Babar was about eight years old when I met him last year in Chawri Bazaar. He is the youngest in the family and has three elder sisters. Babar’s father, a tailor, contracted tuberculosis and passed away in 2018.
After his father’s death, Babar’s mother tried to continue tailoring at his father’s shop, but she was also diagnosed with tuberculosis early last year. Since then – with the shop shut – Babar sits with a weighing machine in the streets of Chawri Bazaar, charging passersby Rs 10 to check their weight.
That is how I met him.
One day, as I was rushing down the streets of Chawri Bazaar, I heard Babar call out, “Baaji! Weight check karenge? (Sister! Will you check your weight?)”. I turned around and saw this young boy, sitting with a couple of textbooks and a rusty weighing machine. Jokingly, I asked him how much he was going to charge me.
With some amount of pride, he said, “Rs 10 aur saath mein ek receipt, weight aur mere sign ke saath (Rs 10 along with a receipt with your weight and my signature).”
I agreed and got my ‘Babar-attested’ receipt. When I asked him if he goes to school, he told me that he is enrolled at a nearby government school and aspires to be a sports teacher some day. However, he didn’t get time to attend classes regularly. His mother has been bedridden since last year, and his three elder sisters are married. With no one to take care of his ailing mother and his five-year-old brother, Babar is the sole earning member of the family.
Babar was my first friend in the hustle-bustle of Chandni Chowk, who along with monitoring my weight, also took it upon himself to teach me some Urdu. A couple of weeks ago, I found one of those ‘Babar-attested’ receipts in my wallet, behind which I had scribbled his Ammi’s phone number.
It was 7 am. I dialled that number, hoping to speak to Babar. His Ammi picked up. With her evidently exhausted voice, she told me that Babar was not at home. She told me that since the start of lockdown, Babar has been leaving home at 6 am to stand in a queue with at least hundreds of others to get food for the day for his brother and Ammi.
This queue is outside the same school where Babar studies. When I asked his Ammi if she had enough money for medicines, she said,“Dawa ka kya hai? Bas yeh majboori khaati hai ki ek 8 saal ka baacha itni jaldi bada ho gaya (What is the point of the medicine? It is this helplessness that eats me up that my eight-year-old son is being forced to grow up so soon).”
I spent the whole day thinking about what she said. Surprisingly, he called me the same evening to share his excitement about securing the first spot in the queue for a second round of meals outside his school. I jokingly told him that other children his age worry about securing first position in their class.
Hearing this, Babar burst into laughter, “Chalo Baaji. School mein padhkar shayad first na aa paun, Ammi k liye khana lena k liye ussi school ki line mein toh main first aa gaya (I might not secure first rank in my class but at least I secured the first spot in the queue to get some food for my mother)”.
So while most of us sit at home and attend online classes, there is an 8-year-old boy somewhere, standing in a queue to get meals for his family – outside the same school which at one point was his safe haven and a repository of hope of a better life.
Maybe that is who Babar is to his Ammi – occasionally a student, but a shimmer of hope and a resilient caregiver, day after day.
Neymat Chadha is an aspiring anthropologist from Delhi with a keen interest in the intersectionality between childhood, illness, biomedicine, gender and labour.
Featured image credit: Charu Chaturvedi/Unsplash