Friday, August 12, 2011

Good Birthday & Good Bye

Yesterday was my birthday and the last full day my family spent with me in India. Around midnight, I went to the airport to drop my family for 2:15 a.m. departure for a flight to London-Heathrow, then one to Chicago, then to Omaha.  

We were driven by our “Number One India Driver,” Mr. Avtar Singh, a Sikh farmer from the Punjab who drives a well-kept Classic Ambassador equipped with what my daughters call a “disco light” that blinks alternating colors on the ceiling. The light was purchased in Laj Nagar market, near where we live, for only 450 rupees ($10) and I am thinking about getting one for our mini-van to surprise the girls upon my return in November. We tearfully said our goodbyes outside the airport entrance because they would not let me enter without a boarding pass. Then they took a trolley filled with bags to check in for the 26 hours of flights home.

I really wanted the family to stay with me through my birthday, and I am delighted that they did. We celebrated with a visit to Salaam Balaak Trust ( I have come to the realization (or the confirmation of a previous realization) that I don’t really “need” any more possessions in my life. So I asked that my birthday present this year be a gift to this innovative NGO which helps street kids in Delhi to discover new opportunities for their lives.

They have a program called City Walk in which a former street kid takes a group on a tour of some of the places where he used to live and tells the story of his life. Our tour guide was named Satyender. He was a handsome 18 year old boy with a bit of bravado and a good command of English. There was a coach that tagged along on our tour, a volunteer from the UK named David, who comes to Delhi for a couple months every summer over the past six years, and helps the guides to polish their presentation skills.

I asked Leora what she thought was most interesting about our tour. She said, “That they put gods on the wall so people won’t pee on them.” And, indeed, one of the questions our tour guide asked was why we think pictures of various “gods” – Jesus, Guru Nanak, Krishna, Hanuman, Sai Baba, etc. – were put on walls around the neighborhood in which we walked. The reason was to prevent people from urinating on that wall, which they used to do.

Satyender, our tour guide, explained that girls are the most vulnerable on the street. Pimps will sell them into prostitution and they will be forced to take 20 to 25 “customers” a day. Girls also make more money than boys begging, so their “bosses” will force them into begging. They can rent a small baby for about 200 rupees a day to make it seem like they are more desperate for money because they have a baby or little sister. These babies make their companions more money if they are skinny, so the bosses don’t feed the babies much because of the alms they will receive if boney. SBT tries hard to get these girls off the streets before something bad happens.

Our guide said that most kids on the street drink alcohol and use drugs. Glue is the cheapest high for these kids and when I was walking next to him near the New Delhi Railway Station he pointed out to me a discarded glue bottle. “See that,” he said. “That’s glue. They can buy it anywhere in the bazaar and take in a cloth then breathe it in. It does funny things to your brain.”

Outside the SBT office, which is strategically situated near the Railway Station, a boy of 14 or 15 came up to me, knowing quite well that I was a tourist on a City Walk, and with glassy eyes and slurred speech introduced himself as Kumar. I said my name is Patrick. I asked, “What is wrong?” to which he answered, “I have tension in my head” and put his thumb on his forehead. When I relayed the story, Satyender told me, “Yes, many of these children have tension or other mental problems. They have seen a lot in their lives and glue or some other drug helps them to deal with that.”

Satyender told the story of how he found himself on the street. He is from a village in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India, and comes from a family where abuse was the norm. His father regularly beat his mother, brothers and sisters, and especially him. When he was 10 years old, his father smashed his mother’s head so hard against the wall that she started bleeding. For six days she bled and finally died from those wounds. He said, “At least my father tried to take care of her. He shaved her head and tried to wash the wounds. But she died anyway.”

After his mother’s death, things went from terrible to worse. He was beaten daily by his father, a routine that worsened after his father was drinking. Finally, one day he simply had enough. Satyender thought, “I can stay here and be beaten all day by my father or I can escape to Delhi and stay on the street. At least in Delhi the police will only beat once or twice a day instead of all day.”

At age 13, he got on a train bound for Delhi. He had no ticket so he locked himself in the bathroom. With only enough room for a squat toilet and a sink, Satyender stood up the whole eight hour trip. When passengers banged on the door, he would not open it. Finally, the train reached its destination. He was so tired that he slept under the footbridge of the New Delhi Railway Station which he showed us on the City Walk. The police came and beat him and others with a stick, sending them scrambling from their rest. He was told by one of the food vendors that he would get a couple of chipatis (flat, simple Indian bread) if he washed dishes, but after 4 hours on the job he got nothing and left.

