Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Antardwand - The Inner Conflict|Special Column

The Voice of Innocence 

By Purnojit Haldar

Reviews, Vol I, Issue IV

Painting Courtesy - Early Childhood by Donald Zolan
“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
 -‘The Tyger’, William Blake

[The title of this article is ostensibly inspired by ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ by William Blake, a poet of unparalleled vision who lived in the 18th century London.]

Blake’s desperate plea to an indifferent mankind for rescuing ill fated children resonates in the air as we still witness children of our times, their innocence getting marred by worldly malice. To counter the incursion of the ‘evil’, Blake invoked the spirit of a ferocious Tiger in a child. Children of our times are on the verge of losing their innocence to experiences that lead to a chasm of vicissitude.

A few weeks ago, I went to a barber to get a shave. You must be aware how awkwardly the footpaths in cities like Kolkata are occupied by people with varied professions. I met the barber at such a place on the pavement just outside our hostel. An old rickety chair, a few bottles of lotions, shaving creams and mirror against the wall were the only things that formed his shop, with no shed or cover over the head from rain or sunshine. Some of the customers did refuse to sit without an arch. The barber arranged for some bamboo poles and sheets of plywood and plastic to form something that resembled a thatch.

On the open side of the footpath to the right, the bus drivers parked their vehicles, which helped the barber’s shop separating itself from the road for the time being.

The barber charged Rs. 10 for performing a shave. Just next to the shack, there was a cot on which the bus driver and conductors rested after having the midday meal at some wayside hotels where the filthy dust flew in. A stench from the hotel leftovers invaded the area mercilessly. This was where I saw the kids taking a nap on the cot, sharing with the rest of the bus staff. The men talked seedily, puffed at fags and uttered slangs at times, clearly not a place for kids who looked to the world with eyes wide open, surprised at everything they saw and learning from everything they heard. The barber’s kids sat on the cot after returning from their morning school, waiting for the food their mom would bring. As they sat, people looked at the kids furtively, sometimes with glances that proclaimed paedophilia or disapproval. And the father somehow couldn’t manage another place for them until he was done with his business of trimming and it was time to go home.

Usually those kids had nothing to do except for sleeping on the cot or playing inside the parked buses while their father works. Next time as I approached the barber, I asked him about his kids and their schooling. The kids studied at a nearby Hindi school, in addition to going to tuitions. But the barber seemed an unhappy man as he spoke, since the school did not teach in a proper way and all they knew were English alphabets, numbers and a few words. At this, I proposed to teach them and start over right from scratch. The father agreed to this. I took them to a secluded spot inside our hostel to teach as well as save from the uncouth glances. The textbooks they brought consisted of tough lessons. I decided to explain things carefully. But this was not really an easy going. The kids were sweet and they took interest in what I was going to teach them. Explaining from their “Paryavaran” book (“Paryavaran” means Environment) was often difficult, mostly because they had never seen a woodpecker pecking at a hole in the tree, or a chameleon licking the air, or a hippo wallowing in mud.

I thought about the lucky kids who have access to the 4th generation digitized classes. How neatly and adroitly the teacher could show images and videos of every creature and thing to the learners! And here I was, fidgeting about how to make them not only know things about nature but also make them see and feel. They had no TV to watch a cheetah chasing a gazelle or dolphins wagging their tails merrily on Animal Planets or Discovery Channel. Sad it was, for the heart of this metropolitan city is no longer made of nature but bricks, wires, skyscraper buildings and shopping malls. The city does not seem to have a place for nature and kids like that. I simply couldn’t arrange for a feasible way of talking nature into them, which seemed a terrible loss to me as a teacher.

I thought it would be rather a better idea to ask their father to buy them a slate-board so I could draw pictures of the flora and fauna to make the environment lessons interesting and explain the interdependence bonding nature and us. But the father could not afford it and I had to forsake the plan, unable to buy them one by myself.

Later as I pondered furthermore, I found that there was a huge, invisible chasm they were growing up in. The father had managed to provide them with minimal education. But what lies next is uncertain. No doubt, these kids were in a better condition than those who lived and fed at the railway stations, lacking the basic amenities kids need. But what could possibly be the future of these kids? I did not know. The boy might end up being a barber just like his father and the girl would work in some households or simply get married. With their non Bengali upbringing at home and Bangla everywhere else, these two kids vacillated between two languages and cultures at the same time. I checked on their mother tongue and was surprised to see how they had started to speak the names of fruits by their Bengali names, oblivious to their Hindi counterparts.

Over the weeks, the kids started to like me and consider me a part of their small world. Their jubilant faces reminded me of kids of my own villages whom I missed all the while and even more deeply I remembered my childhood days of fishing with a patch of cloth or making ‘firkis’ out of Banyan leaves, the secrets of which I was delighted to share with them.

While the NGOs work for the slum dwelling kids everywhere, these kids born to a part of a larger non Bengali families who migrated to a different state have remained uncharted. There are not much provisions available from the State Government. Seriously! What is the world actually coming to? A whole range of kids are going to turn into trash, unattended to their basic rights and requirements despite being in a metropolitan city. And the encroachment of an ‘evil’ version of kids will do away with all ‘songs’ of their ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’. It’s time we begin rethinking about it, because the smiling “Chimney Sweepers” and the ‘meek Lamb’ cannot survive in such a vicious world.

“So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There is little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back,
Was shaved, so I said,
‘Hush, Tom! Never mind it,
For when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot
Cannot spoil your white hair”

[‘The Chimney Sweeper’: William Blake]

About the columnist: 

Purnojit Haldar is a poet and freelance writer, hailing from Malda, West Bengal. He currently lives in Kolkata.  To follow his blog, click