Our little man went back to school on Monday.
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We watched him put on his new t-shirt, wear his new pair of shoes.
We watched him walking with his new school bag, new lunch bag, new water bottle, new name tags
And he looked so handsome and smart, and happy, that my heart swelled with pride, with love.
I watched him walk beside his father and prayed he would be safe and secure in the world out there.
As I went back inside our flat, I happened to look out the window of our living room.
A small figure was standing on the open first floor of the under-construction building next door. Dressed in clothes that had been washed many times, this little boy certainly wasn’t going to any school. There would be no new academic year for him. Just life on a series of construction sites.
The boy is just one of the many children running around wild near our building. Their parents are migrant labourers from North Karnataka who have camped here to work on the under-development plots just beside our building. I know they are from North Karnataka because their Kannada has that lilting accent and the dialect they speak is very different from the local version. The group has a couple of women, and many men.The men work on the site all day and don’t do much else. The women do much, much more–their day begins at dawn, when they wash everyone’s clothes. On some days, the women bathe too first thing, or give their children baths. I know this because all the activity happens right outside our window.
These people have no privacy. The construction site is open to all–there are no windows, just sheets strung outside and because the building is so close to our own, I can literally hear everything that happens in their lives. Not a happy situation, but this is ground reality. Literally.
There is a lot of similar construction happening all around the Cooke Town-Davis Road area. Because land prices are astronomical here. Most of the workers are Hindi-speaking single men. But there are families too.
When families come to our city in search of work, obviously, it means their children tag along. According to an NGO called Sampark, there are some 300,000 children of construction workers in our city (I don’t know how they have arrived at this number, though). When children accompany their parents, it basically means they don’t go to school. And in many cases, putting them in nearby government schools (private schools won’t touch these children), does not make sense–for the adults move from site to site. Wherever there is work.
That is why the children who live outside my window, do nothing other than play by the roadside every day. Whenever I step out, I see these little boys and girls (the oldest cannot be much more than 10) running perilously close to the kerb, narrowly missing being run over by the motorists whizzing by. Their parents have no time to mind them. So the children do their own thing. And yes, they are at risk of every kind of danger, possible.
I feel guilty every time I see them. After all, my own child goes to a good school, enjoys all the comfort we can provide him. And in my naivete, I have clumsily tried to help. To “make a difference”, which is a much-used phrase these days,
A few days ago, I gave one of the migrant women a bag filled with childrens’ clothes, adults’ clothes and a few toys. Filled with idealistic zeal, I hoped that the children (and the women) would benefit. That the former would at least have something to play with–other than sand, cement and wheelbarrows. It’s been quite a few days now and I am yet to see the children play with any of the toys I “donated”. And slowly, it has dawned on me that the woman (who took the bag) probably sold the contents for money.
Toys really don’t mean much to people who live by the roadside. In fact, the migrant children too, have learnt to hone their survival skills. They have now realised that I am a “soft touch”, in a matter of speaking.
Initially, when they saw me, they would smile and wave at me, call me “Aunty”. I would smile back, feeling torn up inside, guilty and sad, all at once. Nowadays though, when I go out, the children come running up to me, and the smallest is dispatched, hand outstretched. “Hathu rupa kodu, aunty”, he beseeches, every time.
And I look away. Every time.