My milkman is a kid. He must be five I can tell you that. The way he rings my doorbell makes me want to spank him, first because it’s just not once he punches the bell, he kind of punches it 3-4 times in an urgency and secondly, because all this happens at 6 am !! He rings the bell to take the coupon I am required to give him every morning for a litre of milk. I still can’t figure out who designed this model as this is for the first time in my life I find myself groping for the coupons kept in the wall unit and cursing at the situation, all for a litre of milk.
I know it’s not as early for those who are early risers like my mom for whom the day begins at 5 o’clock every morning. But for a person like me who works till the wee hours on my laptop, 6 am is a little past midnight. With a 9-5 job and then all the domestic chores that keep me on my toes till 10.30 every night, I sit to write after I am done. It’s not rare that I sleep at 2 am most of the times. So 6 am is like being halfway through my sleep and have someone at my door not just ringing the doorbell but requiring me to get up from the comforts of my bed, walk through the long hallway all the way to the door.
On a Sunday he did it again in spite of several warnings from me. I stormed to the front door, yanked it open and said, “Chotu aj tu marega mere haath (Today you are going to die at my hands)!!” He was so tiny standing in that dark with big innocent eyes that looked fearfully at me, half because I must have looked fearsome to him and other, because we both didn’t understand each other that well with a language problem. He spoke no English and very little Hindi, I didn’t know a word in Kannada. He said, “Didi, doodh laya hun (I got milk for you).” I took the two packs and was closing the door on him when he said, “Paise? (he wanted me to pay him the monthly due)”. Not wanting to look for my wallet that time in the morning I said, “Duss baje ana ok (Come at 10 am)”. He said, “ok.”
Just when I settled in my bed and tried going off to sleep again, he did it again—ring the bell!!! I was furious by then. I didn’t move hoping he will go away but he seemed determined to get spanked today. I nearly beat him up there when I opened the door to ask him why he had come again when I had clearly told him to come later at 10. I couldn’t believe what I heard him say, “Didi, duss baj gaye hain (it’s 10 already)!!”. Had time gone off so fast, I thought, while I was drifting to sleep and back.
I pulled him into my house, all the way to the living room where the big wall clock hung and pointing at it, asked him to look up there at the clock, “Kitney baj gaye hain (Ok read, what’s the time now up there on the wall clock)? “Duss (10 am).,” he replied confidently (the wall clock only read 6.30am).
So there we stood together in the dark (the living room has only one window which faces another building and not the sun) and I taught him how to read time!!!! It was 6.30 am.
The coming weak I was on a sick leave one day spending most of the day at home. I took my doggie for a stroll in the evening. Since we have moved to the suburbs of Bangalore this is something I loved to do with so much of fresh air and open land. While I and Hazel were walking along the road admiring the coconut groves and paddy fields on either side we crossed a small slum—a cluster of make-shift homes of labourers who were building the Prestige group of apartments where I lived. Hazel was occupied digging the ground just parallel to the slum so I had some time to have a closer look. There were women sitting in front of their shacks and children playing. Much to my surprise I saw Chotu playing with a cart and running with it on the road. He looked almost childlike in this role—running happily with a wooden cart someone might have made for him. He wore no slippers on his feet which were callused, and had a torn and dirty shirt on his back. Before I could call out to him, he looked at me and smiled somehow saying to me, hey this is where I live. I waved at him then to come to me. He is Kannadiga and only speaks the local dialect. When he was close to me I asked him where his house was. I suppose I got through to him because he led me to a cluster of houses at the end of the row. We walked to his house, a small shack made of tarpaulin and plastic sheets. His mother came out with two other smaller children at her bosom. I couldn’t make out who his father was as there were few other men in the house that time. We could hardly say much to each other—language barrier again. I felt over dressed even in my most humble home clothes and chappals and more fortunate even in my present state of looking for a new job. I understood his poverty then. His situation.
For all the policy makers out there, I don’t know if what I am saying is politically correct or academically sound. It just comes out of my heart and what is there on the ground. I feel we cannot ban child labour in India as yet, not till a guy like Chotu is still the man of the house earning a livelihood for his family.
So it is understood that a child deserves his childhood. It is a matter of grave concern that children are not receiving the education and leisure which is important for their growing years, because they are sucked into commercial and laborious activities which is meant for people beyond their years. They deserve to be taken care of, to study and play, to enjoy good nutritious food and the comforts of a home. According to statistics given by Indian Government, there are 20 million child labourers in the country while other agencies claim that it is 50 million. India accounts for the second highest number where child labour in the world is concerned. So Government policies aim at stopping child labour on the understanding that child labour is a social injustice and educational deprivation and it will ensure that these children get opportunity for a healthy, normal and happy growth.
I would have thought so too if I had not met Chotu and hadn’t understood his situation. A child born in a house which is poor, below the standards of the standard, has some other things mean more to him than education or leisure time–things as pressing as survival.
I care what happens to Chotu today. I care that he should be able to earn to be able to take back home the money he earned. I will make sure that though there are two other milkmen in our apartments I will give work to Chotu and only Chotu. As long as I am there I will ensure he takes home money from me atleast. And my support.
It's not that I haven’t seen poverty. It's not as if Chotu is the only kid I have seen working and this certainly isn’t the first nor the last time I have seen a slum. I admit to not think about him everyday or every time. It’s just that when I do, I know one thing for certain that this kid needs to earn. And there is no point showing him sympathy or trying to fund him for a life time, or talk about the needs of a child from the perspective of a middle class person and that kind of hogwash people indulge in when they know nothing about the nature of poverty, but at least I can give him business. I can be certain to not opt for the other guy who comes to deliver milk though I am certain he will be gentler on my doorbell!
So for now, my milkman is a kid.
- The Child Labour policy would have to take into consideration that this phenomenon is taking place because there is a need for these children to earn for themselves and their family. It would have to make amendments by perhaps providing better wages for the children who do work and an allowance from the Government when they fall sick or go to school for giving examinations. Child labourers must be ensured free education as it’s been drafted in the policy.
~The writer is a humanitarian having worked with the United Nations Organization and is a columnist/writer/aspiring novelist with PENGUINS. Facebook profile- https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001504638037E-mail- [email protected]