Thursday, April 7, 2016

Realising the Reality

I visited The Dine-In, a posh restaurant , this weekend.

No, this story  is not a restaurant review about the dry biryani or hot lassi.

It is not about the Rajasthani style painting that adorned the deep dark wooden panels or about the silly waiters dressed like nervous fresh MBA grads from an obscure college, with white shirts and uncomfortable ties.

It is about Shamsuddin.
The little boy who poured water into my glass and cleared out my table.
He walked around nervously with a heavy jug of water, wearing the same black trousers and white shirt, no tie. His eyes darted across the room like a scared rabbit, scanning the place for empty tumblers that needed a refill.  He was hardly four and a half feet tall, not a trace of facial hair. He couldn’t have been a day older than 12. He caught me staring at him and looked back, wondering whether to smile, or look away. And then, with those wide innocent eyes filled with confusion, he gave me a slow, hesitant smile.

Something tugged my heart strings and soon enough the dryness of the biryani or the callousness of the waiter who whisked away my rejected hot lassi was not the problem anymore.

There was this child here pouring water and removing used plates from tables when he should have been kicking around a football on that cold Saturday afternoon. He was trying to satisfy strangers in that dark restaurant when should have been out with his friends, laughing and teasing his school teachers. He was trying to keep that white shirt clean lest the senior waiters scold him when he should have been wondering if his mother would have Surf for his school uniform after a romp in the mud.

Dine-In was not one of those dirty roadside eateries that gave a damn about the laws of the land, it was a reputed chain of quality restaurants. And child labor was a criminal offense.

The dormant social activist in me got all fired up, and I summoned the boy and asked him how old he was. He looked at me, bewildered. “Si..sixteen”, he stammered. I am not very knowledgeable about the child labor laws, but I guess above 14 does not qualify as child labor. Well, OK. Then I asked him how long he was working there. Almost a year, he said. A rehearsed lie? Maybe, but again, legally fine.  But morally? Emotionally? I am torn.

One voice inside my head kept telling me to lodge a complaint with the authorities. Let the officials determine whether he was actually 16 and the restaurant was not breaking any laws. Let them penalize the restaurant if they were breaking the law (which I am certain they were) and give back this child, Shamsuddin, his childhood. Send him back to school.

But the other voice inside me kept telling me to let it go. Maybe this child’s income from clearing out tables is what puts two meals on the table in his own house.

And here, I was torn between a child’s childhood and his livelihood.

With the two voices inside my head still waging a never-ending debate, I left the restaurant, with a heavy heart . All I could do was leave a generous tip, and hope that at least a part would reach the child.

Childhood. It happens just once. I just hope hungry diners like me and greedy restauranteurs do not take it away

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