Thursday, August 14, 2008

What Happened to the Child?

Sulochana Bai cannot read or write. Her conversations are peppered with words like 'danger', ' 'emergency', and that favorite word used by so many folks : 'Chapter', to be used this way: 'yeh aadmi ek chapter hai'. Chapter = What a Character.
She was with me, next to me at a hospital in front of the MRI department, and wanted to know what MRI was. Was it X-Ra (that's the way she pronounced it - X-Ra).

As I struggled to come up with an explanation, she came to my rescue herself:
'CT- Can type ka kuch hai kya?'
'Haan na, CT-Scan ke tarah hi kuch hai.'

Bai may be illiterate, but she is the current head - adhyakhsh - of the mahila mandal in her residential area. Time spent with her is always so illuminating. About life in the basti, social tensions, how resolved, how not. And I always wonder why I don't talk more often about these essentials, rather than day to day stuff like 'kapda-dhona, sukhana, bartan saaf karna, kuda-kachra'.

She asked me if I remembered what she had told me a couple of years ago - of the couple that had died by pouring 'rakel' kerosene on themselves, in her neighborhood? Of course I recalled the incident. The man was a perennial drunkard, and the wife struggled to make ends meet, to send her seven year old child - who was slightly handicapped physically - to school.

One day after the usual late night fight over her money, she had - in a fit of pique - poured kerosene on the man, and dared him over god knows what. He was part -drunk, went and picked up a match, lit it. Before she knew what was happening, he went and caught her in a tight bind, saying ' *#@*, come, you die with me'.

The little boy had come running to Bai's house, the neighbors went running back. The man had over 80% burns, she had less - 60%. Was conscious, narrated what had happened. Over the next few days, she succumbed first. He went a day or two later.

Her sister arrived from somewhere in the boondocks of Northern Maharashtra.
When the neighborhood said - and this is always such a heartening aspect of life in a basti - they would pool in and continue to send the boy to school, the aunt said, No need, I'll take him back with me, to myhome. And send him to a good 'English' school there. I owe this to my sister.

Bai became suspicious when she happened to see this woman trying on various saris of the dead sister, when she thought no one was looking, inside the small home.
But the police said they wouldn't stop her from taking the child. After all she was the legitimate relative. The basti women on their own, quietly removed the dead woman's bank book, and kept it in their own safe keeping. With some Rs. 30,000/- in it. That they could not touch, of course, but the idea being that it could go to the child some day.

The dead man, it seems, had just sold the hutment. For some Rs. 25,000/- advance and this issue and the money already in the home was the root cause. Of all that had then taken place. Aunty dearest got this money, sold the TV, almirah and whatever else she could get hold of, and went away.

This was two years ago.

Last week, she arrived, asking for the bank book. Saying how the boy was now in fourth standard doing so well. After all, he had always been a quiet, shy and such a good student at his studies as all the neighbors were aware of. She arrived with this man, who went off to catch a drink. Bai and the other women of the mahila-mandal smelt a rat, and continued drilling her, talking to her, trying to figure out how the boy was doing.

A couple of hours later, the man comes back, completely drunk, and tells them 'Don't you believe a word of all that she is saying. She threw him out two years ago. She just wants the bank money now'.

This 'aunty' later, I am told, escaped.

After a sound thrashing from the basti women. Apparently, in a moment of distraction, while they debated what to do, how to get the police to take some action.... Basti life and the police after all share a strange, uneasy equation - they had wanted to be sure of what to do.

No one has any idea where the little boy is today.
Is he somewhere begging. Did some kind soul take him under his / her wing (our minds would want such an outcome, and these are the 'happy endings' we wish are happening). Is he alive at all. Does he have anyone to call his own.
And what about his state of mind? What happens to a shy, quiet, endearing seven year old? Who was a favorite of the neighborhood. And yet, how could a seven year old ever find his way back to a certain loving basti of this large metropolitan city from some place 250 kilometres away?

And having heard this incident, what can we do? Do I leave it as it is? Another story to be filed away in my mind? And how do believers explain this 'logic' of God?

And how come some 'shy, unassuming' kids become Abhinav Bindra, chased by all the newspapers. Others - I don't even know this child's name - fall between the cracks of our attention?

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