‘Sometimes I find a Rupee in the garbage’
“Why do you do this?” I ask Saheb whom I encounter every
morning scrounging for gold in the garbage dumps of my
neighbourhood. Saheb left his home long ago. Set amidst
the green fields of Dhaka, his home is not even a distant
memory. There were many storms that swept away their
fields and homes, his mother tells him. That’s why they
left, looking for gold in the big city where he now lives.
“I have nothing else to do,” he mutters, looking away.
“Go to school,” I say glibly, realising immediately how
hollow the advice must sound.
“There is no school in my neighbourhood. When they
build one, I will go.”
“If I start a school, will you come?” I ask, half-joking.
“Yes,” he says, smiling broadly.
A few days later I see him running up to me. “Is your school ready?”
“It takes longer to build a school,” I say, embarrassed
at having made a promise that was not meant. But promises
like mine abound in every corner of his bleak world.
After months of knowing him, I ask him his name.
“Saheb-e-Alam,” he announces. He does not know what it
means. If he knew its meaning — lord of the universe — he
would have a hard time believing it. Unaware of what his
name represents, he roams the streets with his friends, an
army of barefoot boys who appear like the morning birds
and disappear at noon. Over the months, I have come to
recognise each of them.
“Why aren’t you wearing chappals?” I ask one.
“My mother did not bring them down from the shelf,”
he answers simply.
“Even if she did he will throw them off,” adds another
who is wearing shoes that do not match. When I comment
on it, he shuffles his feet and says nothing. “I want shoes,”
says a third boy who has never owned a pair all his life.
Travelling across the country I have seen children walking
barefoot, in cities, on village roads. It is not lack of money
but a tradition to stay barefoot, is one explanation. I wonder
if this is only an excuse to explain away a perpetual state
I remember a story a man from Udipi once told me. As a
young boy he would go to school past an old temple, where
his father was a priest. He would stop briefly at the temple
and pray for a pair of shoes. Thirty years later I visited his
town and the temple, which was now drowned in an air of
desolation. In the backyard, where lived the new priest, there
were red and white plastic chairs. A young boy dressed in a
grey uniform, wearing socks and shoes, arrived panting and
threw his school bag on a folding bed. Looking at the boy, I
remembered the prayer another boy had made to the goddess
when he had finally got a pair of shoes, “Let me never lose
them.” The goddess had granted his prayer. Young boys like
the son of the priest now wore shoes. But many others like
the ragpickers in my neighbourhood remain shoeless.
My acquaintance with the barefoot ragpickers leads
me to Seemapuri, a place on the periphery of Delhi yet
miles away from it, metaphorically. Those who live here are
squatters who came from Bangladesh back in 1971. Saheb’s
family is among them. Seemapuri was then a wilderness. It
still is, but it is no longer empty. In structures of mud, with
roofs of tin and tarpaulin, devoid of sewage, drainage or
running water, live 10,000 ragpickers. They have lived here
for more than thirty years without an identity, without
permits but with ration cards that get their names on voters’
lists and enable them to buy grain. Food is more important
for survival than an identity. “If at the end of the day we
can feed our families and go to bed without an aching
stomach, we would rather live here than in the fields that
gave us no grain,” say a group of women in tattered saris
when I ask them why they left their beautiful land of green
fields and rivers. Wherever they find food, they pitch their
tents that become transit homes. Children grow up in them,
becoming partners in survival. And survival in Seemapuri
means rag-picking. Through the years, it has acquired the
proportions of a fine art. Garbage to them is gold. It is
their daily bread, a roof over their heads, even if it is a
leaking roof. But for a child it is even more.
“I sometimes find a rupee, even a ten-rupee note,” Saheb says, his
eyes lighting up. When you can find a silver coin in a heap of
garbage, you don’t stop scrounging, for there is hope of
finding more. It seems that for children, garbage has a
meaning different from what it means to
their parents. For the children it is wrapped
in wonder, for the elders it is a means of survival.
One winter morning I see Saheb standing by the fenced gate of the neighbourhood
club, watching two young men dressed in white, playing tennis.
“I like the game,” he hums, content to watch it standing behind
the fence. “I go inside when no one is around,” he admits.
“The gatekeeper lets me use the swing.”
Saheb too is wearing tennis shoes that look strange
over his discoloured shirt and shorts. “Someone gave them
to me,” he says in the manner of an explanation. The fact
that they are discarded shoes of some rich boy, who perhaps
refused to wear them because of a hole in one of them,
does not bother him. For one who has walked barefoot,
even shoes with a hole is a dream come true. But the game
he is watching so intently is out of his reach.
This morning, Saheb is on his way to the milk booth. In
his hand is a steel canister. “I now work in a tea stall down
the road,” he says, pointing in the distance. “I am paid
800 rupees and all my meals.” Does he like the job? I ask.
His face, I see, has lost the carefree look. The steel canister
seems heavier than the plastic bag he would carry so lightly
over his shoulder. The bag was his. The canister belongs to the
man who owns the tea shop. Saheb is no longer his own master!
“I want to drive a car”
Mukesh insists on being his
own master. “I will be a motor
mechanic,” he announces.
What is Saheb looking for in the
garbage dumps? Where is he
and where has he come from?
“Do you know anything about cars?” I ask.
