The nicest thing about being a kid is the fascination and innocence with which it observes the world. I am one of those who miss it. Some people relish the feeling of growing up and being on their own, snapping off the clutches of dependency. That could be just a manifestation of the fundamental craving for freedom, inherent in any being. As far as I have discerned, freedom is something of an instinctual right. Kind of a primal innate craving beginning right from the birth. The baby starts walking in an attempt to free itself from the limitations of crawling. Learns language in the attempt to free itself from the limitations of communication. Once an individual, it attempts to liberate itself from the dependency it is surrounded with, by trying to earn its living. This yearning for liberty reflects in its conduct, attitude and actions throughout its life.
Coming to kids, sometimes, I experience a curious sort of envy when I watch them. Maybe all this could be attributed to the fact that my life as a kid was comfortable. In a conversation pretty long back with someone, I was yapping on the beauty of a heavy downpour, the dark clouds in the horizon and occasional thunder and lightning. Interestingly, he couldn’t appreciate one bit of it however hard he tried. Had I the power to gaze into his past, it could all have been easily figured out. He had spent his early years in a battered structure with a leaking roof above. Rains could be never romantic for him.
It’s quite astounding how much the early years shape a person’s attitude, conduct and belief. Even fills one with the worst irrationality, despite being perfectly aware how much of nonsense it is. I’ve heard the expression “Can’t help it” often and tracing it to some childhood incident or circumstance. I don’t say that it could be a valid justification for anything, but sometimes that’s the way things are.
Thinking about it at times, infuses a strange desperation in me. One is left without options than to submit himself to the consequences of all that which shapes him.
There used to be these kids in Delhi, who survived on the beer bottles that they collected in exchange for opening them with an opener that they carried. All this happened around the liquor shops in the INA Market. Maybe, every liquor shop had a similar world surrounding it. I am pretty familiar with this one as we used to drop in occasionally for a beer. Many preferred finishing the drinks in the premises itself. Maybe they lacked refrigeration facilities in their places or were scared of their parents or spouses or were plainly eager to get the stuff inside. We were of the first kind.
It was on these people that the kids relied for their living. The ones who drank in the premises. The kids opened our bottles for us, hung around till we finished them off and collected the bottles. It was an unwritten law amongst them that the one who opened the bottle was entitled to have it in the end. A bottle could get them about 2 to 3 Rupees. The kids were all of the age group 6-15, with the eldest ones collecting most of the bottles and the younger ones assisting them. There were marked territories and they broke into fights occasionally over it.
We happened to witness one such fight. It was fierce. They were just kids and the rawness reflected in their combat. They hit each other with clenched fists repeatedly on eyes, face and rolled around. Unable to bear the sight and the shrill screams, we intervened to separate them. It was not an easy task as we had assumed. They clung on to each other like apes. In between, another amongst the ones watching came forward with a beer bottle taking a swing. Had he not been stopped by my friend, the bottle would have hit one of them with a force enough to crack his skull. Somehow, the two were separated, one limping away with a sore eye. Shaken by the whole experience, we took our fury on the remaining ones lecturing. The one who came forward to take a swing said with a genuine innocence “he was my friend”.
That was a world of cut throat competition. One either preserves his dominance or gets ejected from this space. It was just like that.
I’d had enough. I included this one too, to hundreds of things in the list to ignore. Took a woe to develop immunity to these kinds of stuff. That’s how I survive. By developing immunity to the things that disturb me. Just turn off receptivity to it forever and let it go at that.
Next day we took a different corner in the place hoping that it would shelter us from being exposed to the misery and competition among these kids. To an extent, the spot was ideal. There weren’t many kids and the only one which collected bottles was a senior, probably fifteen or sixteen, with enough meanness and toughness to keep our sympathies away. We settled in the spot. While sipping the brew, I saw a well dressed kid of around six or seven with a guy who stood by a scooter drinking alone, probably his dad. I felt Kinda odd. The kid was watching people and things around with a kind of wide eyes and a tired expression. The warning siren was in full blast inside me and I tried hard to ignore the kid and concentrate on the chill of the liquor.
And then the guy went away, leaving the kid on the same spot. Same gaze around, same vacant tired expression. Pretty confident of my intuition, I warned my friend, who was gradually noticing the kid, not to meddle. Somehow or the other, he ignored me and started talking to the kid. I had to join and the kid, in a strange unintelligible and hesitant tone, told us that his mother had left him there promising to return. Now, that cheered us up a little. You know, a simple issue of being lost. We could solve it. It was a crowded market. Kids could get lost. Get his address, take him there or report to the police and with the dutiful cops returning him to his anxious family, a happy reunion.
With a renewed enthusiasm, we started questioning the kid for more details as to his whereabouts, though we were unsure of how much knowledge a kid of that age could possess, sufficient to aid in his return. From what we could pick from his muddled rattle, we found ourselves in a not so bright situation. His mom had not left him there that day, but a day back. We looked at each other desperately. Seeing our helpless expression and the kid one of the shopkeepers came down and started questioning him a bit harshly. And down came the answers… His dad was a driver and their home was in some place called Khaadar, which the shopkeeper told us was a slum. His mom had left him around two days back. The whole affair was gloomier than what we’d thought. His mother had left him to learn bottle picking. His hunger taught him that bottles could fetch money and money could fetch food. So he had started collecting bottles, against the stiff resistance from the other kids who were doing the same. They didn’t physically ward him off due to the relatively fresh and decent dress that he was wearing. The shopkeeper told us that this was a pretty usual thing. Kids being dumped there and gradually growing up, acquiring the skills of bottle picking. But this was an innocent kid and too young for this, revolted our minds. Answer was simple. They all were at one point in time. Ever heard of a mean, brute infant?
We weren’t ready to take it. Something still revolted inside us against that idea. Maybe some reluctance to accept that it was so and move on with our lives. So, we decided to call the cops. I couldn’t get them on the phone, so we went out searching. There was a usual police vehicle parked outside. I approached them narrating the story. They nodded. They nodded in a saintly manner. Maybe the fact that my credentials carried the name of one of the judicial offices in Delhi prevented them from laughing out loud. That was all. We watched them moving to the next location.
Disturbed of being dragged out of our peace into this mess which had no easy solutions, we left for our rooms. Our slumber in a cosy world of happiness and problems with solutions was suddenly over. We just tried hard to forget.
I saw the kid again after a couple of days. Same dress, but it getting shabby.
Delhi offers such spectacles in plenty. One day it could be kids fighting for beer bottles, another day it could be the soiled body of a construction worker presumed dead from a fall suddenly showing signs of life. It goes on.