It's four thirty in the morning- I wake early these days and recently the first sounds I hear are the calls and laughter of two little boys who have just been employed by Mr. Bisht who runs the bakery downstairs. It's their duty to start the pump and open the gate and sweep out the kitchen before the early morning baking begins. Mr. Bisht the baker says one is fourteen and the other twelve, but to me they seem more like ten and eight. Why did you leave your villages? Did you run away? No, they said, there wasn't enough money in the village so we came here with our uncle to look for work. And so here they are. Pappu, the younger, has a strangely strident cheerful voice, often raised in noisy laughter or shouts. But this morning something's happened. The harsh voice is sobbing out disconnected words, broken sentences I can't make out. Has he caught his thumb in the gate latch perhaps? But there is more than just physical pain in his voice. Just a fight with Jaggu then? Some injustice or bullying that has filled him with hurt and impotence?
My children are grown up and far away, but listening, I want to go down and gather him up and hush his sobs. But who am I? Only a stranger remembering her own children's long past needs. And so now at four forty-five, before the stars dim or the birds awake, his sobs lessen and stop unlistened to and much later when I go out, the storm has subsided and his world has righted itself. I hear again his cheerful voice and see the grin on his dirty tear-stained face.
So cheerful is he that I'm tempted to lure him away to work for me in my home instead. Actually, Mr. Bisht doesn't really treat them badly. Apart from waking them up a four-thirty and expecting them to wash the dishes at ten or eleven at night, they are all right- not beaten, given old clothes and food, or even I'm sure, an occasional cup cake. But if Pappu worked for me I'd be much kinder. Besides his salary, I'd give him food and clean new clothes and shoes and even perhaps teach him how to read. But of course, he'd have to be absolutely honest- no opening the biscuit tin and pinching cookies because that would lead to bad habits. And he would have to be obedient and do as I say- which means he must remember to give each of us the right cup, to remember that the metal teapot must not be washed with Vim, that the forks must be placed on the left of the plates. He must be careful too, he must not allow the butter-dish to fall from his hands and break. Above all he must be cheerful and a willing worker- not for him the luxury of sulks or a tantrum, or the relief of tears or answering back. And never, in his free time during my afternoon nap, must he run off and play with the other servant boys in the bazaar. That would spoil him completely. If he has nothing to do he should learn to read and write. No, he must always be sensible of how privileged he is- that he eats good rice and meat and vegetables instead of the Madua and greens he'd get in the village, that he's being taught to be clean and that soon he'll save enough to buy some fancy things to take back to the village with which to tempt more of his friends away from their homes.
And so the Pappus and the Jaggus and Prems and Purans pour into the towns and cities in search of their destiny. You see them everywhere- fetching and carrying in houses, rubbing sleep from their eyes at two o'clock in road side dhabas, pulling at your sleeve, begging to be allowed to carry your 40 kg suitcase for R's 20, swearing when they see the doubt in your eyes, that they are as strong as a full grown coolie.
Pitiful, inhumane, we rightly and righteously feel. And yet these children are not bonded labor. They all have come of their own free will, either sent by parents desperate for more money, or having run away from the miserable poverty and hunger and want they face in their villages. They have to work there too, we tell ourselves as we make use of them, and of course in some ways they are 'better off' than in their villages. But whether we, their employers, treat them well or ill, can they ever be really compensated for their lost childhood?
I teach in a school for over-privileged children whose sights are also set on moving on- to scholarships abroad in Harvard or Oxford. It's a good school and much care and concern is expended on their social and psychological and emotional needs- Piaget's stages of child development and the special needs of each stage and how we as parents and teachers need to be aware of them, and deal with them.
And the Pappus and the Jaggus and Prems and Pushkars who have 'moved on', who have left their green fileds, their hunger and flute-playing, their drunken fathers, their village melas and over-worked mothers- their homes. Are clean clothes and enough food and even a full night's sleep and some kindness enough? I don't know- but I'm haunted by the sound at four-thirty in the morning of an eight year old's or ten year old's or even a twelve year old's sobs and that there was no one there to ask him why he was crying.
Dr. Anil Bisht is a reader in English at the Kumaon University. She lives in Nainital. This story was printed in Uttarakhand: Children in the Himalaya, an SBMA publication.