. One of them, for instance, had become a promising photo-journalist and Toby feels that it is amongst them that we can find our future leaders and change agents–people who’ve crawled out of the city’s dark underbelly and into the light, for who’ll know better than them what it takes to get there, and thus show others the way.

“I had come here hoping to ‘free the children’ from the factories and the streets. But once here, I realised that freedom for them meant giving them opportunities and choices. And it is possible… But we need to ensure that these opportunities, especially education, reach every village. And in our cities, rehabilitative care needs to be more sensitive and it needs to add value and meaning…”

But until that happens, the streets of this great country will stand mute testimony to our collective failure as a humane and civilised society.

Mean Streets

The plight of street children visits us in moving montages as we weave our way through traffic. But a deeper understanding of their stark world, an understanding that can help us help these blighted souls, can be attained through some of the most powerful works of literature and filmmaking. In fact, even to watch/read the following would require us to step out of our comfort zones:

City of God: A great book; a greater movie. A gut-wrenching tale of pre-pubescent protagonists in the slums of Rio de Janeiro – a veritable hell on earth – playing out their destinies of violent crime and exhilarating redemption. Feel it shake you up.

Salaam Bombay!: Mira Nair reconstructs the life of homeless street kids in Mumbai with help from the real subjects – 10 to 12-year-olds struggling in the shadow of Bombay’s glitzy lights, their raw emotions retouched in drama workshops with the filmmaker.

Street Kids: The Tragedy of Canada’s Runaways: This, if you thought street urchins to be the bane of the third world alone. Written by Marlene Webber, though much of it is in the words of those deemed the godless ones, it is an excruciating recount of causes and effects of life under the sun, unprotected and unforgiving.


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