Lost Spring [With Questions and Answers]
Sometimes I find a Rupee in the garbage.
Saheb is an urchin. Fate has been very cruel to him. He scratches a living by foraging garbage heaps in and around his locality. Saheb hails from Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Like scores of refugees, he too made his way to India, but conditions here has been no better than in Dhaka. He has all but forgotten Dhaka.
His mother tells him that storms and typhoons ravaged their shanty home and fields making them destitute in their own land. They fled for greener pastures in neighboring India, and settled down in the city where he lives now. But, happiness and dignity has eluded him in this teeming city. His poverty bites him relentlessly.
The author speaks to him. She suggests that he go to school, but the idea was so impractical. Saheb is fed up with the drudgery of rag-picking, and says he would love to go to a school if there is one nearby. He said this when she offered to start a school.
Some days later, she runs into Saheb again. He wants to know if she had started the school. Saheb’s question puts her in the defensive. Her offer to start a school was just a flippant suggestion. She feels guilty for having contributed to the litany of broken promises Saheb would have faced stoically. She wriggles out of the embarrassment saying that building a school is time-consuming.
She meets the boy quite often in a group of other boys, all in tattered clothes and sunken eyes. They all scavenge the garbage dumps for anything worthwhile like some recyclable waste, bits of food etc. etc. For them the day starts in the morning and ends by noon when the Sun beats down mercilessly. Poverty had scarred each one’s face deep and hard.
Saheb’s real name is Saheb-e-Alam which translates to the ‘Lord of the Universe’. What an irony! TheLord of the Universe is down on the streets living off what others have left as waste!
On one occasion the author asked Saheb why he didn’t wear any chappals. Saheb replied that his mother had kept them in the shelf. One of his mates wearing an ill-fitting pair of shoes explained that Saheb would throw off his footwear even if his mother gives it to him. Another member of the scavenger gang says he wants shoes as he has never worn one all his life.
In villages and cities, one comes across umpteen number of boys and girls walking barefoot. It is a common sight. Perhaps, they go about barefoot more as a way of life than due to lack of money to buy a pair of shoes. It might be an entrenched practice that lingering poverty has forced upon the poorer sections of society.
The author recalls a story a man from Udipi had once narrated to her long back. He had a father who worked as a priest in the village temple. Each morning, he would lass by the temple on his way to school. During his brief Darshan, the boy would pray to the deity for a pair of shoes.
Thirty years later, the author visited the same village again. The village had changed beyond recognition. She visited the new priest. He had brightly-coloured plastic chairs in the yard. His school-going son wore uniform, shoes and had a smart school bag. Time, it seemed, had changed things for the better. Sadly, for the scavengers’ gang, time had stood still, unmoved and uninterested.
The author builds up a bond with Saheb. She follows him to Seemapuri, a shanty town in the outskirts of Delhi. Paradoxically, the locality, inhabited by Bangladeshi illegal migrants, is a world apart from the opulence of India’s capital city. Seemapuri has become a haven for Bangladeshis who came to India in the aftermath of the 1971 war. Like a swarm of bees, some 10,000 refugees have filled up this place which was once a totally uninhabited place. Ramshackle huts made out of corrugated tins, and tarpaulins dot the area. Living conditions are appalling, with no power, piped water or sewage. It is a hell. Only the hardiest of humans survive the deprivation and disease that plague the place.
In the government records, these displaced persons do not exist. They have no identity papers, no proof of citizenship and, therefore, no access to subsidized food. For three decades, the refugees have weathered the grim life in a slum. Politicians and government officers have looked askance at these people condemned to live as unwanted intruders under subhuman conditions.
For the men and women, staving off hunger is the primary task. So, they have learned to live with the daily grind of life in a city that does not recognize them as fellow human beings.
Picking through the city’s garbage offends none. So, they indulge in it with rare vigour and optimism. The garbage has become their source of sustenance. Over the years, they have learned how best to pick the right kind of waste—the items they can consume themselves or sell to make some little money. When one place ceases to cater to their needs, they move on to settle in some other place where they can scavenge and survive. Garbage is ‘gold’ to these nomads.
[To be continued]