Magistrate Amit Narang of Ambala District Court was looking bored. He looked at the clock. It was 4.38pm. He still had 15 dockets pending on his desk. Most of them were summary cases of deadbeats, drink and drive, domestic violence etc. He was sure that he can hear them out and leave the court before 6pm for the weekend outing with his friends.
He asked the Baliff to call for the next docket. The public prosecutor presented the case before the bench as if he was reading his grocery list. “Your honor, these 14 people were arrested by the Ambala Municipal Corporation on the charge of vagrancy, under section 4c of Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. We have 13 adults and a child of eight.” Magistrate Narang barely glanced at the docket and closed the case. “Rs 5000 fine per person or a normal jail for 30 days for the adults and the child to be transferred to the Juvenile Welfare Center in Mandi for further action. Next case?”
The clock struck 6 and the court was adjourned for the week. The visitors made a beeline for their respective homes, shivering in the evening chill of late December. The crowd consisted mostly of news reporters, law school students and old retired people, youths, who didn’t have anything better than to watch how the legal machines turned. Trees were bare of their leaves and there was a peculiar fragrance, which only winter evenings in small towns have.
A routine and summary judgement by an overworked, harassed and bored official may have various effects on the people involved. Most of the adults were happy. They were invited to spend the bitter North winters in the Government Lodgings with all expenses paid. Not a single of the convicts approached the bench to pay the stipulated fine. The eight years old Bhola was following everyone as a lost puppy. A constable held his hand and asked him to sit in a chair in the Ambala police station. The other convicts were locked up for the night, to be carted away to the state penitentiary in the morning.
Technically and legally, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile and cannot be convicted for a crime. He is handed over to the juvenile detention centres, which run programs for their welfare and correction. They are supposed to be centers, which provide psychological and sociological helps to kids so that they are corrected and prepared to lead their lives normally in the world. In fact, they are just glorified prisons and in some cases, worse than the adult jails, because those tiny souls are unable to defend themselves like the grownups. The harried government and the intellectuals of the world have bigger worries like religious intolerance, caste squabbles and reservation issues, than to be worried about the future of a few wayward kids. That’s quite understandable, isn’t it? Forged in the intense heat of merciless brutality and coached by the expertise of the old timers, the Juvenile Centers continue to work as factories from which hardened criminals of future are manufactured.
Bhola was informed that he will be transported to Mandi Juvenile Welfare Center on Saturday and was left alone. Nothing saps the soul of a person like a stint in a police station, hospital or a crematorium. They tend to suck all the happy thoughts and leave a miserable vacuum in its place.
The poor child was bewildered. He was begging outside Nigar Theater in Sadar Bazaar, when he was rounded up along with a crowd of other beggars and was herded in a waiting bus. He dimly understood that he was in some kind of trouble with the law, but didn’t understand how he was going to be treated and was naturally scared out of his wits. Bhola didn’t have any parents or living relatives. He used to live in a nearby orphanage and ran away from there in June. He preferred the dark and cold streets to the roof of the orphanage, as he found those rough and dirty streets more friendly and humane. Wearing dirty tee-shirt and shorts, he shivered in the police station. He was given a meagrer dinner and was grateful for it as it was better than his daily fare as a beggar or that of the orphanage. The menu didn’t include a beating by the warden.
Next day he was sent off with a constable to Mandi Juvenile Welfare Center. Today was Saturday, 24th December. People from Delhi and Punjab crowded with the tourists from all over to celebrate the Christmas Eve in Shimla. The little Shimla station was overcrowded. While crossing the manned gates of the station, there was a sudden shove and a push from behind which caused an overburdened porter to stumble. Everyone panicked; there was a general confusion. Bhola was unceremoniously kicked out of the station gates and found himself on the road: free as a bird! He was simple and innocent but not stupid; he took to his heels. All day he hid behind a parked truck and ventured out in the evening, when he was sure that the Indian Armed Forces were employed elsewhere and were not busy looking for an escaped kid of eight, charged with vagrancy. He was feeling hungry and miserable, the last meal of yesterday being a distant memory.
