It was early morning when our train halted at the Haldwani station. I had wrapped myself in two blankets but was so cold that if I took a sip of cold drink, it would freeze into a cube. Mom and dad were still sleeping. It was very satisfactory for me to see such peace on their faces. Last month had been turmoil for my family and it was after a lot of persuasion that Ma and pa had agreed to come for this short vacation to Nainital. I was lost in my thoughts when the smell of adrak waali chai started playing with my nostrils. I decided to help myself with a cup of it.
The train was to stop here for about 45 minutes. She was to be removed of some valuables that we passengers left as a mark of respect to her. I got down from the train. I followed the smell like an enchanted rat. I could see a chai wala at a distance. I walked up to him and ordered one for myself. Since the preparation was to take some time, I sat on the bench next to the makeshift shop. It was a lovely site. A peaceful one. Away from the pollution, population of the metropolitan cities. I just sat there and observed people the way I usually do. Suddenly I heard someone singing a pahari song in a very beautiful voice. I turned around and saw a small boy not more than 7 yrs of age washing tea glasses in a cold water tub. He was not wearing any sweater or for that matter anything that was even close to be called a woolen. This was another case of child labor. I had seen a lot many when I was working with an NGO in Delhi. I remember once we had staged a demonstration against this whole malpractice.
At Jantar Mantar, 26th November 2003
Our lead was making the audience count its ill effects. After about five minutes she handed over the mike to a small boy, Manu, who looked at her in rare amazement. The boy started speaking.
“Main kabhi school nahi gaya. Mera admission hua tha. Lekin jaa nahi paya. Mere papa ne ek din mera school bag chupa diya aur mera haath pakad kar sardar uncle ke garage par le gaye. Papa ne unse kaha ki yeh lo aa gaya. Ab jitna kaam karana hai utna karao. Aur shuru ho gaya mera kaam. Main sab kuch karta tha. Chai banata tha, chai pilata tha aur ek din galti se chai ka glass bhi dhoya. Sardar uncle ne glass dhote hue mujhe dekha aur kaha ki yaar yeh faayda hota hai chhote chhote haathon ka. Chai ke glass mein kitni aasaani se ghus jaate hain. Aur us din ke baad se mein saare glass dhone laga. Agle din ek gaadi aayi jiska ek screw lagana tha lekin sardar uncle ka haath wahan tak pahunch nahi paa raha tha. Unhone mujhe bulaya aur screw mere haath mein diya aur mujhe andar ghusa kar bole ki zaraa gaadi mein kas de. Jab kaam karke bahaar nikla toh kaha ki yeh faydaa hota hai chhote chhote haathon ka. Main kaam karta raha. Mahine ki pehli taareekh aayi aur sardar uncle ne meri pagaar meri haathon par rakhi. Meri pagaar kisi bhi aur mazdoor se paanch guna kam thi. Pagaar rakhte samay unhone kaha ki yeh fayda hota hai chhote chhote haathon ka.”
Manu stopped and looked at us. We all had tears in our eyes.
Cut to station, Haldwani.
I had tears in my eyes. I handed over my shawl to him and walked away. The chaiwala was still shouting.