The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyesSometimes, we are so caught up living life in the fast lane and chasing our dreams that it is preemptive to take a pause and catch a breath to prevent a burnout. It was one such occasion, where I needed a break from my fellowship to unwind and start afresh. A quick trip to Pondicherry, the French capital of India was just what I needed. There’s something serene about being on a beach and watching the sunrise and the waves. Add the incentive of experiencing the Indo-French culture and good food; you have an excellent holiday destination that is just a mere 200 km away!
I reached Pondicherry at the break of dawn. The sunrise was gorgeous. My friend and I treated our senses to the feast of vibrant colours, tantalizing hues and the melodious sounds of the waves. Fishermen were readying to go into the sea, a few were returning after their first venture. The beach was lined with row-boats; men and women untangling the fish from the nets that were littered with various treasures from the sea.
Often, we remain preoccupied with our thoughts. Very rarely do the people we meet in passing be more than that. My journey as a fellow had changed my perspective; I now unknowingly start conversations and seek to hear their stories. I was no longer a mere passerby, barely affected by the spectres that crossed my path for a fraction of a moment. They were no longer shadows that flitted in the background; they were real humans with a story. At that moment, they brought in me an infinitesimal change before parting ways.
It was that evening I met young Yousuf. As my friend and I enjoyed the warm night breeze on the beach, he approached us with a stack of paintings. Being a very persistent person, he refused to give up on us and was adamant on making a sale. In his attempts to make a sale, he spoke to us in impeccable English, Tamil and Hindi. Curiosity got the better of us and we bargained buying his paintings if he would talk to us. The kid in him took over and he was more than delighted. Yousuf told us that he and his family migrated from Uttar Pradesh in search of work. His father and mother are daily-wage labourers. After the birth of his younger sister, his mother takes care of the baby at home. Yousuf wants to do his part to contribute to the family income. He spends his evenings drawing and painting. He then seals them in transparent plastic covers and sells them at night. This 7th grader studies in a government school, where Tamil is a mandatory language. Hence, he learned Tamil. Hindi being his mother tongue comes with a natural ease. He learns English through his talks with Pondicherry tourists, who fall for his irresistible charm. When I asked his permission to take a picture, he was ecstatic. After selling me two of his favourite pictures and posing for a picture, he cheerfully went on to find prospective customers.
As I watched Yousuf walk away, I could not help but think of his circumstances; he sacrificed his childhood and grew up far more quickly than others of his age. While he bravely tackles the stark realities of life with a smile on his face, they remain unaware and none the wiser, protected in the haven they are fortunate to have. Yousuf is a rare gem who, in spite of his difficulties displays a rare cheerful attitude and a philosophy of life that eludes most adults who grapple with lesser worries. I saw a different shade of the same coin the same night. Soon after Yousuf moved away, a younger boy approached us with a set of colouring books. He had an air of despondency and melancholy. He was less inclined to talk and would not disclose his name. Worried by his behaviour, we promised to buy his books but only if he would tell us what he wanted in return. After a long attempt at conversation, he admitted to just wanting food. When I asked what he wanted, he took us to a shawarma stall and requested to buy a chicken shawarma. After getting his meal, he quietly disappeared into the night with his dinner, without giving us a chance to buy his books. His sadness worried us; he seemed to have been forced into the task of selling the books. There was nothing more we could do for him as he melted away into the crowds.
Child labour is a much-debated topic; the discussion prolonged and inconclusive with no feasible solution at sight. While it is acceptable for parents to send their children off to reality shows and in the fashion industry to earn money, they are not deemed to be child labour. When children like Yousuf voluntarily engage in harmless jobs to help his family, children like the nameless boy are forced into the same, maybe into much darker and sinister trades. How then, can we come with a comprehensive solution that helps all? A trip that was supposed to be a break turned out to be much more. I learned that once you become socially conscious, there is no off-switch. As I bid adieu to Pondicherry’s delicious food and lovely vibes, I took with me the lesson Yousuf taught me- persevere with a smile.