The precarious lives of children and the oases that are schools
The teachers and I sat on the floor and chatted. He sat quietly outside the circle, doodling on a small notebook. He was nine years old. He was gentle and caring, but his rage could explode the next moment into a vicious vortex of violence, unmanageable by the teachers. They had figured that an effective way of dealing with him was to let him do exactly what he wanted, and then he would be calm, would try to learn, and generally be cooperative. That day four years ago, he had decided that he wanted to sit with us and not in his class, and so it was.
Within weeks of his joining the school, a year before that day, some of its teachers had visited his village to figure out his life story. It wasn’t clear whether his mother had died or abandoned the family, but she was not there in his life. He lived in a shack with an elder brother and a drunk father. The 15-year-old brother worked as a daily wage labourer, which is what the father would do, too, when sober.
Last month in the same school, I searched for him in a group of 81 children from classes VI to VIII who had gathered to talk with me in one large room. He wasn’t there. He had left the school last year, despite every effort from the teachers, as I learnt later. Now, instead of going to a school, every morning he goes out hunting for that day’s labour.
No other child in that group of 81 lives in such a vacuum of love. They all have their own pleasures and pains and hopes and fears, while the precarity of their lives is what they all have in common with that boy: they are just one crop failure away from ruin, an illness in the family away from starvation, and an incident away from the end of their childhood. Poverty and caste shape their lives.
They had been told by someone that I was a “big officer from Bangalore”. Without any hesitation, they got into a conversation with me. Confident and clear, they had none of the stock-in-trade questions that make for a semblance of a conversation without being one. They asked, “How did you become such a big officer? What did you do?”
Truth matters with children. What is the true answer to that question? The truth and the whole truth. True without becoming a gospel of individual enterprise or any reduction to the fatalism of circumstances, and true in the context of their hard lives.
So, I told them about how blessed my life has been. How the people in my life have supported me and cared for me, when close or distant. How I have had a life of privileges. How I have tried to work hard, to be honest, and to care, but that I don’t really know how it has all come together. I feel doubly blessed and grateful.
In my unclear response, the children heard the truth. Then they said, “Tell us of the difficulties that you faced in your life.” The truth on this was much harder to tell. But anything less than that would have been a betrayal of their trust. It also would have been callousness toward their everyday life of difficulties.
So, I told them about that night in Bhopal between 2 and 3 December 1984 and its aftermath. They had not heard of it before. They tried to comprehend the number of deaths. They related it to a nearby town getting wiped out.
They wanted to know everything. What was the factory making that had such poisonous stuff? Why were they allowed to do it? If that poison was in the pesticide, what would happen to the land? What was done with the factory after that night? How can generations be affected by one night? Then, they wanted to know, how I survived. So, I described the effect of wind, water bodies, and distances, on how the gas spread. They figured out that methyl-iso-cyanate must be denser than air. They also figured out that those sleeping on the ground would have been at most risk.
What about justice? They asked. Who has been punished? What has been done to help the victims? In our compact of honesty, I told them what has happened in the past 35 years. They were very upset. There was disbelief on every face.
I searched for a truth to share that would leave them with hope. So, I told them that people are still fighting. For justice and for restitution. They will not give up, even after 35 years. They liked that. It was 4pm, time for school to close. Children that they are, many ran out of the room screaming. Some gathered around me, asking me to come back. They knew not of Bhopal. But they could think and question. They had a clear notion of justice and fairness, and they cared. The school is not all of it, but has played a role, as all schools can. A school can be an oasis of many kinds in the life of precarity that millions of our children live. However, it is not any more for that boy who dropped out. The rage that burns his tenderness, how will it run through the course of his life, such as it is?
PS: Abdul Jabbar died last month. He was one of those who fought for 35 years for Bhopal. Unflinching in the face of power and apathy—of the state, of money and of people who moved on. Whatever measure of justice he achieved, he also exemplified a dedication to the truth that gave hope to those children in a distant school. And to many like me.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd