Why this letter?
Well, let's start at the very beginning (it's a very good place to start). Anil, about 12 years old, works in a small and busy restaurant in Bandra, waiting on tables and the like. About a week ago, he and three other boys, all of whom work there, got picked up by the police at the restaurant, and lodged in the Children's Home, Umerkhadi. Child labour, they were told.
We heard about this because his perhaps 35-year-old mother, Ramlamma, occasionally comes to our home to help with washing the dishes. (Hanumantha is a construction worker at a building site nearby). Earlier this week, she told us this had happened, and was frantic with worry. What would happen to her son in there? When would he come back? The police had told him they would send him "back to the village" -- but this family left that village, Derinunkanpalli in Andhra Pradesh, many years ago. Nobody there now.
How can they think of sending him to the village, asked Ramlamma.
After repeated trips to the Children's Home through the week, Ramlamma and Hanumantha were told yesterday there would be a hearing today, after which their son would likely be released. So they went to the court at noon, hung around through the afternoon. I reached there at 230pm, only to find I wasn't allowed inside. (Only parents and relatives).
But I was told that the hearing is conducted by a three-member panel, and that it was about to start. So I stood outside in the rain, with the owner of the restaurant. Waiting. Waiting.
Suddenly Ramlamma, Hanumantha and several other young men emerge, clustering around a young woman. The men are relatives of the other boys who were picked up. She's actually a constable, assigned to this case and clearly sympathetic. "Only one panel-member came," she tells us. "So they've postponed the hearing for a week."
A week? Just like that, another week?
"He actually said 15 days! But Ramlamma was weeping, and I asked him to consider her condition. So he has set the hearing for next Friday."
Hanumantha looks at me. "Please do something, sir", he says. "This is so much trouble for us. Please get him out by Monday."
What do I say? I am acutely conscious of what these two earn; that the hours they spend here mean bites gone from those already meagre incomes; that Anil's earnings, child though he may be, are vital to their lives; above all, of their silent distress at what their son is going through. But what do I say? What power do I have here? And yet, there's the automatic assumption that I do have power.
Sad as I am for Anil and his parents, the case of one of the other boys is worse. The young man here for him is a distant relative; the boy's immediate family is in their remote village in UP. The panel-member has asked for a notarized "NOC" ("No Objection Certificate") stating that there's no objection if the boy is handed over to this young man. This NOC has to be signed (or thumbprinted) by the boy's mother in UP, and must be produced before next Friday.
Quick consultation: are there courier services from this village? Speedpost? Nobody knows, but let's say it seems unlikely.
And that letter. Hanumantha reaches into a crumpled plastic bag and gives me a copy of it. This is my translation:
- To Respected Chief
Children's Welfare Society
I, the supplicant Ramlamma, beg to tell you that my son works in a hotel. The Bandra police caught him and have put him in the detention centre. I would like to take him home, so please be kind enough to turn him over to my custody. Whenever the court calls us, we will have him present in the court, but please be kind enough to put him in our custody. This is our prayer.