I happen to watch Lion the other day. It’s a poignant story about Saroo Brierley, a young man who gets lost as a child but, somehow, miraculously finds his way back home after 25 years. Given its gripping narrative of a foundling child and his tumultuous journey through foreign pavements, it comes as no surprise that the movie has made it to the Academy awards this year.
Well, I was moved to tears watching this movie. Partially because it triggered memories of a fateful encounter I had three years ago, in New Delhi.
It was a hectic day that evening. I was trying to wrap up our magazine issue and go back home early. Like any other day, I took an auto rickshaw and reached the metro station on time. While scurrying up the stairs, I couldn’t help but notice a frail-looking child sitting on a torn cardboard. He was with two other kids, reaching out their hands to every passerby, asking for food.
I stopped and asked them if they want to eat anything in particular. “Aab jo bhi dedo, didi (anything you offer, sister),” stuttered one of them, while the other two nodded shyly. I looked around and finally spotted one momo vendor just across the metro station. It was a perfect meal for that bitter cold winter. So I ended up savoring momos along with them and inevitably, there were bystanders looking at us in some sort of amazement. Now, I was aware that my act could land me in trouble because there are people who exploit children and their vulnerability. I thought it should be okay since I had a press card to show if anything went wrong.
“Didi, bahut tdant hai. sweater dedo na (sister, it’s very cold. Please get us a sweater.),” one of the kids requested. Indeed, they were not wearing any sweater, just a pair of worn out clothes that could barely keep them warm. So I asked that momo vendor if he can suggest any hosiery shop nearby. He pointed across the street and told me it’s almost five minutes away by walk. We went ahead towards that store and finally managed to get sweaters. Although the sweaters were slightly oversized, they looked happy nevertheless. I was happy too.
We took a cycle rickshaw on our way back to the metro station. By now, they seemed comfortable enough to tell me that they live not far away from the location, in a “jhukkhi” (slum area). On a regular day, they would wander around the area, asking for food and a penny.
“How are you going home?,” I asked them. They started mumbling amongst themselves, and then, to my surprise, said they are taking the metro. All three of them were between 5 to 10-year-old but somehow knew how to commute by metro.
As expected, one of the security officials stopped me to inquire about those kids since they were following me. I showed them my press card and told them that they were trying to catch the metro. He was barely convinced and kept watching over me. Fair enough, this world is pretty screwed up. If you don’t help, you’re stone cold. If you try to help, you seldom expose yourself to jeopardy.
After waiting for some time, the metro arrives. I clearly remember standing at one corner, looking at them as they hurried inside the metro. Through the glass window, they first looked out for me, and then when our eyes met, they wave me goodbye. Call it a paradox or the complex ways of the world, a child trafficker could have done the same thing to exploit them. I did tell them to never trust anyone offering help next time. It was an absurd reality.
At that moment, I was unsure if we would ever cross paths again. Months later, I met with them at the same metro station and that was the last time I saw them.
Somehow, this film left me with an aching feeling that I would never know if their lives would have changed for better or worse. I could only hope that they are doing just fine wherever they are. I could only hope that their story would be as triumphant as the five-year-old in the movie.