Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yet another hobo story : the runaway

Munna was running for his life. The molten tar on the road sizzled in the heat, cooking his tiny bare feet, but Munna was too scared to stop… he kept running, unmindful of the summer sun and the abusive rickshawwallahs… he kept running till he reached the Old Delhi Railway Station. Once there, he crept in with a group of passengers and followed them onto a platform, getting into the first train he could find and locked himself inside the toilet… His heart was beating like a tribal drum; his mouth was dry and sticky… he pressed open the tap, splashed some water on his face and then put his mouth to the tap and drank some water… he sat down on his haunches and wondered why he was here…

Earlier in the day: Munna’s mother, just like everyday, had left for work at a construction site, leaving Munna in the care of his 14-yearold brother. Though only 12, Munna would often bully his elder brother and run away to play with his other friends living in the same slum. Munna and the other kids bounded into a nearby park for a game of cricket with a wooden board and a ball they’d found lying in the park, perhaps left behind by one of the kids from the housing complex nearby. ‘Luckily’, they didn’t go to school and therefore could play their own game before the boys from the housing complex returned and drove them away… The game had started and Munna was fielding near the edge of the park, getting bored when a red gleam caught his eye… it was one of the younger boys from the complex riding his brand new cycle. Munna had only just learnt how to ride a cycle and that shiny red bike seemed so much more interesting than standing in the sun waiting for the ball to reach him. Munna slunk away and went up to the boy with the cycle and asked if he would let him ride it for a while. The boy refused, got down from the bike and started walking homewards. Munna asked him again… the boy snapped and walked ahead… Munna grabbed the bicycle seat. The boy pushed Munna who pushed back and then the two rolled in the dust, punching, kicking, clawing and biting like feuding tom cats… until the boy started howling and Munna let go. His friends heard the commotion, dropped their game and ran up to Munna… the bawling kid took fright and ran off without picking up his cycle… The temptation was too much for Munna and his friends… Munna picked up the cycle and one of his friends sat behind him as he stuttered to a start and then rolled away… “Mat kar Munna, bahut maarengey… leave the cycle and let’s run back home”, said one of the boys. “We’ll come back in 10 minutes and leave the cycle in the park… darr mat!” Munna had said as he pedaled away. With the wind in his hair and shiny new wheels spinning and humming their own ode to a wild sense of freedom and joy, a delirious Munna turned to talk to Anku who sat behind him… Anku screamed, Munna turned to face the road and saw a buffalo cart right in front… They both tried jumping off in the nick of time and escaped with bloodied knees and elbows. But the cycle… oh the cycle sprang forward as if it had a life of its own and smashed into the cart, and then slithered under the heavy wheels, which went over it with a sickening scrunch leaving behind a mangled mass of rubber and steel… Munna looked on in horror while Anku trembled with fear… “ab kya hoga Munna? We’re done for… colony waale bahut maarengey, police bhi bahut maaregi… and your mom, oh God, she’ll burn us alive…” Munna started running… “Munna! Munna…! Where are you going…kahan…?” Munna didn’t stop to answer… He kept on running… Anku ran with him for a while but couldn’t keep up… “Munna… Munna…” Anku’s voice faded away as Munna kept running…

And now here he was locked inside a train… He didn’t know where he was going… and he didn’t care… If he returned, he would have to face the wrath of the boy’s parents, the cops and even his mother would wish he was better off dead. He didn’t remember his village or his father… life in the slums was hard. It couldn’t be worse no matter where he went… someone knocked on the door… he didn’t open. From the hole in the steel pot he could see the ballast and ties starting to move slowly as the train started pulling away from the station. Little Munna burst into loud sobs… he hadn’t cried in years, hardened by the indifference he saw around him. But now he knew he wouldn’t see his brother or his mother ever again… he cried himself to sleep on the damp floor of the toilet…

Munna woke up in Kanpur and found himself a job in a wedding band. He made friends with another boy, Ashok, who worked for a caterer, who it turned out had also run away from the same village. Life seemed better than he’d ever known it. He worked hard, had food to eat, a roof over his head, a good friend and best of all, a couple of hundred rupees to call his own, which he and Ashok spent watching movies… some years went by. Home and family had become a distant, hazy memory… until the year 1992.

