“We won’t stop clapping until the gates close”, I said to Deepika.
We were on a two day trip to Amritsar from Chandigarh in December 2019 in a group of five; Deepika, Priya, Divya, Aditya, and Me. We had reached the ‘Wagah Border’ at around 4 PM to watch the beating retreat ceremony. Wagah is a land border crossing between India and Pakistan in Punjab, India. For some time, the gates between the two countries are opened during the beating retreat ceremony and one can see the straight no-barrier road between the two countries giving a rousing feeling of borderless nations. Unlike others at the ceremony, Deepika and I continued clapping for the whole time the gates were open. (I will tell you about the Wagah visit in detail in another story, soon.)
The ceremony finished close to 5:30 PM and we left back for Amritsar. Once in Amritsar, we decided to have some street food at ‘Chowpatti’, a street food corner at Crystal Chowk. Ever since that afternoon, Divya had been craving for Panipuri (fried spiced-flavoured water balls). While we were walking down the lane at Chowpatti, we finally found a Panipuri vendor by the roadside. This vendor was selling luscious panipuri in seven different flavours.
“How many balls?” the vendor asked.
“Uncle you just start serving, we will eat to our content”, replied Divya.
We were gobbling the piquant balls voraciously when a young boy, no older than twelve years, in shabby clothes carrying a jute bag on his shoulder approached us.
Now, we were educated entitled people who refuse to see beyond the fuzzy concept of beggars as depicted in the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
“These small boys who beg are only a part of a syndicate that puts children to begging. If we give them any money, we are only promoting the syndicate”, I said.
“Go! We don’t have any money for you”, we tried to ignore him.
“You have come back again? Should I call the police?” The vendor intervened.
“Let him be uncle, don’t scold him”, Priya said.
“Ma’am, these beggars dissuade my customers. What can I do?”
The boy continued pleading, to each one of us, one by one.
“Paise nahi chahiye, bas mujhe chappal dila do, thand lagti hai.”
(I don’t need money; just get me slippers, it’s cold.)
This is when we noticed that he was wearing half-torn slippers, that too only on one foot. Reality dawned upon us. A small boy requesting not money, not food, just a bare minimum to wear in the freezing cold of December.
“Can we please get him shoes?” Divya said.
We had failed to notice him in our dainty appetite for Panipuri. The least we could do was get him slippers or shoes to wear.
It was around 8 PM and shops had started closing. We paid the due amount to the vendor and asked the boy if he knew some shoe shops nearby. We could see his expectant eyes, for he might be getting something proper to wear. But that flicker of happiness that we usually have when we are about to get something new was missing; severe poverty, the everlasting pain, the emotional and social abuse, had taken away his innocence. Even happiness seems to be an elite thing nowadays. The poor starve for even the basic necessities.
The boy led us to a shop at about two hundred metres from the Panipuri vendor. The shopkeeper was preparing to close. We asked the owner to show some shoes for the boy’s size. Looking at the boy, the shopkeeper guided us to a bench outside the shop which had some old shoes with minor defects like threads coming out, fading colours, etc. The boy tried some shoes, while Adi helped him. He had difficulty in even trying the shoes due to the injury marks that he had contracted due to barefoot walking. Finally, a shoe fit him well and he was content. But Deepika noticed that the shoe had a rock-hard sole.
“If we have to get him shoes, let’s get some sober ones at least”, she said.
I asked the owner to show us better quality shoes from inside the shop. The shopkeeper seemed reluctant to allow him to enter the shop, but he knew he couldn’t resist five persons. So Adi, Priya, and Divya went inside the shop with the boy while Deepika and I stayed outside.
Deepika and I started to discuss the plight of the poor, those who struggle even to get the bare minimum necessities. Just then, a man in his fifties, who was standing across the street, came over to us.
“This boy is an addict, sir”, he said. “If you search inside his jute bag you will find a thick adhesive like solution and a piece of cloth on which he inhales the solution.”
We were taken aback by what the man was saying. I immediately opened up the boy’s bag that he had left outside the shop and searched it. There it was, the adhesive and the cloth. I tried to smell the adhesive.
“Stop! Don’t sme………”
I immediately understood why the man tried to stop me from smelling it. It had a very strong smell and gave me an instant feeling of dizziness and headache. Fortunately, I wasn’t high as yet.
“Sir, this boy lives close to the railway crossing. He and many others like him pick up rags, earn some money, and spend it on the solution to get high. Then they beg for food at Chowpatti.” The man informed us.
“That’s why we didn’t give him money, we are only getting him shoes”, I replied.
“Sir these boys won’t even wear these shoes. They will take them to another shop tomorrow and sell it at a flat rate. Then they will use that money to buy the solution again. Come again tomorrow, you will find him somewhere around, without shoes.”
This idea is widely prevalent in our society, just focusing on the results rather than on the root of the problem. This man seemed quite informed of the situation prevalent in that area. But why wasn’t anyone doing something about it? Because we just choose to go with the flow.
The man then left as the boy started coming out of the shop. We decided to verify the story that the man had just told us. When the boy came out of the shop, he picked up his bag and prepared to leave. I asked him to come and sit with me on the stairs of the shop. He agreed.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Do you like the shoes?”
“Have you had food?”
“No! But I have some in my bag. Somebody gave it to me.”
