Ajay was in class V, studying in his village school was barely 10 when, one evening he got a sound thrashing from his father for neglecting studies. He was not good at studies and detested the rigmarole of getting educated. Since there is no failing till primary level of education he was getting promoted to the next class every year till he reached class V. The thrashing was a routine since there were complaints of his poor levels in the school. Plainly speaking, he loathed and despised study. Ajay was from Motihari, a backward and poor district in the state of Bihar.
That evening’s thrashing was the last straw in his resolve to flee his village and his home. Ajay could read the letters that reached his village folks from Delhi. There were quite a few immigrant labourers from his village to Delhi who would write letters back home. There were few who could read or write. Ajay was among them and he was helpful in reading the letters. It was early nineties when the cellphone were still in its infancy and STD phone calls were both expensive and non-existent in nondescript villages like Ajay’s. Therefore a postcard or an inland letter was more in vogue than any other mode of communication. The villagers used to get the information of their dear ones at a distant place by these snailmails read by Ajay.
There were two outcomes of these letters. One was the information to the relatives to whom the letters were written. The other one was exclusively for Ajay. Ajay had started forming a fair description of the place, culture, food habits, weather, transportation, accommodation etc. about the place in Delhi where his relatives or his village folks lived. Without ever setting foot in the city he had a sketch ready in his mind and had started planning his escape. He was aware of few basics which would help him escape. He just knew the place where his folks were living in Delhi. He knew that the place could be reached by bus from the Delhi rail station. He knew the landlord’s name. He knew the nearest bus stop from where he would get a bus to reach the rail station, 30 km away from his village. He knew the train timings and he could guess the amount of money he needed to succeed the great escape. He was just a 10-year-old boy but with a meticulous planning of escape as generally expected from an adult person.
The evening he was thrashed badly, he cried to show his pain to others. From within, his resolve was now firm. He took dinner at usual time (it’s always early in villages) and went to sleep. When the whole household became quiet, he stole Rs.700 from his father’s purse. The bus for the rail station was at very early morning. He kept a shoulder bag ready with just couple of his dress. At 3 in the morning in the early winter of 1999, he rolled his blanket and pillow on his cot to fashion a dummy as if someone was asleep, took his shoulder bag and Rs.700 concealed in his body very secretively, left his house and his village for the bus stand. Not a single soul was to be seen around in the darkness. Few dogs chased him whom he thwarted by waving his bag. He told me that he was waving the bag to the dogs just to frustrate their attempt to bite him. He reached the bus stand and soon he boarded the first bus to the station. At the station he bought a half-ticket for Delhi of general compartment and boarded the train. He was free.
After a journey for more than 30 hours, he reached Delhi rail station. He just knew the name of the place where his village mates were staying. It was Dallupura in East Delhi. Ajay was aware that he should go to the nearest bus stand near the station and from there he would get a bus to Dallupura. Taking cues from people, he reached the bus stand and looked for the bus to Dallupura. He found one but got a bit puzzled that the destination was written in the board as Dallupura Extension. ‘Extension’ was a new word for him. Ajay was anything but nervous in a big city like Delhi. He was just a boy of 10 and innocently he asked the bus conductor whether the bus would go to Dallupura. ‘Yes’, replied the conductor. ‘Then what is ‘Dallupura Extension’?’ ‘Never mind, get into the bus if you want to go to Dallupura’, the conductor replied. He boarded the bus and sat beside the conductor as he knew that the best guide would be him only. The conductor took pity at the boy of such a tender age and guided him to the stop at Dallupura an hour later.
Ajay could not believe his luck. He was at Dallupura, finally. It’s three days since he has left his village, his parents, his brothers, his relatives, everyone without their knowledge where he was. Now the most daunting task was to locate the house where his relatives stayed in Dallupura. He knew the landlord’s name and that was the only clue he had. Fortune favours the brave. After asking few people in the locality, he was informed that the landlord was a big man in the area and he had rented out several houses. Soon he reached his relative’s house at Dallupura.
