We glibly speak of development easing the life of the common man, but the tragic and poignant truth is totally different…
Trains, the chief source of inter-city/state transport despite the laudable efforts by the various respected ministers of India to promote them haven? yet come up with the image of being even remotely convenient means to cover distances.
Fortunately, I had got a seat at the exit of general compartment that day. I was even justifiably feeling repentant for not getting my tickets reserved 3 months before the day of journey! I desperately wanted a companion to talk to for passing the 18 hours journey time. I tried reading the eyes of men, women and children packed about me like sardines in a tin container, restraining myself only when the fear of falling over from the moving train would overpower my urge to be sociable. Heat, human bodies, packed food and abandoned waste gave a nasty odor.
I felt my eyes lock into the eyes of an eight year old. He was squeezed in behind the compartment door open as far as it could go with the noisy and multi-coloured crowd barging in with their combined might into the already crammed compartment. A miracle happened! I could somehow create an iota of space beside me and there was the bedraggled child gratefully thrust into it! I was completely aware that I was breaking the law: but felt that bearing so much hardship, I had at least earned the right of conversing with a fellow traveler to ease the burden of the travel.
“What? your name?I asked the disheveled child.
“Ninaad,he said, pushing back his hair from the forehead.
“Sweet name, I smiled. ?here are you coming from?”
“Delhi. Main vahan ek chai ki dukan main kaam karta hun, sahib.”
“Kitti deer kaam karna padta hei?
“Baarah se paanch sota hu, baki der kaam karna padta tha. Tabhi to bhaag aayaa - bahut kaam karwtaa tha”
“Koun le gaya tha tumhe padaai chhudwaakar chai ke dukan pe kaam karvaane?”
“Gaon ka hi tha. Bola achhaa kaam hai, bahut paise milenge. bapu bhej diya.
“Kanha tak pade ho?”
“Kuchh din school gayaa tha. Phir wanhein pe kaam karne lagaa. Yahein Silwariya ke paas ghar hai, sahib…”
My interest grew. I was curious to know what sort of life a child labour leads. Besides, I felt a sense of empathy with him. What if my childhood had been similarly robbed off? What if I too was forced to work 18 hours a day to make both ends meet? What if I too had to wear torn clothes and travel ticketless, always fearful of the time when the TT would catch me, humiliate me, abuse my parents and beat me into a pulp? Would I have been able to survive the minimal level of hygiene Ninaan had and the stifling environment he worked in no toilet and bathroom, no surety of soap and oil, no house to sleep in, nowhere to wash clothes, no nail-cutter, no mother to serve proper meals in clean platesonly work, work, work in a dingy shop with a slave-driver of a seth, with sweat, hunger, detestable smells, a sea of demanding, shouting customers and a mountain of dirty glasses?
Tears welled up my eyes. My nose smarted.
My train of thoughts was suddenly interrupted…
Did Ninaan ask my something? No, he hadn?. He was just looking intently at me, perhaps a little expectant of further sharing his story with me.
“Aur kya hota hai wanhaan yaane tumhari chai ki dukan par?I asked.
“Kya bataanu sahib, bahut gali deta tha baat baat pe marta tha… dekhiye mujhe daag diya…Ninaan showed me an ugly mark on his thigh. Then his weepy tone changed and he laughed wryly. “Lekin mere se zyaadaa maar to Arjun khata hai, salaus din behosh ho gaya thabhag gaya… whese TT to abhi tak nahi pakdahei sahib”
“Kaam dham karega nahibhag aayaa,A man nearby objected. “TT se pakarwa denge, jail jayega. Abhi se herogiripaisa phooti kauri nahin…!”
My heart sank. How hurt the little boy would have felt listening to the abusive words! Will he be able to sleep properly that night? Or the next? How will he manage food on time, or food anytime, now that he? stopped working? Didn't he remember his parents? Would his parents accept him back? What would now happen to him? Suddenly the odor in the compartment became nauseating.
I felt like keeping Ninaan with me. He was a most pathetic sight. I wondered how many more kids would be working at present in similar pitiable circumstances. I wanted to change this mean and ruthless system that exploited the poor, sparing neither woman nor child. What gross dehumanization! I felt like robbing all the banks in India and giving the money away to such kids.
Money was not the only thing that the child direly needed. He was equally thirsty for love, and the care and attention this rare commodity would bestow on him. He needed to go to school, learn from teachers and play with his classmates. He needed a bathroom to bathe regularly, nice clothes to wear, a comb to brush his thick hair turning brown due to malnutrition, a toothbrush with a toothpaste tube to brush his yellowing teeth, and milk and wholesome food to build up his thin body. And perhaps, visits to the park on Sunday evenings with his father, and insisting on an ice-cream cone when he finished playing…
The train kept surging ahead, noisily, clattering on the heartless iron tracks, through the hot and dry fields, oblivious of the stench: the electric poles, small stations, people, cows, goats, stray trees, huts and houses all running away, backwards, even faster. Houses running backwards?yes, I wished one of the running houses would ?top and turn a home for Ninaan. A home where he could eat, sleep, rest and play, and live with his parents in happy security. But the houses still kept running away, backwards even faster than the monstrous train, surging ahead…