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On Tender Shoulders

As the clock struck 8 in the evening, Subbu grew restless. Yet, with visible anxiety, he was trying to answer the questions posed by us from 7 PM onwards. He was sitting nervously to begin with, but grew friendlier as we continued to speak with him. Seated comfortably on the floor beneath the foot over bridge in the Secundrabad railway station where many families of the homeless people had taken refuge on a rainy day, Subbu was answering our questions. His mother along with his youngest sister, Nagarani, had taken shelter there too.

Subbu looked visibly excited, though slightly confused, to converse with us. Perhaps because of the comfort of his mother's presence he looked secure. Soon his elder brother Sekar joined us, making Subbu feel even more comfortable. If one happens to see Sekar somewhere else other than amidst this community of homeless people, it would have been difficult to identify him with one among the homeless. Sekar, aged 12 likes to appear very neat. He hates being dirty and detests being surrounded by filth and dirt. Yet his wishes remain only as wishes as his family continues to live in pavements and railway stations' platforms. Filth and dirt surround and follow them everywhere they go.

Subbu, just about 6years old, in contrast does not look neat and cares least about being so. He cannot afford to look neat, for it would affect the whole family's survival. It is because of the food collected by Subbu through his acts of begging in the nearby slums that the family could afford to have two square meals everyday. If he appears neat he may not get food from the sympathizing households he collects his food from.

Their mother Shoba, aged 35 years but looks in her forties, goes about picking rags in the daytime leaving the one-year old girl baby in the custody of her husband, who is more of a companion than a husband. He does not go for any work as he has lost the functionality of the right hand. It happened when he was badly beaten by a group of pavement dwellers like him for he tried to steal the rags they had collected for selling it in the morning. Since then, he stopped going for any kind of work and nowadays lives off the money earned by his wife and the elder son Sekar. However this is for drinking purpose only. For the food he depends entirely on Subbu.

Sekar does not like his father for all the trouble he creates for the family. In fact, he is not the biological father of Sekar. Their mutual hatred may be because of this. Sekar though fond of his younger brother Subbu yet dislikes him whenever he takes sides with his father. Subbu and Nagarani were born to him, whereas Sekar was born to the first husband of Shoba.

Shoba herself was a runaway child when she left her home in anger at her father's scolding and beating her for a small fault she had committed back in the village. She was fifteen then. She reached the Hyderabad railway station and met a rickshaw puller whom she married after few months. He was from a nearby village and hailed from a different caste. So his marriage with Shoba irked his family members. His elder brother came to Hyderabad and persuaded him to give up on Shoba and return to the village. But he persisted with his plan to continue to live with Shoba and took her to his village hoping to convince his relatives and village elders. But he could not succeed and lived away from the families in the villages. After four months he returned to Hyderabad to work as a rickshaw puller once again, leaving Shoba back in the village. There he developed an affair with another women and eventually married her.

The fact that he stopped sending money to Shoba, brought Shoba also to Hyderabad where she came to know of his marriage with another woman. However hard she tried to convince her husband to come away from this marriage, he refused to budge. Instead he asked Shoba to live with the second wife in the same house in Hyderabad. Shoba was carrying this time and agreed to this arrangement. After delivering Sekar she realized that she could not adjust with the second wife of her husband. There were several quarrels between them and she decided to leave the house. She went to Warangal and worked as a construction laborer. There she was advised by an old man, who offered protection in the early days, to have a male companion to avoid trouble form the anti-social elements. He even found a person who was working as a carpenter.

He too was willing to accept Shoba with her child, Sekar, and they began to live together in the pavements of the Warangal city. But soon they found the going tough there and decided to migrate to Hyderabad for better work opportunities. But Hyderabad offered grimmer hopes than Warangal and they settled down in the platforms of Bogiguda near Secundrabad railway station. The only work they could get was rag picking, which both Shoba and her companion did together earning some 25 rupees everyday. However her companion's drinking habits only got worsened after their arrival in Hyderabad. All the money they had earned was squandered on drinking by him. If Shoba refused to part with her share of money earned by rag picking, he would often beat her and forcefully take the money away.

As life was an utter struggle all these days, Subbu and Nagarani were born to Shoba out of the relationship with her companion and Sekar too grew up. Shoba's companion in the mean time stopped going for his rag picking work as he started depending entirely on Shoba is work. His earning through carpentry skills, which he got to do very sporadically, came to virtually nothing when he lost the functionality of his right hand. Shoba too could not go to work on a regular basis as she had weak body that fell ill very often.