His relatives and acquaintances were very surprised seeing him coming all alone from the distant village. There was a natural affinity and bonhomie among immigrants. He was welcomed with open arms, bathed, clothed and fed. However, that night Ajay wept profusely remembering his home and his parents. He could not sleep properly.
Next day onwards, he observed the routine followed by his countrymen. Most of them were daily labourers working in construction sites. He was just a child so no one offered him a job. A week passed by. His money started slowly dwindling. He was aware that soon he must find some work to sustain his livelihood in the city. The landlady’s wife took pity in him and offered him the work of a labourer at her construction site. Ajay, being the only ‘educated’ among the lot started keeping account of daily expenditure of the household. Soon he was able to shortchange them and managed to earn some money besides managing his contribution to the household expenses.
Within a fortnight of his arrival, Ajay started earning regularly as a labourer. He would do any type of manual work. However, he kept his eyes and ears open to the skilled functions of the construction works. He learnt the electrician work and started taking up such tasks.
After about 6 months of his stay, his father arrived at Dallupura one fine morning. The news of Ajay’s safe arrival at Dallupura had reached his village within a fortnight. His parents were a worried lot till the news reached. Ajay was not at home when his father arrived. In the evening when Ajay returned from his daily work, he could recognize the ‘dhoti’ getting dried in courtyard. At once, he knew that his father had arrived. Both the father and son wept their heart out on seeing each other and hugged tight. That night the duo eat from the same plate and talked till late night. The father wanted to take the son back to village but Ajay was adamant. He assured that he would come later. His father stayed for a week and Ajay saw him off after buying his return ticket and also gave him Rs.3000, savings from his earnings so far and more than 4 times the money he stole from his father’s purse. Ajay was just 11 then.
The lessons of life quickly arrived for Ajay. He understood the power of money. He knew that not being educated has its drawbacks but at the same time hard work, in any form, pays. It’s quite puzzling that he was poor at studies but very sharp in picking up the nuances of construction work. Spending few years in various odd jobs, he attained some skill in electrical works. However, he abruptly left the electrical work. He was bitten by a bug while fixing a ceiling fan and also received electric shock one day and fell from about 12 feet height.
With the help of one of his acquaintances, he learnt the ‘jari’ work on garments and worked till 2006 in a garment factory. He learnt the tailoring work also there and could stitch pants and shirts. He left that job due to ‘computerisation’ of designs. The artwork by hand was affected by computer aided designs and it hit the manual artisans.
In that year, Ajay picked up the ‘karni’, a tool used by masons. Since he had worked in construction sites and helped the masons, he soon, was proficient in masonry works. He has been continuing as mason since then and earning about Rs.20000 a month.
Ajay had visited his native village 18 months after he had escaped. He was kind of ‘hero’ at his village who was not only the only one to make such a ‘brave’ and ‘dangerous’ effort to escape but also a earning member of the family at such a tender age. He had taken gifts for everyone in his family and gave some cash also to his parents. He was at his village for about three weeks and when he boarded the train back to Delhi, he was given a warm send-off by his entire clan. Ajay was just 12.
Now almost 18 years in the city, Ajay has made steady progress both economically and profession-wise. He is a skilled worker now earning at least Rs.800 a day. He takes up petty jobs on contract also to augment his earnings. He is married and has two sons. His family is in the village and he sends his children to ‘private’ schools in the village as there is no education in ‘sarkari’ (govt.) schools. His elder son is in class 5 and like him does not like to study. The only lure which takes the son to school is a daily allowance of Rs 5 or 10 which his mother gives him. For this purpose Ajay saves all the changes he receives during the year and delivers to his wife when he visits them annually, during October-November. Ajay is afraid that his son may follow his path. He is a father and now understands the agony his parents have gone through when he ran away from home.
There are hundreds of such stories of migrant child labourers in every big city. I came to know Ajay just last week when there was some masonry work in my new flat. He found a keen listener in me and narrated his story. I found it amazing and worth blogging.