He was sleeping with an easy innocence of a boy child. And boy child he was. There was a delicious sense of repose on his face that spoke of felicity, of calmness.
It was five o’clock in the morning when his mother came to wake him up. He wiggled along the torn mat as he smiled, probably the result of a dream. It was a beautiful sight for the mother to see her seven year old’s delightful face in the morning. She wished for a second she could just leave him alone, to enjoy his sleep like most kids of his age do. A wish: that was the only luxury she could afford. But soon reality shook her. She knelt down, ruffled his hair as she kissed him on the forehead.
The boy slowly opened his eyes. Except for his mother’s silhouette, he could not see anything in the small room, as there was no electricity. His mornings were dark, and he was acclimatized to that. He rubbed his eyes and begged his mother, like he did everyday, “Another five minutes, ma. Please.”
She was used to this. She simply smiled and said, “No, my dear. It’s already late. Get up now, and get ready.”
After planting another motherly kiss on his forehead, she went outside.
The darkness was soon confiscated by the dawn, and by the time the first rays of the sun seeped through the broken windows of the house, he was ready. His baby sister, aged two, was sleeping soundly. He kissed her mildly on the cheek so as not to wake her up.
“Krishna,” his mother called.
“Yes,” said he, upon reaching her in the adjacent room.
“I forgot. Here, I’ve brought a new pair of pants for you. See if it fits you.”
Krishna very well knew that it was given by one of the women at whose house his mother worked as a maid. His mother too knew that he knew about it. It was too obvious for both of them.
He removed his shorts and tried the new pants. They fit him perfectly.
“Excellent. You look like a man now,” she said and patted his back.
Krishna grinned from ear to ear.
“All right, drink your milk and get going. And remember. You –,” she was cut off.
“I know, I know. I’m the elder one, and I have to take care of Kavya.”
He drank his milk from a small cup, and ate a small piece of bread.
Krishna’s mother readied him like most mothers do, but only, like most children of his age, he wasn’t going to school.
He wore his slippers and stepped out of the house. Another day had begun.
The chilly October wind was trying its best to smother him, or perhaps his spirit, but it didn’t matter to him, as he had found a way to snub it. He jogged. Along the way he saw people, both young and old, whose faces were familiar to him; and his to them. He smiled at them, and they smiled back. He continued to jog. More than jogging, it was frolicking, which, for many old people, was easy on the eyes. Almost everyone who saw him regularly took pleasure in seeing the little boy’s carefree nature, but none knew where he was headed to at such an hour in the morning.
Davanagere, a district headquarters in Karnataka, is quite famous for its many educational institutions. With many schools and colleges, the student population is high. Just like every city in India, some schools in Davanagere are devoid of some bright minds. And one of those bright minds was forced, not by people but by circumstances, to work in Sri Kottureshwara Benne Dosey (Butter Dosa) Restaurant, which is situated right in front of Bapuji Dental College.
It was almost six in the morning when Krishna reached his work place. Having traveled around three kilometers from his home in Nittuvalli, a below-modest area, he was panting, but not without a smile.
Nagraj, the manager of the famous eatery, smiled at the little boy, and got back one for himself from the boy.
“Very good, Krishna. You are on time as usual. I shall give you an extra five rupee in the evening, all right. Just make sure you don’t break this habit of coming on time,” said the manager.
“I shall never come late, sir,” promised Krishna with utmost enthusiasm.
Krishna soon got to work. He started arranging the chairs and tables. When he was done with it, he cleaned the tables and kept a jar of water on each table.
It would be a cliché if somebody told you that people of Davanagere were proud of their specialty dish. And also you would be subjected to crude joke if you went to Davanagere and didn’t taste it.
As Krishna continued to work, the chief cook greased the big, flat oven with oil. A minute later he poured the dosa batter from a small cup and spread it evenly on the oven. And when he added a copious amount of butter, it was evident from Krishna’s expression that it smelt deliciously. The manager noticed it and smiled. The cook took the dosa off the oven when it turned to golden brown in colour.
“Krishna, come and have your breakfast. And finish it quickly, OK? Customers will start pouring in anytime soon,” said the cook.
The boy quickly washed his hands and took his plate. He was finished in two minutes. It was six-thirty when the first customer walked in.
Two hours later the little restaurant was brimming with life, with all types of people, especially school children, college students, and people that were headed for work. One of them was Vishwanath, a bank manager.
Like countless people across the city, he too was one of the regular customers. But it had been four months since he last came to eat here. The manager’s surprise was conspicuous.
