Sunday, October 29, 2006

Smile Please!

In Sector 8 Vikas Nagar, house number 212, “Gharaunda”, is home to eighteen little boys who have progressed from being homeless street kids on the railway station to being students at the local Rani Laxmi Bai school. It has all happened under the loving care of Shachi Singh and her NGO “Ehsaas”. These children have finally found a home where they can sleep, eat and study without the fear of being exploited or locked up behind bars. More than a home, these children have found love. “Everyone can survive, it’s not too difficult, but what a child needs most is love”, says the gentle woman whom they all call “Didi ji”.

Seven year old Aman is one of these children, he’s just come back from school and sits down on the floor with his didi ji to tell her all about the day, “All the teachers were present today! And Rohit and I played on the swings too! Didi ji when are you putting a swing in the park?” he babbles away as she keeps answering his questions. “Aman was on the railway station, his father doesn’t want him back, he’s remarried,” says Shachi who remembers how he used to live in a make believe world, “He picked up the phone and had an imaginary conversation with his father once. There was a time when he used to tell the other boys about how much his father loves him and how soon he’ll be coming to take him back. All that’s changed now”. Aman busies himself with drawing, while other little children trickle in. Each with a more painful history than the first. Relating a story brings tears to Shachi’s eyes, “I can’t help it, in this field, you cry everyday”.

It was while visiting relatives in old Kaiserbagh, the then eleven year old Shachi heard a voice that continues to haunt her, “I remember his voice, he was crying and the sobs were unbearable. He was asking someone, bachon ko kaam kyun karna hota hai? Mai kaam pe nahin jaaoonga! And he kept howling, I never saw his face, it was too dark”, after a minute of silence she says, “I still haven’t found the answer”. Shachi had always been a sensitive child, teaching the milkman’s son, the neighbor’s servant and anyone she could find who needed help. “I have been teaching children since I was in the 7th grade, I’d divide them into groups according to age and it was through trial and error that I learnt”, says this lady who decided this was her true calling. “A woman cannot afford to be fickle, no one takes you for granted if you know what you want to do, my parents always encouraged me and after marriage so does my husband, nothing has changed”.

She began working “in the field” on a project to teach children at the railway station, “The first day, I caught one child and told him I’d hold classes here on the platform. The news traveled and I gathered students by asking each one to bring another, eventually our group was teaching children regularly on the platform”. Shachi was disillusioned when the group of workers scattered as the resources ran dry, “It dawned on me that this sort of work finds takers only till there’s money, short term benefits. I couldn’t accept this”, she says. It was then that Ehsaas was formed in 2001. “I was given a room right next to the railway station where I taught these children the basics, how to sit, eat, talk, personal hygine, everything! The girls were the most miserable… exploited, sick and each worse than the other. The children had drug problems and even though they were street smart, they wanted love”, she says. Soon experts started coming in to help teach kids about children’s rights and diseases etc. “We had almost 400 children coming to us from surrounding areas as well” Shachi remembers. “The other day, one of my boys called me on Diwali, he’s in Hyderabad now. He even has a job,” she smiles.

The children at Gharaunda are all between the ages of 6 to 18, a double storeyed house right opposite a park in Vikas Nagar, “I wanted these children to learn to live with people they will meet everyday, to play with other children and feel as normal as they can. This is their home not an institution.” There are three bedrooms for the boys, divided according to their age. “For winter this year, we need mattresses and winter uniforms…I have faith in God that something will come about, it always does”, she hopes. The children sleep on daris and wear clothes that have been handed down by Shachi’s friends, friends of friends and so on. “Help is always needed, if someone can be a mentor to these children, help them with studies and love them…even if that someone comes once a week, it will be such a help”.

On the door outside Gharaundaa is a little message written by a twelve year old Deepak, each line a different colour reads-

“Pal, pal se banta hai ehasaas

Ehasaas se banta hai vishvaas

Vishwaas se bante hain Rishte

Rishton se bante hain kuch khaas..jaise aap”. The message was a surprise for his didiji on her birthday..

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sehri Saunter

3:30 a.m., a clear beep and blue flash announces a sms, “Are you ready? I’m waiting!” Quickly I throw off the quilt, brush my teeth dialing Vaidehi’s number (she’s brushing her teeth too) and try responding to Shirin Ma’am’s sms only to realize it costs 1 rupee and not the 56 paise on my phone. Quietly, I try to wake up only my mother before I leave but predictably, both my parents wake up to wish me luck. It’s 3:40 a.m. and the long drive from Lucknow cantonment to Vishal Khand sure is spooky, the trucks guzzle past as my driver and I muse how beautiful Lucknow looks at this hour. We cross Ambedkar Park as I breathe in the heady champa air and wonder what this saunter will be like.

