He first came to my home along with his brother to collect 'bhangar'.That was eight years back.
Bhangar is a typical Mumbai word( probably a hindi word) , which means recyclable garbage, such as old news papers, bottles, plastic bags, old clothes , vessels practically anything that can be recycled into something.
In fact there is huge industry of bhangar in Dharavi(biggest slum of Asia) and I am told this is one of the most profitable industries of Mumbai city, as the profit margins can be as high as 100%. In every nook and corner of Mumbai, one finds these shops who will come home collect your bhangar and pay you some money in return. You feel happy that you have earned some money on something you would have discarded free of charge.So it is kind of win-win situation for both the parties.
A shy, tiny, boy of 10/12 years with fair complexion, hair neatly oiled and eyes caste down to ground like a girl, he would obey whatever his brother would tell him do. His elder brother would teach him how to tie the bundles of old news papers in a neat stack and then weigh it on the weighing machine which had a dubious reputation of cheating customers.
His tiny frame could hardly hold the weight of 6/7 kg of paper but he would try and lift it with great pride and say "Madamji dekho"...I was quite amused by his dedication to his work. "Thik hai! Aap bole jo" I assured him that I trusted him. For the first time he looked up straight into my eyes with surprise and asked "Don't want want to confirm if my weight is right?"
Probably he expected me to haggle over the weight as everyone did. "No" I said emphatically with a smile knowing fully the boy was not that innocent as he looked. He was apprentice and learning the tricks of the trade rapidly from his bro. But I wanted to trust him. I wanted to understand him. Boy smiled back for the first time. So every month he would come to my house to collect the bhangar and that's how we started building our rapport.
For the time he would spend in wrapping, tying the news papers, and other stuff we would get chatting. It began with my question "Are you going to school?"to "what you want to do in your life?' " do you beleive in god? This monthly ritual of informal discussion was quite interesting and I am sure he used to look forward to it as much I did. He was amused with my life as an artist and when I told him I had 'chosen' not to bear children when he asked me where are my kids as he saw none around the house. I cannot forget the shock in his eyes. He was learning and understanding that life is not the same for everyone. At least that's what I wanted to impress upon his young mind that he has a choice!
He was a natural quick learner and his curiosity to know much beyond his life and society was fascinating. I knew he was growing up rapidly much faster for his age as he was learning lessons of business as well as life . And I hoped that my interaction with him might give him the choice to choose the life on his terms. I hoped that he would break out the bondage of tradition and think independently as a person living in the free society.
The other day when he came to pick up bhangar he informed me that he had flunked in his 12th grade exam. I was disappointed though not disheartened because I knew he had not prepared enough for his exams. So when I asked him, aren't you going to re appear for exams? He smiled. He seemed to be happy about something. As if failing in exam never bothered him anymore. And that bugged me . "what is so happy about failing in exams" I asked in sarcastic tone .
He was still smiling almost blushing, " Madamji I never told you this all these years. I am a married man. I mean, I was married at the age of 12" ( the time I met him first). He tried to explain me the system of child marriage in his community. "Tomorrow I am going to my village to bring my wife in my home. I am now a man. Good enough to look after a woman and raise my children" As he spoke I could see the excitement in his voice. He was lost in his dream world. Suddenly I realized the 12 year old boy I had met 8 years back had turned in to a mature man. Ready to shoulder the responsibilities of life all at the age of 20.
I really did not know how to react to his news. I wanted to share his happiness but I was equally sad as I realized that 8 years of our interaction had not meant much to him. All talks on freedom of life, doing things differently had just got swept away under a single word of 'Riwaz' ( tradition) He was going to live his life what probably his grand father, father, and his brother had lived. "But Madamji , I will educate my children . Make them graduate. I promise" he said to me with twinkle in his eyes. I smiled back at him. Knowing he had grown big enough to make a choice. A choice of life based on traditional lifestyle. Probably a best choice for him. I felt little defeated but I respected his decision.
I congratulated him and gave him some money as my wedding present. " Thank you madame". He said as he walked out of the house. Somewhere I knew next time he would turn up to collect Bhangar it would be just business visit. No more chats on life and its problems. He was just any other bhangarwala. with no name.