“Hello, Sir. Long time. Have you lost taste for our dosas?” He asked, smiling.
“Oh, no, not at all. It’s just that I couldn’t come. No specific reason,” Vishwanath said.
“OK. I’m glad you could come by. So tell me what I can get you.”
“Of course,” said the manager and bustled off toward the cook.
Several minutes later when Krishna came to the table to serve the order, Vishwanath was more than astonished.
“Who are you?” he enquired.
But before Krishna could answer, the manager, who was standing near the adjacent table, said, “He’s Krishna. He’s working here for the past three months. A very nice kid indeed.”
Krishna grinned and wended his way toward the oven to get the next order to serve.
“How old is he?” asked Vishwanath.
“Not more than eight,” admitted the manager.
“What are you saying? You are keeping an eight year old boy for work?” It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t accusation, but it was just plain concern for the kid.
“Oh, come on, sir. I’m not the only one. Look around the city. You’ll –,”
“I know that. But you, Mr. Nagraj? I’m surprised. You shouldn’t be doing this.”
“It wasn’t I. It was his mother. She wanted him to work. Besides, I didn’t encourage it. I too have concern for the boy, but just like everybody else, I’m helpless. And nobody is ill-treating the boy. He’s been looked after well. He’s getting paid two hundred rupees per month, given food thrice a day, and also I give him five rupees every time he comes to work on time. That’s just a simple enough reason to keep his spirit high. And he also takes food back home every evening,” the manager explained.
“That’s not the point,” Vishwanath was mildly irritated. “I know you are a good man. I’m not accusing you of anything. But don’t you think the boy should be in school, studying. You needn’t even pay. You know the government is taking care of such kids, don’t you? Education for such children is free.” A moment later he added, “And also compulsory.”
“Do you really think the government is taking care of them, sir?” It was more of a rhetorical question. He continued, “His father used to work at a construction site. He died there last year in an accident, while working.” He was careful enough to stress the last two words. “Ironically, it was a government building. Till now no compensation has been given to the family. His mother works at four houses as a maid. He also has a younger sister, aged two. Do you really think his mother agrees to this? About putting him in school? I think not. If I hadn’t kept him here, he’d have been working in some beedi or carpet factory now. You know how those people treat these kids, don’t you? At least it’s better here for him.”
Vishwanath was quiet. Though the restaurant was clamorous to the core, the silence between the two men was noticeable. It wasn’t a silence of discomfort, but of helplessness.
“Well,” Vishwanath began after mustering up some energy. “But something must be done, Mr. Nagraj. The statistics say there are sixteen million children in India that are subjected to child labour. We can’t take care of them all, but we can certainly do something about Krishna, can’t we?”
The manager threw up his hands in the air. “Trust me when I say this. I tried. I could never convince his mother.”
“Well, let me talk to his mother again. Where do they live?” asked Vishwanath.
A yellow butterfly outside the window took all of Krishna’s attention. It was a luxury he couldn’t afford to miss. Though he was sitting next to the window, he didn’t try to catch it. He was just more than happy to simply watch it. A moment later it flew away, leaving a pleasant smile on Krishna’s face.
He turned his face toward the board again, but only there was nobody near it. The classroom was bustling with noise with children. He wasn’t the type of boy who liked to stay still, but now he was forced to. It had been a week since Krishna joined school, and he didn’t like it one bit, not because he didn’t like to study, but because there wasn’t anything much to do with teachers being absent most of the time. At least I was doing something in the restaurant, he thought.
It had taken all his might for Vishwanath to convince Krishna’s mother to send him to school. The concerned man and the helpless mother had argued a lot.
“Along with education he will also be getting meals and Rs. 100/- per month,” Vishwanath had said.
“What good is it, sir, when he’s already getting Rs. 200/- per month here. The man he is working for is a very good person. Unlike most ruthless men out there, he treats my boy well. And also he is fed properly,” Krishna’s mother had argued.
“You are not getting my point. It’s not about money. It’s about getting education. You do realize how important it is, don’t you?”
“Right now, it is about money…”
The argument had continued. But in the end Vishwanath had been successful in convincing her to send the boy to school. Two days later Krishna was admitted to a school which was run by the government, specifically for children like him.
Now, sitting in the classroom along with the rest of the children, Krishna was lost in his thoughts.
Vishwanath had checked in on Krishna at school during the first few days. Then he had to go to Bangalore on an important Bank assignment. Soon after he returned, the first thing he did was to go to school. He was surprised when he didn’t find the boy there.