“I will learn to drive a car,” he answers, looking straight
into my eyes. His dream looms like a mirage amidst the
dust of streets that fill his town Firozabad, famous for its
bangles. Every other family in Firozabad is engaged in
making bangles. It is the centre of India’s glass-blowing
industry where families have spent generations working
around furnaces, welding glass, making bangles for all the
women in the land it seems.
Mukesh’s family is among them. None of them know
that it is illegal for children like him to work in the glass
furnaces with high temperatures, in dingy cells without air
and light; that the law, if enforced, could get him and all
those 20,000 children out of the hot furnaces where they
slog their daylight hours, often losing the brightness of their
eyes. Mukesh’s eyes beam as he volunteers to take me
home, which he proudly says is being rebuilt. We walk down
stinking lanes choked with garbage, past homes that remain
hovels with crumbling walls, wobbly doors, no windows,
crowded with families of humans and animals coexisting in
a primeval state. He stops at the door of one such house,
bangs a wobbly iron door with his foot, and pushes it open.
We enter a half-built shack. In one part of it, thatched with
dead grass, is a firewood stove over which sits a large vessel
of sizzling spinach leaves. On the ground, in large aluminium
platters, are more chopped vegetables. A frail young woman
is cooking the evening meal for the whole family. Through
eyes filled with smoke she smiles. She is the wife of
Mukesh’s elder brother. Not much older in years, she has
begun to command respect as the bahu, the daughter-inlaw
of the house, already in charge of three men — her
husband, Mukesh and their father. When the older man
enters, she gently withdraws behind the broken wall and
brings her veil closer to her face. As custom demands,
daughters-in-law must veil their faces before male elders.
In this case the elder is an impoverished bangle maker.
Despite long years of hard labour, first as a tailor, then a
bangle maker, he has failed to renovate a house, send his
two sons to school. All he has managed to do is teach them
what he knows — the art of making bangles.
“It is his karam, his destiny,” says Mukesh’s
grandmother, who has watched her own husband go blind
with the dust from polishing the glass of bangles. “Can a
god-given lineage ever be broken?” she implies. Born in the
caste of bangle makers, they have seen nothing but bangles
— in the house, in the yard, in every other house, every
other yard, every street in Firozabad. Spirals of bangles —
sunny gold, paddy green, royal blue, pink, purple, every
colour born out of the seven colours of the rainbow — lie in
mounds in unkempt yards, are piled on four-wheeled
handcarts, pushed by young men along the narrow lanes
of the shanty town. And in dark hutments, next to lines of
flames of flickering oil lamps, sit boys and girls with their
fathers and mothers, welding pieces of coloured glass into
circles of bangles. Their eyes are more adjusted to the dark
than to the light outside. That is why they often end up
losing their eyesight before they become adults.
Savita, a young girl in a drab pink dress, sits alongside
an elderly woman, soldering pieces of glass. As her hands
move mechanically like the tongs of a machine, I wonder if
she knows the sanctity of the bangles she helps make. It
symbolises an Indian woman’s suhaag, auspiciousness in
marriage. It will dawn on her suddenly one day when her
head is draped with a red veil, her hands dyed red with
henna, and red bangles rolled onto her wrists. She will
then become a bride. Like the old woman beside her who
became one many years ago. She still has bangles on her
wrist, but no light in her eyes. “Ek waqt ser bhar khana bhi
nahin khaya,” she says, in a voice drained of joy. She has
not enjoyed even one full meal in her entire lifetime —
that’s what she has reaped! Her husband, an old man
with a flowing beard, says, “I know nothing except bangles.
All I have done is make a house for the family to live in.”
Hearing him, one wonders if he has achieved what
many have failed in their lifetime. He has a roof over his
The cry of not having money to do anything except
carry on the business of making bangles, not even enough
to eat, rings in every home. The young men echo the lament
of their elders. Little has moved with time, it seems, in
Firozabad. Years of mind-numbing toil have killed all
initiative and the ability to dream.
“Why not organise yourselves into a cooperative?” I
ask a group of young men who have fallen into the vicious
circle of middlemen who trapped their fathers and
forefathers. “Even if we get organised, we are the
ones who will be hauled up by the police,
beaten and dragged to jail for doing something illegal,” they say. There is
no leader among them, no one who could help them see
things differently. Their fathers are as tired as
they are. They talk endlessly in a spiral that moves from
poverty to apathy to greed and to injustice.
Listening to them, I see two distinct worlds — one
of the family, caught in a web of poverty, burdened
by the stigma of caste in which they are born; the other a vicious
circle of the sahukars, the middlemen, the policemen, the
keepers of law, the bureaucrats and the politicians. Together they
have imposed the baggage on the child that he cannot put down.
Before he is aware, he accepts it as naturally as his father. To do
anything else would mean to dare.
And daring is not part of his growing up. When I sense a
flash of it in Mukesh I am cheered. “I want to be a motor
mechanic,’ he repeats. He will go to a garage and learn.
But the garage is a long way from his home. “I will walk,”
he insists. “Do you also dream of flying a plane?” He is
suddenly silent. “No,” he says, staring at the ground. In
his small murmur there is an embarrassment that has
not yet turned into regret. He is content to dream of cars
that he sees hurtling down the streets of his town. Few
airplanes fly over Firozabad.