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.