Now, sitting in the restaurant, he looked calm, but under the surface he was seething. Whatever had happened was totally unacceptable.
“What the hell happened, Mr. Nagraj?” He asked the manager when he approached the table. “I was gone for just one week, and the first thing I notice after returning is him cleaning tables and serving orders. Back to square one? Just like that?” He looked in the direction where Krishna was working, and his disappointment was blatant.
“I told you it wouldn’t work. He –,” the manager was cut off by a customer who had just walked in.
“Hello, Mr. Vishwanath. How are you?”
“Oh, hello Inspector. I’m fine. Thank you. How are you?” He stood up to shake hands.
“I’m good too. I should thank you, in a way,” said the inspector, taking his hand.
“Thank me?” asked Vishwanath, arching his brows.
“For sanctioning that housing loan,” said the Inspector.
“Oh, just doing my job.” He paused for a moment, and then continued, “No offense, but are you doing your job?”
“Sorry?” the inspector was puzzled, and so was the manager.
In the next five minutes Vishwanath narrated the events that had happened in the past two weeks. The manager had remained a mute spectator.
“Why don’t you all do something?” demanded Vishwanath.
Before the inspector could reply, a customer who was seated nearby said to the manager, “One plate Benne Khaali.”
“Yes, sure,” he said to the customer, and then turned to the two men, “You both keep talking. I shall come back in a while.” And he was gone.
Once they took their seats, the inspector said, “You mean why the police aren’t doing anything?”
“Yes,” said Vishwanath firmly.
“Come on. You are being naïve. You know how the system works, don’t you?”
Vishwanath kept mum.
The inspector continued, “The Indian Government has certainly tried to alleviate the problem of child labour by invoking a law that makes the employment of children below 14 years illegal. Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986 itself. However it’s not easy to solve it. Poverty is the main reason for this. Poor families are forced to push their children into this. Take Krishna for instance. His mother is a widow who’s still fighting for the compensation from the government over her husband’s death, a two year old girl to look after; how can you expect her to send her son to school?”
“As I told you earlier,” Vishwanath spoke, “I’d somehow convinced her to send him to school, and I had personally taken care of it. I admitted him to Akshaya School that is run for children like him. It is run by the government, isn’t it? Everyone is careless and lazy there. The teachers never showed up regularly. And he was forced to quit. What do you have to say to this?”
“I agree. I know about that school. That’s very unfortunate. And it is the case with quite a few schools like that across the country. But still you can’t blame the entire system, can you? There are many schools run by NGOs that are doing an excellent job.”
Vishwanath was lost in thought for a minute, and then he spoke again, “18 million children! Isn’t there a panacea?”
“18 million is just an official figure, Mr. Vishwanath,” said the Inspector. “The reality is something more than that. It’s approximately 60 million. As for the remedy, it’s like Migraine. It cannot be treated completely, but the frequency can be lessened. That’s all we can try to do. By doing what you did, by raiding the factories that employ and ill-treat children. As far as Krishna is concerned, like the manager told you, we should be happy that he hasn’t ended up in some cigarette factory.”
Though he had an idea about all these things, it was still difficult for Vishwanath to digest the facts. Both men sat silently for several minutes, floating around in their own thoughts. It was only when Krishna approached their table that their streams of thoughts were broken.
“Hey, how are you, my boy?” asked Vishwanath.
“I’m fine, sir,” said Krishna, grinning with all his innocence.
Helplessness had shaken Vishwanath completely. He didn’t know what to say next. Hence “umm…” became the birth of his vocabulary.
“Ummm…well, what do you want to be when you grow up, Krishna?” He managed.
The boy was quick to answer. “I shall open a Benne Dosey restaurant of my own. The extra five rupees I get everyday for showing up early in the morning is being saved by my mother so that when I grow up I’ll be having lots of money.” He smiled as his eyes twinkled.
Vishwanath was astounded by this. A seven year old boy who doesn’t go to school dreaming of starting his own business someday!
He looked at the inspector who was equally surprised. Then they just smiled at the boy.
“So can I get you anything, sir?” asked Krishna, oblivious to his customers’ thoughts.
“Sure. Two cups of tea, please,” ordered Vishwanath.
The boy smiled once again and wended his way toward the cook. Vishwanath didn’t take his eyes off the boy for some time. And then he silently prayed: May your spirit be indestructible!
Copyright © Karthik 2010