The Mall Road in Shimla can be considered as one of the most picturesque locations in India. On a winter evening it can give a run for money to any Old England town. The streets are lined with gabled buildings designed in renaissance Gothic. There was a heavy snowfall last night; the snow was piled on the pavement and was partially melted. The shops were decorated for Christmas. Streets were filled with people dressed in their winter fineries and fur coats. The yuletide was in its full force. Sadness is a gloom, which is always dispelled by the warmth and glow of happiness. Like a bar of luminensce, it rubs off on the darkest of souls and reduces the pall which gnaws at it like a termite in a vintage furniture. Bhola forgot his hunger. He was amazed at the display of prosperity and happiness. He went on drinking the beauty of the season for an eternity. The shops closed at 10.30 pm but the tourists still flocked the street. Whoever wants to turn in early on yuletide!
Suddenly it started to snow again. Bhola had never seen snow in his life. He was astonished at this cosmic extravaganza. The snow flakes glided slowly from heaven as if a million ethereal doves were shedding their feathers! Soft and white as fluffy cotton, they got entangled in his matted hair and caressed his dirty cheeks. He tried to catch a couple of them, but they vanished as leprechaun gold by the warmth of his body. The temperature had fallen considerably. People hurried towards their destination. Bhola didn’t have anywhere to go. So he stood in the middle of the road, his face heavenwards and his tiny arms outstretched and tried to collect as much of the happiness as he could. After a long time, he realized that he was drenched and shivering. He saw a large building ahead and went inside, shaking as if in a fever. It was very dark. He stumbled around, till he found a wooden bench and lay down on it. His entire body was aching and his intestines were tied in painful knots due to hunger.
Bhola felt as if he’s not alone. He could hear someone breathing. He looked around in the darkness. Suddenly a million fireflies descended from heaven and the place glowed in an unearthly light. Snowflakes were gliding from the rafters of the building. The building was not cold anymore. A large and fat Santa arrived with a huge bag. He offered candies and chocolates which Bhola hungrily devoured and asked for more. He ate hundreds of candies, but his hunger was insatiable. The Santa emptied the bag. There were small, green and ugly dwarfs in the bag, who clinged to Bhola and pulled him down. The Santa laughed and threw off his red costume. He turned into a policeman and leered at the kid. Bhola screamed…
The serene and peaceful interior of St John Chapel on Mall Road was filled with well-fed parishioners of the Mall Road and wide eyed tourists for the Midnight Mass. The bored organist was belting out chords, which was accompanying the lethargic and off-key voice of the hypnotized choir. The white haired and genial priest, resplendent in his bishopric gown was trying to stay awake, when the peaceful ambience was disintegrated by the scream of a child. The parishioners were startled. The organist stopped. There was a stunned silence, broken only by the creaking of an oscillating chandelier. The priest looked around in bewilderment for the source of this soprano recital.
The child was found from the last pews and propelled in the aisle, towards the alter.
All the worshipers were looking with interest at this sudden reprieve from the deadly boredom. The dirty and shivering little figure in its pitifully inadequate rags was in stark contrast to the clean and richly clad environment. Father Dominique de Braganza bent down and asked kindly, “Who are you, my son?”
The silence in the House of God was unbroken, except for the creaking chandelier and a small and broken childish voice reciting the woes and miseries of its wretched existence, which ended with a heartfelt plea for food.
We always curse the God for injustice and inequities done to us when we compare ourselves to others. Misery and poverty is relative. For 16 years old Lavina Rodrigues, definition of poverty was having a credit card with an expense limit of paltry Rs 50,000. Augustin Ferrera considered himself poor as his parents couldn’t afford to gift him the latest PS4 this Christmas. They were aghast to see this new level of poverty where one cannot afford a piece of bread!
Mrs Mirelles, who was vying to compete with their neighbors and taunting her hapless husband for spoiling their Christmas, as the tree in their neighbor’s house was better decorated, suddenly realized that cladding oneself in bitter cold is a more basic need as compared to decorating a branch of artificial spruce. Heads were bowed down in recollection of one’s own imagined poverty and misery as compared to this new benchmark. Eyes were clouded.
“…I was very cold and hungry, hence I walked into this house. It was warm; I slept.” The child whispered, his small voice barely audible.
Father de Braganza kneeled beside him. He was silent for a minute. Then he stood up and cleared his throat. His clear voice resonated in the cavernous chapel, “My son. You are in search of peace and love. And, if you can’t find it here, then this place is not what we are taught to believe it is and this house should be burned down to the ground!” He raised the child. It was midnight.
Someone cranked up the organ. 54 chocked throats tried to sing Lord’s Praise huskily. Their voices failed, but the humbled hearts managed to reach Him.