Under our office, at the corner of the road, there is a juice shop run by a man and a boy. The boy calls the man his chacha, but it does not mean anything. Grown-up men of 30, 40 and 50, most of them absolute strangers call me uncle, and hawkers on Dadabhoy Naoraji Road call me that. It is an annoying Indian custom to call strangers uncles and aunts, or, worse still, aunties.
But that is beyond the point of this story. The story is that the man sits in the shop, prepares the juices in various juicers with hands that move smoothly and spontaneously with years of practise. The boy removes the pulp and dumps it into the gutter, cleans the glasses, wipes the counter, takes the order of all customers, serves them, delivers the juices in the offices along the road, assists in opening the shop at 9 a.m. and shutting at 9 p.m.
I am one of the persons he delivers the juice to every afternoon, one day mosambis and one day orange. That is how I came to know him and noticed a desire in him to learn to read and write, study, and generally go to school, with proper, and a bag to carry them it.
He is a good looky boy, with serious intelligent eyes, a fair and healthy complexion, almost Kashmiri, through he is from UP, hair cut close in a brown fuzz. He is about seven, give or take a year or two, and has been brought here from his village. Besides the man in the shop, he does not seem to know anybody else in Bombay.
There are a lot of boys in out office canteen who go to evening schools. They are Mangloreans and are learning in their own language. I do not have to tell you that Manglorean boys are among the most enterprising young working boys in our city; they go to evening schools, play football, rise to become restaurant owners, bank cashiers.
Through one of these boys, I found out a Hindi-medium school in the neighborhood. He volunteered to take the boy to the school and get him admitted. I had decided to pay the fees, buy the books, took after whatever other small expenses there might small expenses there might be. The "chacha's permission was taken for granted.
But when it came to his permission, he said a flat no. There was nobody to look after his shop. The classes started at 7 p.m., they would go on for two-and-a-half hour to three hours. He knew all about that. He could not afford to let him away for so long. Find him another boy, and he would let him study. He had not brought the boy to Bombay to study. If he wanted to study, he could have studied in his village; the school in the village was better than any school in Bombay. But, instead of going to school in the village, he used to climb up the tree and sit there.
I tried to reason with him, threatened him (there was a law against child labour, I would bring the police) - it had no effect. He made it clear: he was not stopping the boy from going to school, but if he went, he would not keep him in the shop. I would have to look after him.
I could possibly get him a job in the office canteen. But I do not know what arrangement the man has come to with the boy's parents. He may have bought the boy, or he may be his guardian, trying to help out the family with a little financial assistance from the boy's earnings. If I were to take the boy away, the parents could charge me with abduction.
There is one more point. The boy and his "chat are Muslims. I can visualise the Muslim-baiters among our Hindu fundamentalists springing to attention- Ah! One more stick to beat the Muslims with, along with the Ameena story. The tragedy is that it is an Indian story. It is as Indian that we continue to fail to look after our children.