I was en route to Delhi by Delhi-Jaipur National Highway, which was, as always, under construction. The occasional gush of air on my face through the window of that typical Rajasthan Roadways bus was the only sign of respite on an otherwise full-of-hiccups journey.
I cannot suppress my hunger when either I am travelling or taking an exam. Former was the case that time and I was silently requesting the driver to stop at some decent dhaba. Finally, he heard me, perhaps telepathically, and bus came to a halt.
When I came down from the bus, the Dhaba was there in front of me. Passengers were rushing in to get hold of few chairs, which were fortunate enough to get a constant supply of air from a loosely-held fan. Those who cared to wash their hands, such as I, lost these few chairs to those who didn’t. I finally settled down in a chair, which was kept outside the dhaba and the sun was directly on me.
“Dahi aur do gobhi-parantha,” I ordered. A boy, barely 10 or 12 years old, took my order and repeated it to the kitchen, his soft voice barely getting across.
After a wait of hardly 3 minutes, my order was at my table. The parantha turned out to be a plain one and the curd bowl had dried curd alongside its rim as if somebody had eaten curd in it and the bowl was unwashed since then.
I lost my cool at that moment and called that boy who had taken my order and had served me.
“Kya hai ye bhai,” I said in a harsh tone, “why haven’t you washed this bowl? Am I supposed to eat this?”
He silently took my plate off the table and walked away. I felt bad that I raised my voice. “I keep advocating that child labor is an atrocity and here I scold a boy,” I thought.
He came to the table with another plate. It was literally hard for me to look into his eyes and I feigned as if I have lost my interest in the food that he had just served.
My sympathy for that child manifested in the form of questions that started crossing across my mind.
I asked the dhaba-owner why he had employed such a small boy?
”Where else will he go? Here at least he has a place to stay and work,” Dhaba-owner replied indifferently.
”Does he go to school?”
“Is there one nearby?”
“There is one school at a distance of around 2 kilometers but no transportation. Actually he is enrolled in that school. My daughter takes him there sometimes whenever she doesn’t go to her college. But there are only 2 teachers in the school and even they remain absent for most of the days.”
“But why are you making him work. It is not the right age,” I argued.
“Aap phle padhe likhe babu nhi ho jo yahan aake mujhe gyan de rha ho (You are not the first one who have come to give me a lesson here)”, he said continuing, “Life is not as easy as it seems. I don’t earn enough. I have two daughters to marry. Both of them are studying. I cannot afford to put him in a relatively better school. I earn around Rs 1000 per day in which i have to give Rs 500 per day to the workers and Rs 200 as a commission to drivers to make them stop at my Dhaba.”
”Are you his father?” I asked after a pause.
“No. Actually whenever anyone need a child-help, he goes to bhatha factory (Brick-kiln). Working conditions are pathetic yet you could find many children there. I took Chhotu from one such kiln. I have never asked him about his parents,” said the owner.
“But he is not illiterate,” Dhaba-owner continued, “My daughters teach him daily. He knows how to calculate, how to write, and read,” he said.
People started moving towards the bus. I joined them leaving behind a 12 year old to do his job at the expense of his childhood, at the expense of his dreams.
Chhotu was cleaning the tables of those who had just taken their lunch.