« Previous Entry: “The Eye Camp Diaries: 532 Cataract Surgeries in 3 Days”
An Encounter With Minors at the Gandhi Ashram
More than five years ago, I visited Gujarat to do a project audit for Association for India’s Development (AID) related to post-Godhra riot-relief. In between my meetings and tours to the riot-hit areas of Ahmedabad, I had the opportunity to visit the Gandhi Ashram on the banks of the river Sabarmati. I met some kids that I haven’t been able to forget ever since. The Ashram has long since become a museum where tourists can view Gandhi’s slippers and spinning wheel on display.
But somehow I was more interested in a group of three girls playing on the banks of the Sabarmati river and a little boy who insisted on shining my shoes (flip-flops!). First about the boy. He was a real salesman — he offered to clean my dusty flip-flops for just Rs. 5 (around $0.13 US). We started chatting in Hindi. He told me matter-of-factly that he was in school till his mother fell ill and his father left home. Now he earns enough to feed his family. Life is hard but he insists that he likes cleaning shoes and he’s good at it. I don’t know if he gives much thought to concepts like child labor. This is his life, his work — and it feels legitimate to him. I want to give him the money as a gift but I can see that he takes such pride in his work that he would be offended. He mocks at the beggars around us. “I would never beg,” he scoffs. If Gandhi could see this — in his own ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati, small children working their childhoods away like this. Maybe he would be happy it is a refuge for them. I know that child labor is bad and all that, but I can’t help admiring the entrepreneurial drive of this little boy. I can’t figure out his age. Must be around nine or ten?
I walked to the river bank and met a group of three girls having a great time, laughing and playing in the sun. They were in their element, literally — and were amused by my camera. The girl on the extreme left especially caught my eye. I asked them if I could take pictures. They smiled shyly and nodded. Such uninhibited laughter and innocent play: t’was good for my jaded soul. After a day of listening to stories of innocent people stabbed, beaten, and molested — I needed this.
Right in the Ashram campus is a non-governmental organization called Manav Sadhana that is doing some pretty interesting work with kids. I visited and met the director there. It was reassuring to see that someone gives a damn. Like SOFOSH, they are on the frontlines, doing whatever they can with the limited resources at their disposal. I’ve heard that the founders of Manav Sadhana are also behind the Seva Cafe. Though Niya is not directly connected to this project, I am delighted to know it exists, and works for the children, like the ones I met in Ahmedabad. For the past eight years, I’ve been so lucky to visit many such organizations and meet their gutsy volunteers.
Fast-forward three years to 2006. I was thinking about an earn-and-learn scheme that would allow working kids to go to school. Child labor makes all of us cringe but it is a reality in India and many parts of the world. I showed a little brochure I’d put together to actor and activist, Ms. Shabana Azmi. We were on our way to the book launch of Wisdom Song: the Life of Baba Amte. (I wrote the book and she helped “launch” it on April 24, 2006). Ms. Azmi felt I should discuss my earn-and-learn entrepreneurial scheme with Mrs. Veena Mankar. Mrs. Mankar leads a micro-credit organization for the urban poor in Mumbai called Swadhaar.
Mrs. Mankar felt the most important thing is to raise awareness in India about micro-credit and entrepreneurship. She would like to see the public more involved in funding these schemes. There is no dearth of ideas and willing people — but the public support and buy-in are still missing.
I haven’t yet implemented my earn-and-learn scheme. But every time i go to India and see a kid selling magazines at a traffic light or shining shoes somewhere, I regret my inertia. It would be ideal if children didn’t have to work but if they must, can’t we do something to help them secure their futures at the very least?
Before I left Ahmedabad in January 2003, I went back a second time to the Gandhi Ashram. I asked the Mahatma a few rhetorical questions. Would he marvel at the enterprising shoe-shine and the carefree girls seeking refuge and play at his doorstep? Would he be happy to witness the work of Manav Sadhana, right on the grounds of the Ashram?
I couldn’t really concentrate on the important historical facts during my visit to Gandhi’s Ashram. Recently, I found a photo of a signboard. Now that I read it, the history of the Sabarmati Ashram is quite interesting. Among other things, it says, “Gandhiji started his historic foot march with 79 Ashramites to Dandi recalling Buddha’s renunciation of old with a vow not to return to this place until he achieved freedom for India.”
I lazed on a grassy hill just below Gandhiji’s statue and I surveyed the cottages and courtyard that made up the small campus of the Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi is part of our mythology, and I don’t know how much of what we feel when we are here is real and how much is a desperate grasping for utopia.
Now, five years later, it’s the carefree girls and the entrepreneurial shoe-shine I can’t forget. I wonder where they are.
Both comments and pings are currently closed.