It was peak hour in the morning, and vehicles moved at snail’s pace bumper to bumper. At this rate, I would never reach in time for my crucial business meeting.
Before I reached SantaCruz, I decided to park my car somewhere, and take the train to Churchgate. This brought no joy either. Even the first class compartments had commuters precariously hanging out of the doors. Somehow I edged my way in and hung on for dear life, to the overhead railing.
Literally ejected out of the train at Churchgate, I discovered to my horror, that my pocket had been picked, and my briefcase gone. I had the humiliating experience of having to borrow from a friend, to pay for my taxi and return journey home.
The day’s experience had left me in a foul mood, and when Raju an employee at my hotel, came calling, I was ready to chew off his head.
“ Not again, Raju. I told you several times, that I can’t take the boy back into employment. There are laws against child labour, not to speak of the social activists prowling around, and waiting to pounce on hoteliers like me. He should have gone back to his village.”
“ Sir, this time I haven’t come to plead for Viju. Just see for yourself, the consequences of your decision to send him away.”
A boy of about twelve years, walked in with my brief case and wallet in hand. Through his tattered shirt, his rib cage jutted visibly. His eyes had a devil-may-care look, and his laughter, a hollow ring.
“ Do these belong to you, Sir? You’ll find all your things intact. I’d never bite the hand that fed me. Just wanted to show you how street smart I’ve become.”
I shuddered to see the change in Viju. He had been a plump little fellow, always cheerful and singing to himself, as he went about his chores. Even the customers loved him. His earnings were remitted home regularly. Now he had become a vagabond and a thief.
“ What are you doing for a living, Viju?”
“ Many things, Sir. I’m a quick learner. Trains are the best place to pick pockets or to beg. Even if I have to starve, I manage to send some money home.”
“ I’ll tell you what he does,” said Raju. “ There are too many competitors on the streets, and he isn’t as smart as he claims to be. Most of the time he starves, and ferrets in the garbage bins, especially when he’s high on “glue.” Look what you’ve done to him, Sir. You and your laws! The Law doesn’t put three square meals into such children’s bellies. The Law doesn’t ensure clothing, and medicines, and education. All it does is to swell the number of delinquents on the streets. I hope the sight of Viju will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
He walked away, having said his piece, and Viju tripped along behind him.
“ Viju, come here,” I said, “ Take this tenner and buy yourself a meal.”
“ No rewards accepted, Sir. I brought the stuff back because I’m grateful for the time I worked in your hotel. Be careful, though. The next time, it may not be me.”
As Raju had said, the thought of Viju haunted me for several days. There was always surplus food in the hotel.
“ The boy can have all his meals in the kitchen,” I told Raju. “ He doesn’t have to beg for food.”
“ And what will he do, the rest of the time, Sir? Pick pockets? He’ll need more than food, if he’s to be normal again. He has to get back his self respect.”
“ What wisdom in one so young!” I thought.
Raju had turned 15, when the law came into force, and so escaped the ban. But he had been deeply concerned when Viju was retrenched. I was firm. Viju had to go
“ Almost every employee in your hotel started working with you as children,” he argued. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears.
The pressures of work, soon put Viju out of my mind, until one day, I saw him being dragged away by a policeman.
Viju! Was he going to haunt me for the rest of my life? If I didn’t act now, I’d never have any peace of mind.
At the police station, I took full responsibility for the boy. He was admitted to hospital for malnutrition and detoxification. He soon recovered his health and his spirits.
But when I brought him home, he hid indoors, afraid to step out, even into the garden.
“ The young gangs are deadly,” he confessed. “ They’ll find me and drag me back to the streets.”
It was more than that. He knew that the temptation to sniff ”glue” would prove irresistible, and he didn’t want to betray my faith in him.
Viju is now back with his parents. I make a monthly contribution for their upkeep, on condition that Viju is allowed to attend the local school. His gratitude is touching. Sometimes a cloud of sadness flits across his face.
“ I was lucky to find a surrogate father,” he says, “ But what of all those children deprived of jobs, who have no other alternatives?”