July 25, 2005

Muddied picture

A little story about something that happened a few years ago. Neeraj and Arun are bright, cheery and affectionate brothers in a nearby building. Whenever I go over, they are invariably outside, playing cricket or badminton, which they interrupt to hail me. They are good friends with the other kids in the building; they all play together and run in and out of the flats freely.

One day, one of the brothers stole some small thing from one of the flats. A trivial incident, but it happened. And when it did, it immediately raised an age-old question. Not what to do about the theft, but what to do about class.

For here's a little detail you don't know: the brothers are children of the building's watchman. The family lives in a shed behind the building. Neeraj and Arun sleep under a mosquito net in a vacant garages, mainly because there's not enough room in the shed. Their father is determined to educate them, and both do well at school.

Now as far as I know, nobody in the building treats the brothers any differently from any of the other children. They play and chat together as equally as kids get. To an outsider, this is equality indeed: nobody would guess that of the kids playing in the compound, two sleep in the garage -- if that mattered at all. All very nice and encouraging.

Until this small theft.

Because that muddied the nice picture a little. Some thought it was the familiarity, and that alone, that led to this. Those two should never have been allowed in the building, they said, you never can tell with these people.

But what choice was there? Do you prevent the watchman's kids playing with the others? Do you forbid any contact? If they play together, do you insist that when the other kids run into their flats, these two must stay outside where they belong?

And if they walk in and out of flats like the others, can you really expect them to understand why, once playtime is over, they must return to a mosquito net in the garage while their friends go to nice homes? Can they comprehend why they have so little but their friends have so much? Should such a child really know his place in our society, understand that because he is a watchman's son, he cannot cross certain lines? Do you blame him for reaching out to some attractive little bauble? And since he has, what do you do? Forbid the other kids from playing with these two? Keep them from entering flats? Divide, where there had been togetherness before?

Suddenly, with one small theft, all these questions cried out for answers.

As I said, it's been a few years. With some hiccups, life in the compound goes on. This year, Neeraj, the older of the brothers, appeared for his school-leaving exam. He did remarkably well. He now attends the respected college nearby. Which may be the best answer of all.


Shobha said...

"Can they comprehend why they have so little but their friends have so much?"

Reality bites....and these children learn it way too young about the way things function in this world!

Anonymous said...

It's sad that class and it's cousin caste are so divisive, but at least this story sounds like it has a happy ending..

Anonymous said...

It's sad that class and it's cousin caste are so divisive, but at least this story sounds like it has a happy ending..

Anonymous said...

A lovely post.

Neela said...


An observation: from a casual reading, you appear to condone a theft. Its not clear whether you do this because the thief is a child or because he is a poor child. If your point is that the punishment didn't fit the crime and this only because the perpetrator was poor, its a good point.

But what was the punishment exactly? The questions you raise are likely to be raised for any child caught stealing which brings every single prejuidice we have to the fore: I told you not to mix with that Brian, Goans are like that only, all cheats; Vishwesh's father is a businessman what can you expect; Of course Ali is going to steal something, I told you, those people don't teach their children anything etc etc.

I didn't get a clear idea from reading your post that (a) the questions raised were specifically class related rather than 'other" oriented (b) that any punishment was meted out to the boy other than these accusations and asking the kids to be careful of him.


Anonymous said...


From a casual reading of this post, I get the feeling that Dilip is only asking questions. He doesn't seem to have any specific answers. He does not talk of punishment, where did you get that?

He does not condone the act...he does not condemn either : He sounds concerned about the repercussions of such an act, seems to see why a poorer child (any child, not necesaarily class related)may feel tempted to steal.

In fact Dilip, I know of a young boy who stole from his uncle who lived with the family. His parents were distraught that their son could have stolen money like this.

But the same boy is a successful young man now, responsible and compassionate.

So I do not see this as a class issue, just one of human nature.

Neela said...


The questions I asked D were only to clarify my understanding of this situation. To me it seemed to be, as you so rightly said, a human nature "other" issue rather than a class issue so was trying to get at whether these two had been confounded.

If dire punishment had been meted out to the boy for what seems to be fairly normal (though not acceptable) childish behavior, then we can conclude that it is indeed a class issue, given our experiences of punishments handed out to us (as upper middle class children) for aberrant behavior as kids. But if only questions were raised, I would hesitate to call this a class issue because such questions would be raised regardless of class when confronted with this behavior. We need to be careful to distinguish the two or maybe I'm just being boringly academic here since both are part of the same stereotyping.

But I was just interested.