When faced with the story of three children who starved to death in Delhi, you may have found your mind shutting down, the story and the statistics too overwhelming to comprehend. Three girls, aged eight, four and two were brought to a hospital by their mother who was also starving.
They were already dead.
The mother was too weak to even tell the doctors what had happened, so she said to them, “Give me food.”
The three girls had not eaten for at least eight days, the post-mortem declared. The story made headlines and the unpalatable statistics were put out, that we cannot afford to look away from. That over three lakh children die of hunger every year. Then it turned into a story of who to blame.
Small Acts of Disobedience
I found refuge in the small things that in the end answer the big questions for me, one person — and day — at a time. My story begins ten years ago, when I was filming an Indo-French production of the opera ‘Carmen’. And I ran into a man who worked with children who were hungry, destitute, and in need of all the basics — food, education and attention. A couple of years later, I helped him start a shelter for children called ‘Tara’. The journey with the twenty children that made up ‘Tara Home for Boys’ has helped me make sense of the impossible, and bend my mind in ways only children can.
It started with a small act of disobedience. An existing shelter for children was shut down in Delhi because it had turned into a management nightmare, that had endangered the lives of the children on more than one occasion.
My friend approached the proprietor of the NGO, and suggested he start a new shelter with the kids from the existing one that had to be closed. It could have been an impossible conversation with one side pointing fingers at the other. Instead, it led to ‘Tara’. The first child that was sent to us by the earlier NGO had run away from his home in Bihar, after he and his brother had seen too much violence.
We focused on the here and now. How to get him into a good school? How to enable him to catch up on so many years of missed education? Most of all, how to restore his lost childhood, and allow him to be the funny, irreverent self he really was.
Then home schooling him till he stopped mugging up chemical equations as if they were pictorial diagrams painted by Picasso, and figure out what chemicals really are and why equations matter. Ten years later, this boy is now a young man who has been to France and Brazil on sponsorships and fellowships. He speaks fluent French and works with a French television channel as their youngest India correspondent. And he reports in French.
The Best ‘Wine Snobs’ I Know
He never forgets what it was like to feel hungry and scared — and discriminated against for his caste. He had even cut his thumb with a knife to be laid off from a job where he felt he was being treated like scum. A few years ago, when he turned eighteen, he and I and the other ‘Tara’ boy who had also turned eighteen, went out to an Italian restaurant for dinner.
I was moving out of Delhi for a few years and wanted to take the two oldest ‘Tara’ boys out before I left. “Look you guys,” I said to them. “I know you’ve just come back from two months in France, swirling French wine, but I can only afford desi wine. So please don’t order the foreign one.”
The Indian wine arrived with our food. The two young men tasted it. They made a face.
“It’s not that great didi. But okay.” They were my favourite wine snobs in the world.
Over many lunches at ‘Tara’ and trips out of town with the boys, I learned more about what is possible, and how to make sense of the impossible.
I mostly visited on Sundays. It was their day to have fun and break some rules, and I was the perfect enabler for such activities. I remember one Sunday, very early on, when ‘Tara’ was only a few months old, I arrived with copies of a large broadsheet I subscribed to called Acne Paper. The cover was peeping out of my bag, and it had on it a large portrait of a naked woman. I used to teach the boys photography those days, so they demanded to look at that particular photograph — only for academic reasons… of course!
I pulled it out of my bag. One of the boys said, “Didi, the cover is very dusty. I need to clean it.” And he leaped out of his seat and reached for the cloth duster, and proceeded to wipe the cover very carefully, slowly circling the woman’s body, one bare part at a time.
Candid Conversations & Life Advice from Teens
Nothing was off the table for discussion. From sex to violence, religion, politics, discrimination — all of it was part of our lunch-time conversations. ‘Tara’ was the tiniest melting pot I had ever been in. The boys came from all over the country — Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Delhi. They were upper-caste and backward caste, Dalits, Muslims, and tribals. Us volunteers came from all over the world — France, America, England, Mexico, Australia. Each of the ‘Tara’ residents had their back stories of violence and deprivation. But we were building something together here.
The putting together of all the impossible situations in one place made us all feel like we were not alone. And no matter whose father had neglected who, there was always a hot meal to be had — and some exciting photos to be dusted.
A few years after a handsome and self-willed boy from Chhattisgarh came to ‘Tara’, I saw this boy go from being under-confident and teased by the others to an assertive, self-assured young man. The change was visible most on the eve of ‘Tara’s’ in-house elections. The boys elected two representatives who sat at all board meetings. The boy from Chhattisgarh put up a poster asking to be voted because he would get everyone a girlfriend, if elected. Of course, he won.
One evening I said to him, “You know, I miss the old you — the straightforward, honest person you were. Now I see you lying all the time and cheating in board games.” The boy turned to me and said, “Didi, in order to survive in this world, the old me and the new me are both equally necessary.” I was gob-smacked. This was not only the best line I had heard, but some very sound advice worth applying to myself.
Failed Loves, Dinner Banter
Over the years, my relationship with ‘Tara’ turned from an official space to an unofficial one. I had differences with the founding members that could not be resolved. So I decided to keep the only part of that relationship that really mattered to me — my interaction with the boys. In March 2018, as ‘Tara’ had expanded into four shelters, and many of the original twenty boys had moved on or moved out, I had a re-union dinner at home.
Some of the young men had jobs in big corporate firms. Others were struggling with basics they had hoped to have moved away from. Some were an absolute mess because of failed first loves. “Didi, I lost my virginity to her and now she has abandoned me,” said one.
“Please let go of that,” I said. “Go meet many other girls. You are too young to be so stuck on one. Your life is not over. Trust me.” This conversation had happened just a few days before our re-union dinner. So at the dinner table, the gentleman in question took me aside, grinning. “I took your advice. And I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. Now I was worried. In a good way.
...Now, Go Gate-Crash a Wedding!
My mother joined us for dinner. She said the energy of these boys was electrifying. It was the most interesting dinner conversation she and I had been in for some time. I told her later, some of the abominations these boys had suffered, and that some were still dealing with. That the endless music and dancing, wine and rum and bonfire on the terrace had masked.
We didn’t want to discuss that at our party. We just wanted to hang out as we always did and just be. That was more than enough to deal with the anxiety and distress for the moment. It’s the talisman I now apply to contend with impossible words like hunger and starvation.
Our public distribution system is thoroughly broken, and anyone who has even had a cursory look at the scale and complexity of it, will agree it is not easy to fix.
So how do we deal with this? All I can say is, I like looking at it the way my extended family of ‘Tara’ boys do. One person, and one meal at a time.
At that re-union dinner, I was served up another line by one of the boy-men who now has a job with a French multi-national. “You know what I used to do when I was at ‘Tara’, on my way back from school?” he asked. “I would carry an extra shirt in my school bag. And slip it on after school and gate-crash weddings where there was awesome food on offer.”
He looked at me, his eyes twinkling. “Have you ever gate-crashed a wedding?” I confessed I had not — and was then delivered the line I now leave you with. “If you haven’t gate-crashed a wedding, you’ve done nothing in life.”
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Delhi. She tweets @revatilaul. This is a personal account. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)