It's not uncommon for people to refer to males as being "sweet" in India. It's an expression I have rarely used in relation to the average male anywhere in the world but within only a few minutes of meeting these boys, I knew they were as sweet as the Belgium chocolates that Ajay (on the right) is addicted to. Previously he was addicted to glue and living on the streets of Delhi, with the dubious distinction of being the smallest and youngest pick pocket in his gang in his younger days. Now the guy is heading for a scholarship in George Washington University and talks about his chances of succeeding there with all the confidence of any young middle class Indian male.
Except of course he is not any ordinary Indian boy, he is as extra ordinary as his life story to date. Separated from his mother during a festival in Mumbai and unable to recite or describe his address, Ajay was sent across the country to an orphanage in Bihar by the police who found him. He can't remember his age at the time, but given the story that follows I suspect he was fairly young, maybe 6 or 7 years old. Eventually through a series of Slum dog millionaire type stories without the sanitized movie style song and dance routine, he ends up living on the streets of Delhi picking pockets during the day and sniffing glue to get him through his misery
Ajay and Tabrez are guides with the Salaam Balaak Trust, an charity begun by the film maker Mira Nair after her film Salaam Mumbai, a story about the street kids of Mumbai. The trust now runs city walks as part of a fundraising and educational innovation using the street kids as guides.
I have to say that listening to these sweet sweet boys tell their worse than terrible stories, I felt a pang of guilt that hit me at a heart and gut level for all the times I have snarled and growled and shooed away these street kids. This shame has risen to walk beside me every time my mind goes back to that day I visited the Delhi I have been living in from the other side of the rails. They speak without any self pity or anger, they speak from the humility of a heart that has been broken open to see both sides of human nature and life. Most of all they speak with a sense of hope and pride in their humble achievements. When Tabrez told of the day he wrote his name for the first time, the emotion of that achievement was tangible ten years later.
At times their stories moved me almost to tears but something in the way they smiled turned that emotion into another stronger and longer lasting emotion, that of sheer love that springs from a well of admiration. I fell in love with them on the spot!
In India they also say that anyone who teaches you something is your Guru. These young men are now my guru ji in learning the lesson of humility, hope and the survival of the human spirit.
Published on 1/17/12