“We ought to do a Sehri Saunter! It’ll be fun, Kulchaa- Nihari at Akbaari gate at 4:30 a.m. will be quite an experience,” said Shirin ma’am, our features editor who took the responsibility of taking her two interns, nineteen year old Vaidehi Kapur and twenty year old me to the heart of Lucknow. Yes, the three ladies who make RP3 visited Nazirabad and Chowk to experience ‘Sehri’ firsthand. “My father always said that to experience a city you’ve got to see the sunrise and sunset there”, ma’am had shared. Vaidehi and I were excited at the prospect of it all. We expected some sort of carnival! But Rozaa Iftaar and Sehri are two entirely different experiences. 4:00 a.m. I reach ma’am’s house, Rusty, her Labrador is excited she didn’t have to wake her mistress up for once! She bounds up to me and is surprised that her saunter has to wait as ma’am orders her back into the house. “All set?” Yes ma’am!

After picking up Vaidehi, we arrive in Nazirabad at 4:30 a.m... the streets are empty and look strangely similar to the streets of Srinagar in winter. Empty. Dark. Groups of men sitting together sipping tea. Pink tea! The twelve year enterprise called “Siraj ki mashoor Kashmiri chai” is definitely the most popular hang out. Men who look like they just woke up are sipping tea from small tea cups with black checks and white saucers. As we step out of the car, it is obvious that we are the only women on the street, the men wonder why? “We work for a newspaper, we wanted to write about Sehri…” we explain. They understand and relax as we continue to ask questions.“This thella is my Siraj chacha’s, its been about twelve years since we’re selling Kashmiri tea”, says Zubeid who quickly serves his customers the 2 rupee tea. Other fare includes the special flat samosas for 2 rupees, Malai kheer in diya shaped kulaads and shahi tukdas for five rupees each. The most expensive item being Malai at 10 rupees a gram. “All these rates are subsidized during Ramzaan”, says Siraj. The men around the thella are generally students, “I’m studying in Mumtaz college and he’s my guest,” says a young man named Rizwaan, offering tea to his friend Taukir. Rizwan is from Azamgarh, “We stay at the masjid and come and eat here at Sehri” he explains. I notice the stray dogs loitering around and looking content, they’re surprised to see us too!

The men have just finished saying their namaaz and are enjoying their last cup of tea before they begin their rozaa. Next to Siraj’s thella is another one that sells omelets and bread. The brothers who own it try to communicate with us, but one is dumb and the other deaf. The one who’s deaf tries to tell us their names while the one who’s dumb tries to ask for a phone number. We write down the office phone number which is quickly circulated around. The pile of egg shells in a pail attached to their thella are a sign of the breakfast-business being good today.

Ramzaan means assured sale of popular food like kulchaas and nihaaris in small shops, kheer and tea at others. We walk down the lane and the stray dogs follow us to the chauraha, another little shop has a crowd that is equally taken aback to see the three of us walking towards them. Some stay put while others make themselves scarce. Tea seller ‘Ayodhya’ is making a last pot full of tea, his business is definitely good and he stays up for all the rozedaars to finish sehri before he packs up and goes home. The shops look eerie and looking through the darkness Vaidehi and I stand still watching three men on the footsteps of one of the shops, sleeping on each others feet. Below them is a clogged drain and rolling off the steps would mean falling into it or onto the road. We are waiting for Vishal sir, our photographer to come. We promised the shopkeepers and the crowd that the photographer would be coming, losing credibility here does not seem feasible!

Finally there’s an azaan and we cover our heads, walking up to a small shop that is selling biryaani and kulchaa niharis. “Haji Sahib ki biryaani”, ghosht is for 11 rupees, pai 9 and goodaa 8. No one is eating now, everyone is cleaning up their tables and utensils. Business is over for the day. Vishal sir arrives, clicks pictures which everyone wants to be in! The perfect goodbye to the rozedaars. Next stop, Chowk.

During the drive to Chowk, this intern shivers as she sees a pile of garbage burning in a corner… all this darkness and desolateness is disconcerting but we aren’t alone. As we pass the chota imambara, we stop at the well lit little restaurant. Ashfaq is selling lacchas, tea, samosas, mithai, sabzi, curd. His shop looks rich but he isn’t too happy with his business, “It could be better!” We saunter off to the Akbari gate lane and walk down… a ragpicker and his daughter rushing past tell us the kulchaa nihari shops at Akbari gate are all closed and we’re late. We begin our walk back, I get spooked by the man sitting outside on a chair saying “Jai ram” to all passers by.

At the crossing sits an old man with a mountain of leaves, “Are those datun?” questions Ma’am he laughs and says “Kathal leaves for goats”. At 5:00 a.m. this part of the world sure does look different. Small corner shops with little boys for waiters are cleaning up after the rozedaars have left, “Kulchaas for four rupees and nihaari for seven”. An inexpensive way to seal your day.

We weren’t brave enough to chew meat at that hour but the pink tea was delicious. Our Sehri saunter ends at 5:30 as we slip back into familiar surroundings and me into my bed.