Upon one of my not infrequent visits to the village lying near my home, I came across a young girl washing some tattered clothes on a stone slab, wearing rags of her own. She was not young in a carefree way, or in any way which one might associate with youth. No, she was young because she simply wasn’t old, but she was, in fact, very grown up.
Like a grown up she earned for her family, fed her younger, and there were many, listened to her elders, of which too were many, and helped around the house. Like grown ups her eyes were hollow, her words chosen, her actions measured, and her head weighed down. Her name was Reema, yet she called herself Aishwariya, after the famous Bollywood actress.
Her family comprised ten people, three of whom slept outside the house because there was no room in their ten by twelve shed they called home. The roof was a sheet of tin scavenged from a nearby school’s waste pile, the walls crumbling bricks and the door a hacked and rotting plank of wood with a makeshift knob. In one corner sat a cold stone stove, the worse for wear when compared to ones present in neighbouring homes. The stove had last been lit two days ago, the mother informed me.
But it wasn’t the dire condition of living which caught my attention that day, it was, instead, a much more pleasing sight. For the rain was pouring down and homes were flooding, but a few, if indeed fifteen can be so called, children were splashing in puddles. And these children were, in fact, children, not elders in disguise.
They skipped and cheered, and slipped and fell. They called out names too, which seemed wrong at first, but then the light nature of their play resurfaced and all ills were forgotten. “We all live together; fighting would make life impossible” said Reema’s eldest sibling, the only educated person in the family.
Intrigued by this unexpected sight of joy amid ever-present gloom, I approached the party, which instantly aborted its merry making and arranged itself as though for a demonstration, or inspection, or perhaps both. Whispers of “rich” and “bada aadmi“, meaning “rich man” were passed among them and, more out of fear than awe or respect, they died down.
After many failed attempts to to pick my sunken guts, I smiled at the children and walked away, anxious to see whether they would resume their game. They did. I realised in that single moment how detrimental my presence was in their society, almost as much as theirs was in ours. If I caused children, the only souls unaffected by the perpetual sorrow, to stop laughing, then I had no business being there.
Yet I stayed, because y stubbornness refused to let me leave without making a change, and because I was determined to prove to myself that I could make a change. I went back towards the children, who seemed to have acclimatized themselves to my presence and didn’t bother to stop playing. I waited for them to stop, which they did only when the sun emerged, watery and weak, from behind dark clouds.
Their game was senseless yet their joy was worth the wait. It was saddening to see that this little gathering of eight and nine year old children was the only happy occurrence in the vicinity. Finally, the children came over, bedraggled in the truest sense of the word, but smiling toothy grins nonetheless. I picked the youngest of the lot and asked his name, which turned all eyes my way.
“Ayman, he’s my younger brother. I am Farhan“, said a tall, thin boy. He looked better cared for than the others, even his brother. I decided to direct the rest of my introductory questions to him. Less than ten minutes later I was bored of the monosyllabic responses which Farhan gave endowed me with. I had expected some amount of detail, but the responses were vague and forced.
I asked them about their goals and dreams, which prompted blank stares and awkward silences. I then told them mine, to provide something of a guideline for them, yet they simply stared. Seconds later it began raining again and the children return to their pitiful splashing, laughing and shouting. I made my way back to my home alone after that, thoughts racing through my brain at a million thoughts per second.
The walk back home took much longer than it had while coming. Intense sadness fought the blood flow in my veins and won, causing pain and hurt to course through my system. It was not so much the living condition or the state of the children which took all the life out of me; it was the fact that these children lacked the most basic quality of childhood; dreams.
Upon reaching home I gave extensive thought to the predicament of those children, stopping repeatedly at the same conclusion. These children don’t need money or food or even education, for they know how it is to live without them and have thus made peace. They have also, unfortunately, never known a world beyond their own and so cherish nothing; they neither dream nor desire, neither crave nor want.
At the offset this appears most satisfactory: if they are content with what they have then there is nothing better, says doctrine. But doctrine, like all other social evils, isn’t fair at all. Is it truly for the best that these children have contentment because they know of nothing better? How does doctrine justify the lack of greed due to lack of knowledge?
Here we are out to build a global, content, peaceful society yet we refuse to acknowledge the lack of desire among our kin, the lack of desire which sounds appealing, but which speaks of hollow morals. Perhaps educating these children will tarnish their sense of contentment, but it will give their lives meaning, a hope to live for. We distinguish ourselves from lower beasts by declaring that we live for a purpose; these kids, who know not of goals and aims, are then, little more than lowly life forms.
If not for them then for the betterment of human society to which we owe our livelihood, we must think on these matters and take a step. Though many may disagree, each life is as important as the next, and we would be better off if we remembered that.