“Okay! Lallan, tell me this. Does this belong to you?” I asked showing him the bottle of solution.
He was shocked to see the bottle and immediately picked up his bag to search for the bottle. When he didn’t find it, he said.
“Please give it back to me. I need it.”
“Why do you need it, Lallan? Are you addicted to it?”
On being asked questions, he started taking off the shoes that we had just got him.
“I don’t need your shoes; please just give me my bottle back.”
He was furious but knew he was weak to be able to fight against us. I stopped him from taking off the shoes and tightly caught hold of his arms. He tried to break free and started crying and striking his feet on the ground, frantically. People started gathering around us on hearing the commotion.
“I will die, please give it to me and let me go. I won’t disturb you again.” Lallan continued wailing.
Meanwhile, Deepika had told the story to others and Adi was calling the government child helpline to get some help for the boy. When Lallan saw Adi on the phone, he started begging us not to call anyone.
“Please don’t call those people. They are very harsh on us. They will beat me and will take me to a centre in Hoshiarpur where electric currents will be given to me. Please, I beg you, don’t call them.”
“Okay! We will not call anyone, Lallan. You stop crying. We are here to help you.” I waved Adi to disconnect the call.
When he saw Adi disconnect the call, he was relieved a little and said that he wanted to eat his food. I loosened up my hold on him and he picked up his bag.
“Somebody handed out these noodles in the afternoon, I saved it for dinner.”
“How much do you earn from rag-picking?” Priya asked.
“Twenty, sometimes thirty rupees a day.”
“Do you spend all that money on buying this solution? Don’t you think this is wastage of your hard-earned money?” Divya prodded.
His reply gave us chills.
“What do I do? Who do I live for? I’m an orphan. My dad used to pull a rickshaw in Ludhiana. He was hit by a truck and died. My mother developed a lung disease and died because we couldn’t afford treatment. I have an elder brother, he is handicapped, doesn’t have a leg. He begs and spends all his money on alcohol. He was taken to that centre in Hoshiarpur once. I used to work at a restaurant, washing utensils. But one day, the police came and beat me up, for I was underage. Now I just pick rags. We don’t even have a place to stay. We live at the railway crossing, under the bridge. It’s not a home, just a roof over my head. This solution helps me get over the precarious life that I am living. At least I get good sleep after taking this.” He said with tears rolling down his cheeks and a running nose.
He belongs to that section of people, who are not even sure if they would get two meals a day. With no parents to care for him, misery was taking its toll and his life was becoming what he was picking; rags. We spent over an hour talking to him about his life. Each one of us was trying to motivate him with stories of people like Dhirubhai Ambani, and also explaining to him the side-effects of drug abuse. I don’t know if any that was making sense to him, or if he even bothered getting out of addiction. We had to try nonetheless. We were highly optimistic that we might be able to incite the slightest force of thinking, to give up on drugs. Changes don’t happen in a single day though.
After he had had the noodles, he asked to leave as it was getting dark and his brother would be waiting for him.
“Can I get my bottle back now?” Lallan asked.
“I’m sorry, son! You can’t. But we can get you good clothes to wear tomorrow if you promise to meet us at 11 AM”, Divya said.
“Okay, I will come.”
“Meet us at this same place. And don’t forget to wear those shoes.” Adi chuckled.
Then Lallan walked away and we started to walk towards our hotel. I threw away the solution bottle into a dustbin after emptying it into a drain. We kept talking about him all along our way to the hotel, wondering if he would really show up or not.
“You know when you asked me to disconnect with the child helpline, I was already done talking to them”, said Adi.
“Really? What did they say?” Deepika asked.
“I was very disappointed. The man on the call said that he is the only one in the office today and that he cannot leave the office to come to pick up the boy.”
Unsure of how to react to that, we kept walking. After reaching our hotel, I dropped a tweet with the Women and Child Development Minister in the Government of India, requesting her to intervene. But it went unnoticed. Hundreds of people, including children, die of drug addiction every day, but it’s the least of the government’s concern.
That day was a painful eye-opener for all of us. Maybe we face this reality often, but don’t bother to pay heed to it. We were all exhausted and wanted to have dinner, so we ordered some. We gathered in one room and turned on the TV. I kept on surfing the channels till I reached a music channel where Sunny Deol was dancing in the song “Yaara O Yaara”. We all laughed at the kind of dance he has done in the song. I don’t know if the dance was really as funny as the kind of laughter that we had or we were just trying to take our minds off the grim reality we had just confronted. We had dinner and left for our respective rooms.
We woke up at around 9 AM, freshened up, and had breakfast. Today we were to pay obeisance at Shri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) and then catch our bus back to Chandigarh at 2 PM.
Today, as you read this we are in the month of May; six months have passed by, the clock ticks 11 AM daily, but none of us ever went to meet Lallan again. As I write this, it hurts how we failed as human beings that day. Giving Lallan a ray of hope, and then not turning up would have hurt him more than it could ever hurt us. If he had not turned up, it would have been a different matter, but by not going at all, we failed our humanity.
Our worldly commitments to time won, and our compassion lost. As a justification for our action, we keep telling each other, he wouldn’t have come.
But inside, I still picture him standing outside the shoe shop every day at 11 AM. Waiting!
Sourav Kumar Sharma