When the Babri Masjid came down, its reverberations rocked the whole country, including Munna’s little world. He was a Muslim, living in the Hindu quarter of the city. Twice, mobs surrounded hisemployer’s shop, but the employer, a Hindu, managed to dissuade them. Then during a curfew, he gave Munna some money and advised him to leave town. Munna left, but not for the station… just as he was about to reach the Muslim quarter of town, a policeman chased him but yet again a local resident pulled him into his house, fed him along with his family and when safe, guided him to the Muslim quarter… There, little Munna looked for Ashok and found him safe with his Muslim employer… Together, they left for what they thought would be a new town… New Delhi.

At the Old Delhi Railway Station, unaware that he had once jumped onto a train from this very platform, the two teenagers banded together with some others, doing odd jobs in the day and scurrying around to avoid cops and criminal elements at night. As the band grew, the group got into more organised activities, carting cargo boxes from railway cars to the parking for people. In time, Munna and Ashok started making a decent living, making about 16,000 rupees a month… but one day, he gave it all away… for a dream…

A dream that one day, even the homeless will have a voice and that irrespective of their circumstances, they will exist, not just on our streets but in our consciousness. A social worker met him at the station, and impressed with his organizational skills, showed him the possibilities and asked him to set up an organised effort for the homeless. That social researcher was Mr Dhananjay Tingle and little Munna had grown up to be Mansoor (refer to column in TSI issue dtd 20-26 April, 2009), a man who has dedicated his life to the cause of the homeless, including the responsibility of finding them a voice by giving them the right to vote, “the only way the woes of the homeless could ever be addressed…”

The day I met Mansoor, he had to leave early. It was a Tuesday. Mansoor is the secretary of a small temple near the railway station. And the evening’s ‘aarti’ is his responsibility… Every big Hindu festival, like Janmashtami or Diwali, Mansoor fasts and attends the puja. And it is he who distributes the prasad… “It really isn’t a big deal. We homeless folk are a very secular and bonded lot. We celebrate each other’s festivals and all my Hindu friends, including Ashok, join me for Iftar during Ramzan and celebrate Eid,” said Mansoor. “Why, I know of another fakir who was in fact a devotee of Shiva and had set up a small temple in the old Delhi area…” added Mr Tingle. “The homeless have been branded criminals by the local authorities, but only a small percentage, are into criminal activities… mostly drug addicts who in fact have homes in the city but have been driven to the streets and to stealing by their addiction,” Tingle continued, “Most of the homeless are displaced people who’ve lost homes to feuds and floods, or are runaways, making ends meet by doing essential odd jobs. The recent Kosi floods, for instance, have sent thousands into our cities. The government wants to remove the homeless from our streets. They can’t be wished away… what we need is to create an equal opportunity society across cities, towns and villages and greater sensitivity for disadvantaged populations. Delhi, just like other big cities, has thousands of homeless workers, and just to remind the city that they matter, I think they should go on strike for a day. Believe me, the city’ll come to a stand still… Mansoor’s life reads like a fairy-tale (he even found his mother again) and I know of others who’ve been lucky, becoming photographers, social workers, even school teachers; but most don’t survive the grind… they die young; and their bodies are only discovered when some passerby sees rats jumping out of the eye-sockets of the man they thought was sleeping on the pavement…”

If a nation really is known by the way it treats its weakest, then at least for now, we, including you and me, remain a nation of cold, callous and self-centred egotists...


1 comment:

  1. More to Read & Post Comments here at:
    http://livingwastedbloodsofindia.blogspot.comMr. Christian Colson Producer, Mr. Danny Boyle Director (lives in East London) of Slumdog Millionaire have got smarter brains than Indian Arts Students, they say.

    They have survived Darwin's Survival of the Fittest Test over Indian counterparts by capitalising on India's Poverty time and again.

    Once before Indian Independence.
    After Indian Independence.

    Invasions by predator invaders has been Asian+African Continent's (India's+other's) fate till now.

    When Asians+Africans (Indians) invade US/UK + other continents remains unknown.

    The tools of Globalization are already available.

    What are they waiting for?
    Maybe they are teaching us to catch Fish not directly feed us.