Ramesh and Bhima were begging outside a South Indian cafe. They are dressed as faux-sadhus, and carry thick ropes around their shoulders, with which they offer to whip themselves for money.
I left my meal half-eaten because I wanted to talk to them and photograph them. Before I could squeeze my way past the narrow tables crowding around each other, the otherwise suave, educated young proprietor had chased the boys away across the street. He looked at me with ill-concealed irritation when I said, “Can they stop here for a minute? I want to talk to them.” He said, “Sure, talk to them, take their photo. Not here, though.” He turned away abruptly into the cafe.
I tailed behind the boys a few meters away. Ramesh was asking Bhima in Kannada to go away. I insisted that Bhima stay. They posed for photographs. They were stern.
I asked, “Will you smile a little?”
Ramesh shook his head and refused. Bhima smiled and said, “OK, we will.”
Ramesh pushed Bhima and said, “Now take a photo of me alone.” Then, Bhima wanted one too.
They live near the pipeline 2 railway stations away.
I asked, “Who do you live with?”
Ramesh said, “Our parents.”
I asked, “And why are you here?”
Bhima said, “To beg.”
I asked, “So you don’t go to school?”
They nodded and said, “We do.”
It was obvious they were lying. After a few more questions, they admitted they barely knew how to write, they had gone to school at one time, back in their village in Karnataka. But they don’t anymore.
I gave them a few coins. They were not enough. They wanted me to buy them a drink.
I went back to the cafeteria and asked the proprietor whether I could buy them something to eat.
He said, “Not here, you can, outside.”
As I finished my dose, Teja said, “They must be quite a nuisance here.”
I nodded. The children watched me from outside.
I paid the bill, bought some snacks from the outside counter, for the children. In the meanwhile, the proprietor went back with a dander and chased the boys further away. I found Ramesh across the road. I handed him the snacks. He put them in his bag, and followed me.
He still wanted a drink, and some more money. I refused. He followed me to the car, and kept begging for more money. I rolled up the windows, we drove away.
Exchanges with street children are often complicated and not always satisfactory.
What exactly can you give them? A meal, a drink, some money? A little chit-chat? And then you are gone.
Police intervention does not work. Sometimes the children are rounded up and sent to remand homes, which don’t fulfill any criteria of safety, hygiene or care for the children. Often the children run away from there. Even charitable homes like the Don Bosco shelter which provide a healthy environment for the children with educational opportunities fail to keep all the children there, as a lot of them are used to the freedom of street life, and find a disciplined routine hard to adjust to.
Castigating the parents, even if they are around, is obviously not an option, as they are preoccupied with survival issues, and look at the children as an additional source of income at worst, or are helplessly indifferent at best. A lot of times even when the children are enrolled into municipal schools, the treatment they receive there, and the level of education leave much to be desired. And once a child drops off school, it gets more and more difficult for him or her to get back again.
What is needed is money of course, but also for us to recognize these children, to see them as we do our own, and to give them time.
I have been fortunate through my documentary work, to meet so many people in Bumm-Bumm-Bhole-Land who work in so many inspiring ways, to help vulnerable children to the extent that they will accept help.
Hamara Footpath for instance is a group of young professionals, who spend their evenings after work, teaching the children on the streets. Their classes are held squatting on the footpaths, under streetlamps. Sometimes, a shopkeeper will agree to keep his streetlights on, for a while, even after the shop is closed.
Doorstep School conducts mobile classrooms in buses. The schools move from area to area, and offer learning opportunities to whoever steps in.
Toy Bank started by one dynamic young lady is now 8 years old.
And then, there are people like Seema Sharma, committed not only to give money, but spread the word in different ways, including walkathons.
She said, “You know, you plant a seed. And you never know, it may fructify after years. So it’s worth it.”
So, here’s to planting more seeds.