“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 of poverty.
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.