Eventually, he was picked up by outreach workers from Salaam Baalak Trust and taken to a transition shelter for boys. The first thing the SBT social worker did was try to reunite him with his family. For six months Satyender gave false contact information about his father. When he finally gave in and provided correct information, his father came to Delhi to take him back to his village. In the office of the shelter, his father started beating him again. The social worker gave Satyender a choice of returning with his father or staying at SBT. He chose to stay.

I asked, “What is your relationship like with your father today?” He answered, “I still hate him. I wanted to kill him. A while ago, I tried to poison him by putting some poison in his milk when I went home for a one day visit. My sister was planning to kill him with me. But it didn’t work. He drank the milk but it didn’t kill him.” He went on, “Now I don’t care about him. I just want to get my sister and younger brother out of there because he beats them too. If I can find a professional job, they can stay with me.”

Satyender explained the motivation for kids to run away. “Most children run away because they want to live independent lives.” His professional goal is to be a video game designer. And he wants “to order other people around, not have to be ordered around.” He thought of his own life as much better now than when he was with his father and better still than when he was on the street. “Now I’m living a professional life, but not the street life,” he said of being a tour guide at SBT and getting paid to lead City Walks. He made the distinction between freedom and responsibility. “You are more free when you live street life. Now I have responsibility, but I think that’s better.”

At the encouragement of my friend Altaf Makhiawala, I am reading A Free Man, a nonfiction book by Aman Sethi, a journalist at The Hindu, who has written a brilliant biography about a day laborer who lives in the North Delhi neighborhood we toured on the City Walk. Although seemingly with many opportunities to use his talents and a college education as a stepping stone to a better life, the title character decides to live with more “freedom” – albeit as an alcoholic on the streets – rather than being beholden to another. This tension, present in all our lives, I think, between living a life ordained by others and living a life we think as more “free,” is the fundamental tension in the lives of both the title character of this book and of many street kids.

Tabrez, another tour guide, is from Bihar state. His mother remarried a man who beat him. About a month after moving in with his grandmother, she died. So he had to return to his stepfather’s house. He sent him to work in a factory at age eight. He had to work from 5:00 a.m. until 10 o'clock at night. The factory foreman wouldn’t let him sleep. One day, he did fall asleep at the factory and the boss beat him. When he told his mother this story she didn’t believe him and sent him back to the factory. Some months later, when his boss gave him some money and sent him on an errand, he took the money, bought a train ticket and ran away.  After a long train ride, he found himself in the New Delhi Railway Station.

He was sweeping the floors of trains for a dollar or two per day. Then he was a “rag picker” sorting through garbage for anything to salvage. He said he never got into drugs. Tabrez’s one pleasure was going to the Bollywood films on Friday afternoons when the new releases came out. “I love Bollywood and wanted to be a Bollywood actor, but now I want to be a cricketer,” said this short, slight boy.

We went to the shelter and saw a classroom full of 50 boys sitting in neat rows. They were lined up listening to a French woman who volunteers there tell them about France and share some pictures kids had drawn. Aviva later asked if our girls’ school in Omaha might do a project like that and send letters or pictures to the boys and girls at SBT to which the tour guides said yes.

The SBT serves approximately 4,500 kids in their various programs and shelters. The funding comes from 50% donations from corporations, individuals and fundraising events, of which the City Walk program is about 5%; 40% foundations or foreign donors (including Save the Children, and a large USAID grant program that just ended last month); and 10% coming from Indian government sources. The children and youth range in age from 8 to 18. And success stories of SBT kids who “made it” include a Bollywood star (seems many aspire to this celestial realm), a karate black belt who is now an instructor, a professional fashion photographer and guy who married an American and moved to the USA.  

I learned today that on the President Obama’s November 2010 visit to India, First Lady Michelle Obama was scheduled to visit SBT and go on a City Walk. But because of security concerns, this plan was scrapped. I would highly recommend a City Walk tour to anyone coming to Delhi. This was an amazingly eye-opening experience for us and, as strange as it may sound, by making a larger-than-usual donation to SBT it relieved some of the guilt of not giving money to all those beggars who approached us on the street over the past 2 months.

The small number of kids who SBT helps is only a negligible dent in the overall problem of homelessness in Delhi. But even a small bit helps. I am pleased that our last full day together in India was spent doing something like this.

After we visited SBT we went to Purana Qila, a ruins of an old Mughal era fort, and took a ride on a pedal boat in what was the former moat. It was a fun way to end our time together in India. My adventure to continues, but our family’s adventure together ends. What a wonderful time we’ve had!
So glad my family could share some of the time here with me. I miss them already! 

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