By Shevlin Sebastian
Ayaz Hussain’s father abandoned his mother and him when he was only eight years old. He went to live with another woman.
He had been a violent man. Ayaz had seen him kick his mother in the stomach many times. He would keep his eyes tightly shut, so that he would not have to see the pain, but the fearful screams of his mother chilled his soul.
He was relieved when his father left, although it became more and more difficult to have those three square meals. His mother worked as a servant in a rich businessman’s house. They survived on her salary of Rs 300 per month. They lived in a small room in a slum. Rats ran around on the floor at night.
Ayaz looks serene in the evening breeze as he stood outside the classroom of the missionary school. He is twelve years old. He is frail and small and wears a faded white shirt and unpressed brown trousers. His eyes are a clear brown and yet, there is a pool of sadness that no amount of smiling can remove.
He is in Class three of the night school conducted by the Jesuit priests for the poor. He had just got his report card and has passed all his exams! He smiles shyly when his friends congratulate him.
Ayaz can speak a little English. He wants a job and that is why he is studying. He wants to study as much as possible, but he is not sure for how long. Ayaz wants to buy his mother a saree and a pen for himself.
His mother, he said, loves him. She is his bulwark against the violence all around him in the slum: the husband hitting the wife and the children; the drunken shouts that he hears every night; the occasional frenzied violence let loose by the thug to affirm his control over the slum dwellers; the gambling and the prostitution that takes place all the time. Ayaz sees it all and keeps quiet and does not say anything.
Manoj Kumar, his friend and classmate, is also twelve years old. He is going through some suffering that is hindering him. He smiles, but it is more a grimace than anything else. His friends crowd around him as he speaks.
Sometime ago, Manoj says, he was returning home late at night when, near his house, he saw a man plunge a knife into another man. He watched, with horror, as the man staggered about, clutching his stomach and fall to the ground. Manoj’s legs trembled and shook and he ran away as fast as he could.
He has been frightened ever since.
Manoj speaks very softly and nervously. He says that he wants to study, so that he can get some work in future. All the children want work; they are obsessed by the need for it. There are many men in their slum who are unemployed. They grab the pittance their wives earn as domestic servants and spent it on drinks. When they return home drunk, they beat up their wives and children. It is really frustrating not to have any work to do.
Ayaz and his friends do not want to be in the same boat.
When you talk to them, all of them eager students of the night school, you are touched by their simplicity and innocence. They are all precociously mature because of the difficult experiences they have gone through. They know that life is a hard, uphill struggle. There is not a single moment that you can relax. You can starve as a result.
Yet, all of them, thin, wiry, children with dark, staring eyes have a dignity that you notice immediately. It is clear that Ayaz and his friends have the spirit of goodness within them; all of them firmly believe that, through work, they can lead a prosperous life.
But can they? There is always an underlying fear that all this goodness and optimism will evaporate one day. The past provides the fearful contemplation of the future.
All the violent men who live in the slums now were once children, like the gentle Ayaz and his friends. And yet, at some stage of their lives, through the brutality of the environment in which they lived, they had shed their goodness and had taken to crime and brutality. What guarantee is there that children like Ayaz will not go off in the same direction? What certainty is there that, under their goodness, they will not sprout seeds of hate and distrust?
For Ayaz and his friends, there are so few opportunities to rise in the world. In India and, especially, Calcutta, only the rich and the well-connected have all the opportunities. So, education will have to be sacrificed at the altar of the empty stomach.
They will work as labourers and servants and helpers in small dingy restaurants. The proprietor will be a hardened man, who will bully them, make them work 16 hours every day and give them a pittance in return. They will always be hungry as a result.
They will miss the sunshine and the games and the healthy life and education that are the prerogative of every child that is born on this Earth. They will forget how to smile or laugh and there will be a deadness, that familiar vacant staring, that is a symptom of the inner death.
And the politicians will love it. It is so much more easier to control a passive, materially deprived mass of people rather than an active, intelligent one. They will give their speeches, spewing hatred against one community or the other and their gang of ruffians will always be there, with their guns and threats, to ensure that the poor people voted for their leaders. This is called democracy, Indian style
It is getting dark. Ayaz and his friends go home, clutching their report cards, laughing, singing, joking, and having the time of their lives. The stranger moves on. He goes for a long walk, away from the crowds and the ceaseless traffic. It is late in the night and when, at last, he reaches a deserted park, he sits alone on a bench, surrounded by the black night and the eerie silence.
A boy approaches him and says, “Sir, do you want beautiful girl? Good price.”
“Where is she?” the stranger asks.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a tree nearby. The stranger sees the outline of a sari-clad figure.
The sky looks vast and magnificent, filled with the lumiscence of so many stars and there is a silent question in the stranger’s eyes: ‘Oh God, if You are merciful and all loving, why don’t you allow children to have their childhood?’
(Published in The Telegraph Colour Magazine, 1986)