One of the greatest opportunities the Atlas Corp community has given me is a dinner with the Nobel Laureate Kailash Sathyarthi (and his son). My host organization, Magic Bus, had one seat for the dinner and my supervisor decided that I should go 🙂 It was quite an intimate setup – just 20 people – at the Harvard Club in NYC (on June 18th, 2015). I’m glad it was a small group, as that gave me a few moments to speak with him in person.
At the dinner, Mr. Sathyarthi spoke about his organisations – Bachpan Bachchao Andolan and Rugmark – both a result of his attempts to fight child labour.
He shared with us the story of how he rescued his first child, a 14-year-old girl named Sabo, in 1981 – making his struggle to fight child labour as old as me! Sabo and her parents were indentured workers at a brickyard in Punjab when she disappeared. Her father overheard that brokers were trying to sell the girl to a brothel.
The parents contacted Mr. Satyarthi after reading a magazine he ran at the time, called “Sangharsh Jaari Rahega,” meaning “The Struggle Will Continue.” The magazine received tips about alleged crimes and would write about them.
That was the first recorded document of freeing slaves. It was a time when most countries (including India) did not have any laws against child labour. Besides Sabo, they freed 35 other children that day. “That day, I realized what freedom is. I had only read about India’s freedom from the British. But this was the first time I experienced it,” said Mr. Satyarthi as he thanked Basal Khan, Sabo’s father, for getting him involved in this grave issue.
As a social worker myself, I was amazed to learn of the difficulties he has faced while fighting for the cause he truly cares about. These include several attacks on life – the most recent being the attack on him and his colleagues while rescuing child slaves from garment sweatshops in Delhi in 2011. Earlier in 2004, while rescuing children from the clutches of a local circus mafia, he and his colleagues were brutally attacked. During another rescue, one of his colleagues was shot, another was beaten to death. Despite these attacks and his office being ransacked by anti-social elements a number of times in the past, his commitment to stand tall for the cause of child slaves has been unwavering.
What moved me though is his personal story. As he was about to enter the main gate on the very first day of school in his life, Kailash noticed a boy of his age sitting with his father – a cobbler. The man and his son gaped continuously at Kailash as he put the first foot inside the school premises. There was an unspoken desperation in their eyes. It did not take Kailash much time to understand the stark contrast between his life and that of the cobbler’s son. On one hand there was Kailash who had a tilak on the forehead and was completely decked up in new school uniform and shoes. His family had performed a religious ceremony to mark the first day of his school life. On the other hand was the son of the cobbler with a sullen life and no dreams in his eyes. Kailash was very sad to see what he saw. He went to his classroom and asked his teacher about the small boy outside the school gate. His teacher discouraged the question. Kailash asked him yet again only to get scolded and instructed to be attentive in class rather than thinking about what was happening outside. His inquisitive mind remained unsettled.
In the afternoon, Kailash met the Headmaster, who was known to his family and asked him the same question that he had asked his class teacher earlier in the morning. He explained to me that it was absolutely normal for the children of the poor to work in order to survive. He further said that the cobbler was poor and unable to send his son to school. Kailash was still not convinced with the answer that he got. For the next week or ten days, he kept staring at the boy while entering or leaving the school building. Thereafter one day he mustered all his courage and asked the cobbler “Why don’t you send your son to school like me”? He was withdrawn and hesitant in responding, but when Kailash insisted the cobbler replied in a frail voice “Babuji, no one has ever asked me a question like this. My father worked as a cobbler, I am a cobbler and my son is also a cobbler. There is nothing new in it. We are born to work”. His answer left Kailash more bewildered than before. The cobbler’s words were continuously reverberating in his ears. Kailash’s parents had told him that human beings are born to do good deeds, attain good education, get a good job and earn respect for themselves in the society, but then why was the cobbler, his father and his son were on a different journey in life?
Days passed by but the angst kept piling up somewhere deep down within him. It was rainy season, so Kailash’s elder brother bought him a raincoat and a colourfully vibrant umbrella. It was such a pretty umbrella that Kailash was finding it difficult to get his eyes off it. One day, he saw the cobbler beating his son mercilessly. The boy was crying inconsolably. Kailash enquired from the cobbler as to why was he beating his son. The cobbler said “I had to gone for lunch and had asked my son to cover the shoes with a plastic sheet should it rain. This fool instead of protecting the shoes chose to drape himself with the plastic sheet that I had given to him. All the shoes that people had left here for mending are drenched. The leather will spoil soon. These are expensive shoes. I have nowhere to go now. My customers would ask me to pay back what they had spent on their shoes. I barely make my ends meet with great difficulty. How would I pay back my customers? Look what mess have I landed into just because of this foolish boy.” Kailash was zapped. On one hand, he was standing there with a raincoat and the umbrella that his brother had purchased for him to ensure that he does not get drenched in the rains. On the other hand, there was this cobbler who was just not concerned about his son getting wet in the rains. All that he was worried about were the shoes of his customer.
Instantaneously, Kailash handed over his favourite colourful umbrella to the boy, because he anyways had a raincoat as a backup therefore he did not think twice before parting with his umbrella. This incident moved him to the core.
Very rarely does one feel so humbled yet proud at the same time. This was one of those opportunities – humbled by Kailash Satyarthi’s personality and proud to have been given the chance to dine with a Nobel Prize Laureate!