Children In The Indian Slums
Have you ever looked at the face of a child born of poverty…looked right into his eyes, held the gaze and wondered what he was thinking? Or did you flinch, momentarily confused, and walk away relieved to be back within the comfort of your safe world?
If you ever did look, you would find yourself swimming into their depths….the little dark pools of eternal want - the one that comes with perpetual longing. Yet, there is a certain fearlessness too that stares right back at you. The reckless defiance that comes when there is nothing in life you can call your own. For with earth below their barefoot feet, and the open sky above, these children have no place to rest except the open arms of life itself. In that vast space, even fear dare not tread.
There’s an uncomplicated pattern to Lakshami’s days. She was named after the goddess of wealth and prosperity, though she’s never even seen the back of a rupee note, let alone what it can buy! At the crack of dawn, she’s up with other slum children, not to go to school, but to head towards the slum public toilets next to the railway lines. Here in the open ground, standing with hundreds of other exposed bodies, she breathes human excrement, germs and flies, while starving dogs look on. Trains amble past, carrying faceless passengers to their busy lives, as they cringe their noses at the stench. Lakshami is mildly amused; to her the smell symbolizes only one thing: home
She spends the day with her mother, combing through rubbish piles looking for materials they can sell for recycling. This means, working at least 12 hours a day and earning less than a dollar for it. Lakshami’s belly has the distended look that comes with slow starvation: breakfast on good days is a mixture of sugar and water; dinner a dry piece of chapatti. The rest is what her grubby fingers can find rummaging through trash ditched regularly by trucks near the slums.
Even garbage comes in different qualities, you discover after years of working through it for a living. The one collected from the big towns smells and tastes better, compared to the one from smaller districts. Yesterday, she even found a mango, half eaten on one side, and despite the rotting pulp, it tasted far better than anything she’d had in days.
Sanjay is, of course less lucky. He was sold to the slum’s beggar Master because his parents drowned in the monsoon rains that yearly flood Indian villages. He himself barely survived dysentery, and his malnourished frame can only just support him.That was a rare stroke of luck in itself, as most of the slum children die anyway of malaria, since the medical care even if available, is beyond their paltry means. Along, with other children, he’s now dropped off every morning at the town bazaars to beg for money, all of which he owes to the master naturally.
Ali, his begging partner has a different story altogether: he drags himself on crutches because the master amputated his legs when he was only a year old. You see, Ali is low-caste…and everyone knows that is worse than the life of a slum dog itself, though the money he earns exceeds their whole team put together. The master calls him his ‘prize’ beggar, and all the children secretly envy him.
Yes, it’s a morbid existence...but it leaves one wondering at the resilience of human nature to survive and prevail under the harshest of conditions. And so when the evening falls, and the slum children return to their little shacks, they find reasons to laugh…and the energy to chase each other with broken sticks and rags along those rat infested alleys. One sees them playing games like any other children, swaying to tunes of their own making.... even in that blighted corner of their little world!
And at night, no one comes to read or sing to them, or tuck them to bed, as there is no blanket to tuck, and only the hard ground to lay on. Yet, not a word of complaint escapes those dry lips….or ruffle those sunburnt brows... nor does it occur to them to question the bleak reality of their lives. They have learnt even at that age, not to ask, question....or even hope for answers. So they quietly close their eyes to a dreamless sleep… and despite the clouds that hang low on their days, the shadows all fade away….and for a moment they are neither poor nor rich, but just little children again.
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