Life on the streets

Life on the streets

Starting out life as a child labourer and reaching the hallowed annals of Indian annals, Capt. Rakesh Walia pens a highly motivating autobiography ‘Broken Crayons Can Still Colour’

Starting out life as a child labourer and reaching the hallowed annals of Indian annals, Capt. Rakesh Walia pens a highly motivating autobiography ‘Broken Crayons Can Still Colour’

Aunt Anjali realized she had more mouths to feed than able and capable hands to work. She was resentful of having to look after me and she saw me as the excess baggage. She wanted to wash her hands off me and was finding all kind of excuses to shed off her responsibility.

Aunt Anjali finally found the perfect excuse when my maternal aunt, Aunt Maya, visited us. "Anjali, Rakesh looks so unkempt and uncared for. What has happened to him, he has gone down completely?” asked Aunt Maya, looking shocked.

Aunt Anjali, being the loud shrew she was, immediately snapped back, “I do the best I can. I have enough children of my own to look after. If you’re so concerned about him, why don’t you keep him? Let us see then," she added disdainfully.

Aunt Maya looked at her and said “I will gladly take him with me to Allahabad. I too have children, Anjali, but I would never differentiate between them or pick favourites."

She asked me to pack my belongings and said we would leave by the first train next morning. Feeling wanted and cared, I happily accompanied her to Allahabad.

Aunt Maya lived in a sprawling bungalow in Allahabad; her husband was a senior government official, a chief fire officer. She had a big family of seven children and I moved in with them.

Aunt Maya was thin, graceful and elegant. Although, she looked much older; she was my mother’s elder sibling by only two years. My aunt always wore her hair in a bun and had the same kind eyes as my mother in the photograph. I felt close to her.

Aunt Maya treated me as fairly and lovingly as possible. She had a mild temperament and was concerned for my welfare.

I was all of thirteen when I was admitted to class eight of the same school as the other children in the family. For the first time, I was given the same food, lived in the same room and wore the same clothes as the other children. I liked the experience of going to a proper school.

I liked my teachers, was getting average grades and made a few friends at school. My aunt tried her best to raise me well during those years, with patience and tolerance to make me feel a part of the family.

I remember she even celebrated my thirteenth birthday and it was probably the first time that I had ever got a gift from anyone.

She bought me a pair of trousers and a new shirt and I excitedly ran into the room. “Yay," I said aloud, “finally for the first time in my life, I have my own clothes and not hand me downs."

Those few years were probably the best times of my growing years and I was beginning to settle into my new life. Just when I started to feel at peace and flourish, my aunt lost her husband to a major cardiac arrest.

Life had dealt yet another blow. Misfortune seemed to cross my path yet again. After the death of my uncle, we were asked to vacate the government accommodation that was given to my uncle by the Fire Department in Allahabad. We moved from Allahabad to Kanpur and took a small rented accommodation in Kidwai Nagar.

After the sprawling accommodation in Allahabad, we now lived in a small two bedroom house in a middle class colony. All nine of us had to share those two pigeon-like rooms. The house felt cramped and overcrowded.

Aunt Maya did her best to remain afloat, but I could see her spirit was flagging. She looked tired and defeated, and was desperately searching for a way out of her situation…

“I cannot imagine he’s gone and left me with seven, well now eight children with Rakesh. Never in my life did I have to worry about the finances. My husband always took care of them."

“Why don’t you open a small shop of sorts?" she suggested. "I’m sure that would supplement your husband’s pension as well. Plus, when the children are off to school, it will keep you busy as well," she said putting an arm around her.

Wiping her tears, Aunt Maya began to think about this possibility. In the next few weeks, my aunt had acquired a small shop at the end of the street. The shop was called Wing Traders, after the Wings Jeans (popular at that time) and we started selling readymade garments from the shop.

My aunt would wake up much before any one of us and would cook and pack food for all of us. The family now worked as a team. The elder ones would help the younger ones to get ready. By the time she made breakfast, everyone got ready to leave for school.

She would then lock up the house and head to the shop. Being religious, she would open the shutter every morning, light a Diya and an incense stick, and walk around the shop scattering the smoke all around. She did this day in and day out, almost as if to implore the Gods to come to her rescue.

She would sit at the shop all day and return home only by the evening, when school was over for all of us. Though she put in much effort, she was not at all business savvy. Her lack of experience did not bode well for the business and she hardly made enough money on the enterprise. With time, she started getting financially drained as her losses kept increasing.

Taking the story forward, I was thirteen years of age and had two more years to finish my High School. Due to the financial losses that the family incurred, I was compelled to leave school and sit in the shop and attend to the customers.

While the other children were still at school, I would try and manage the shop. I remember, one day a client had come to the shop. He wanted to buy a pair of jeans and asked me to show him some stuff. I was clueless about fabrics, yarns, sizes and the different styles of jeans. When I couldn’t show him what he wanted, he wagged his finger impatiently at me and left the shop in a huff.

Aunt Maya was livid with me. She said, “Rakesh, it’s high time you learnt the trade and made yourself useful."

At that time, her expectations of me seemed unfair, but my inexperience in running the shop, along with my aunt’s lack of business acumen, ultimately resulted in the closure of the shop.

The next step was to get rid of the stock in the shop. I was made to sit on the footpath with all the left over garments. I hated what I was doing and felt humiliated. I wanted to study and finish my high school. I felt directionless and most helpless.

Extracted with permission from Notion Press.

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