A shirtless boy sells flowers on the streets.
A bespectacled kid focuses on the embroidery he sets into place.
A chai-wala delivers drinks to working men.
A preteen cracks jokes with his uncle in an auto shop.
A ragpicker gets chased away the trashcan next to a VIP’s residence.
These are the scenes that crept across the theater screen. The empathy with which the children were depicted was stunning. The camera lingered on boys trying to help their families survive in the richest city in India, as wealthy businessmen and private school kids zipped by in the background.
I was watching “Hawaa Hawaai”, a Bollywood movie about a child laborer from the slum who pursues his dreams while dealing with serious illness and his father’s death. I went to the movie with my friend Danish…who for most of his life has been a child laborer from the slum pursuing his dreams while dealing with serious illness and his father’s death.
Neither of us knew what the movie was about when we went to watch it, and we sort of picked it on a whim. Danish was treating me to the movie and not only bought my ticket, but insisted on getting me a soda.
It was a plush movie theater. As I was moved by the film’s scene-setting, it took effort to remember that Danish wasn’t just any friend laughing at the jokes, but someone who had lived much of it. I don’t know what it meant for my experience. Considering the compassion and empathy with which the characters were depicted…I was happy to be there with him, and that was that.
The next day I asked Danish if he liked the movie, and he said that he did. I asked him what he liked most. I expected him to say “the jokes”, since he had laughed so hard at a number of them. But instead, he answered, “His hard work.”
Danish was 21 when we watched the movie. His father died of lung cancer when he was 10. He has a younger brother (Fareed) and sister (Ujma) in the house, as well as his mother. Two older sisters are now married and live in other neighborhoods.
One day when Danish was helping me learn language, I asked him to recount his work history for me. He related this schedule to me, which was his 6 days/week workday when he was about 11-12 years old:
7am-1pm: School. Even after his father’s death, Danish worked to continue school until finishing 8th grade, at about the age of 13.
1:30pm-5pm: Arabic and Urdu lessons and religious education at the madrasa.
5pm-7pm: Manual labor at the screen-printing shop, an illegal child-labor mill in our slum. He started at around 10, soon after his father’s death. Some of the fellow children working there are as young as five or six.
7pm-11pm: Pharmacist’s assistant, pulling medications off the shelves at the local slum medical dispensary. Danish started that work before his father died and did it for the first two years unpaid, then began getting three dollars a month, and eventually more.
11pm-3am: Back to the screen printing shop. For the first three years he only made about a dollar a week for those six hours a day.
3am-7am: Sleep. Though he told me with that schedule he often slept in his desk at school as well.
At the age of 13 Danish graduated from 8th class and quit both the regular school and the madrasa in favor of screen-printing for 13 hours/day, getting a jump in income to a $1/day. By age 15 he was up to $2/day at the screen printing shop and another $9/month at the dispensary. At age 16 he was briefly up to $2.50/day screen-printing, but quit that job to take a “real job” selling artificial jewelry at the mall at $3/day for 10-12 hours of work.
Now entering his “adult” work life, Danish sold artificial jewelry for five years. Soon his younger brother (who had continued school until 10th grade) was also working at a mall job, meaning that Danish no longer had to be the sole breadwinner in the family. Add in the income Danish earned from helping me with language lessons for an hour every morning, and soon his family had saved enough to rebuild their home with a concrete floor, solid brick walls, and a tin roof, and add additions for a toilet and a small front room for a store or a renter.
Danish suffered a setback when he was laid off at the age of 21. Luckily, he then managed to score his dream job working as a driver for a wealthy family. The pay was only $80/month but the hours were light and he hoped to use that entry to work his way up as a driver and eventually get to jobs that would pay two or three times as much. So far his work has proven to be sporadic and he has often gone months without pay.
For two years I paid Danish around $1/hour for his help with my language lessons. It used to take him a week to earn that much. Today there are still millions of young children working in similar systems.
Danish has said that he wants to get a 12th-pass education to access the opportunities a diploma confers, but he will likely never continue his education past the 8th grade. He’ll never make up for the time he missed playing as a kid. Since he was only 20 he has dealt with serious degenerative back issues, which appear to be genetic in origin but may have been aggravated by the years of work with little rest at such a young age. And without an education or more than menial work experience, he probably won’t be able to get his own children out of the cycle of poverty unless something serious changes in our slum.
That’s the life of just one child laborer.