Sekar, who never went to school, was assisting her mother in rag picking work. On those days when she could not go for rag picking work he would take up the work. The time at which he would give the money to his mother would generate lot of quarrels between his mother and her companion. Try as she might to keep the money for herself and for feeding the children, her companion would always succeed in forcefully taking the money away from Shoba. Sekar could not bear to hear the filthy abuses hurled at each other as they fought to keep possession of the money. Nor could he bear to see the bruises his mother would sustain as a result of the fight between them. Sekar himself often took recourse to drinking, sniffing glue or going to watch movies in the late night to avoid being witness to the scene created by them.

When the solidarity between Sekar and Shoba grew stronger and they started resisting the pressure created by the companion of Shoba, he took Subbu and Nagarani away and pressed them into begging in the railway stations. Subbu being a very small boy with his innocent looks fetched him enough money and food to his father. He spent the money earned by Subbu for drinking after feeding them with the food brought by Subbu. He himself went about begging with Nagarani in his arms. Since she was a small baby, he could elicit the sympathy of the traveling public.

After sufficiently punishing Shoba who would grow frantic at having lost her younger son and daughter, Shoba's companion would return to Shoba only after extracting from her the promise that she would part with sufficient money for his drinks. She would agree to it for the fear of missing her children again. But Shoba's own frequent ill health and Sekar's fierce reluctance to part with the money to his social father would often result in him taking Subbu and Nagarani away.

Over a period of time in the midst of all these drama, Subbu became a skillful person in the act of begging. The fact that his father very often pressed him into begging both at the railway station area as well as in the nearby residential locality including a slum, made him a habitual beggar. Thus even on those days when Subbu is returned to Shoba by her companion after his sojourn away from her, Subbu would volunteer to repeat his begging acts in the residential area near the pavements they stayed. Shoba's non-cooperating health and Sekar's increasing resistance to take part in the ragpicking work, as he was averse to looking dirty and shabby, forced the family to silently endorse Subbu's instinctual enthusiasm for begging. Subbu also brought enough for the family to feed in the morning and night. Shoba told that in those days when Subbu would have been whisked away by his father in protest against her refusal or inability to give him money for drinking, she herself would venture into begging in the same areas where Subbu goes for begging. But invariably she would get only very little food Ð just enough to feed Sekar.

Over a period of time it so happened that the whole family started becoming dependent on Subbu who at this tender age carries the family single-handedly. It is thanks to the food he brings through his begging that the family of five members survive. He is unfailingly regular in his begging responsibilities. Every day he starts at 8 O' clock in the morning and goes about collecting the food, mostly leftovers, and returns around 10 am to the awaiting family. What he brings will be eaten as the brunch as rarely there will be any thing left for lunch. Then again Subbu will resume his work only in the night at 8 O' clock and return at 10 pm. This will suffice the family's needs for night meals.

Subbu has become very important for the family, so much so there is an intriguing and silent competition going on in the family between the mother and the father in keeping possession of him. His innocent and instantly sympathy evoking face has made him a prized possession, as it were. Subbu's begging forays now fulfill everybody's personal ambitions. Subbu's father manages to get his money for drinking, Shoba could get enough to feed her children out of the food items Subbu collects and Sekar himself could refrain from the ragpicking work and afford to appear neat and tidy.

In the recent past Sekar has totally stopped going for his rag picking work. As a matter of fact Sekar's love for neatness never permitted him to be full-fledged rag picker. Even in those days when he was engaged in full time ragpicking Sekar, instead of dabbling with garbage, was lifting some one's sackful of rags or steal silver wares as they were being unloaded from the lorries in the late nights. After getting thoroughly beaten by the police when caught stealing the silver ware, Sekar completely left ragpicking work. He switched over to some sort of nocturnal work. In the nights he started collecting empty whiskey and beer bottles, as the liquor-drinking auto drivers and others would throw them away after drinking in the open grounds and other spots they gather in the nights. This ensured that everyday he gets at least 10 to 15 rupees. He keeps five rupees for himself and gives the rest to his mother.

With that five rupees he plays videogames in the nearby area during the daytime. Since the videogame shop owner does not accept nor the children who come there treat very kindly those persons with dirty looks and dresses, Sekar has to dress up decently. He aspires to live his future free from dirt, filth and squalor. But at the moment the contribution from Subbu keeps things moving. It was just past 8 pm when we were talking to Shoba's family. Even as we were enthusiastically proceeding with more questions, Subbu was getting restless and was looking at his mother and brother. Once getting the green signal from his mother who beckoned him to proceed from the corner of her eyes, Subbu started to move away from us. Soon he emerged with two plastic cans held precariously in both his armpits and started proceeding towards the slum area.

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