As the inmates of Ummeed, an ashram for homeless and street children, interacted with the students of The Shriram School, the huge chasm dividing them was briefly bridged through moments of sharing.Together they learnt lessons about love and loss, about privilege and denial, about fear and courage, about egalitarian compassion, and above all our universal shared humanity.
A child was talking of how he lost his home and ended up on the streets. He was travelling with his parents in a crowded train when he was very young. He got off the compartment at a station, and the train left with his mother and father. He never found his parents again. For most of his childhood years, he grew up on railway platforms with other homeless children as his only family, earning his food through selling water bottles or picking rags, battling sexual abuse and police batons, seeking solace in drugs and the comradeship of his street friends.
A teenaged girl his age was listening intently to him. Her parents were wealthy, and she studied in one of the most privileged schools in Delhi’s capital region. She recounted, as the boy spoke of his life, that she also got lost once and was separated from her parents. She recalled her enormous fear and helplessness at that time. Her good fortune was that her parents found her. As the two children spoke, they wondered what life would have been for both of them had fate dealt differently in those short moments: if the boy’s parents had found him and the girl’s had not. The boy would have been raised in the security and love of his home, and the girl would have faced an even worse destiny on the streets. They closed their eyes for a while to imagine what life would have been had they lived this different existence, and the girl said, to her own astonishment, “I would have been hungry, and one of the first things I would have done would have been to steal food.”
For five days this September, we brought teenaged children from The Shriram School, an elite school with excellent academic accomplishments in Gurgaon, together with children of Ummeed, an ashram near Gurgaon where we are raising children who were formerly homeless and on the streets. The purpose was to try to open a dialogue between children who were of exceptional affluence, and those who were the most deprived in the city, children who survive without adult protection on the mean and rough streets of the metropolis. We hoped that the conversations would lead to mutual understanding, empathy and maybe even — if nurtured over time — to friendships across vast chasms of class.
The early response of both sets of children was expectedly saddled with awkward trepidation. Many of the Ummeed children — remarkably brave otherwise — initially hid behind their lockers or near the walls of the ashram, refusing to join the interactions, worried about how they would be treated, embarrassed by their clothes and their rough speech. The Shriram children had their own fears, of how they could possibly relate to the expected coarseness of street-smart children who grew up without parents and education.
The initial dialogues in small mixed groups of children were about their joys and hates; and their dreams. It took only a morning together for many of them to discover how much was common between them: they all loved cricket, films, songs, and were quickly debating their favourite cricketers and actors. They also discovered profound differences, but on unexpected lines. The Shriram children often included “studies” among their pet hates, but for the children of Ummeed, education was almost unanimously chosen as their most precious acquisition. Many boys were unlettered when they joined Ummeed a year ago, and they have studied hard and surprised most people by even qualifying recently for entry into a formal middle school. Reflecting together on this difference, the Shriram children recognised that they took education for granted as it came to them so easily, whereas for the Ummeed teenagers, it was invaluable precisely because they were always barred from it.
Most Ummeed children were clear about what they wanted to do as they grew up: several, for instance, saw computer hardware as a profession with a future, as four of their colleagues have already completed a course in hardware engineering from a private polytechnic since they joined the ashram. A sizeable number chose social work and teaching, because they wanted to save other street children from the lives they were forced to lead. The Shriram children were usually more relaxed and less focussed about their futures: some saw university education overseas followed by inheriting their fathers’ business as an assured path, some spoke of fashion and jewellery design, or architecture, or professional golf or football. Many children from Shriram said they had not even thought about their futures.
Next the children were broken into pairs, and encouraged to share the details of their lives. The children from the streets described to unbelieving children who grew up in protected homes, what life was actually like on the streets. They were stunned by the grit and strength of these children: they would have found it terrifying to sleep a single night alone on the sidewalk of a highway. But there is pain in homes of privilege as well, and some children shared a little of their loneliness and anguish because they felt that their parents had little time for them, or of fathers who were too harsh; they said they had not spoken of some of these things to even their closest friends from school. I was touched by a fragment of a conversation in which a former street boy was counselling a child who was distressed at his father’s treatment of him. “Be patient with your father”, the child from Ummeed was saying to his new-found friend. “Try to understand things from his point of view”. He had seen too many hot-headed children on the streets who had not been so patient, and instead chosen the harsh world of the streets.
The Ummeed children do most of their work themselves: they cook their own food, clean their rooms and toilets, even build additions to their ashram. The children from Shriram were encouraged to share in this work, helping rebuild a fallen boundary, plaster their walls, or plant vegetables. They delighted at the blisters that they got on their hands and earth-soiled clothes, as the Ummeed children laughed, “They have never had to labour in their lives: that is why they are enjoying it so much”. They also trounced them in kabaddi and cricket, and showed off their superior skills in martial arts and wrestling.
The next day they discussed the world around them: caste, communalism, gender and class inequalities. Most Shriram children did not even know who Dalits were. Many had not heard of the practice of untouchability. A few claimed that caste was a system “that prevailed only in ancient times”. The Ummeed children hotly contested this, and described how caste discrimination thrived in the villages from which many of them had run away.
The physical distance between the children of Shriram and the children of Ummeed may have been sometimes less than a kilometre, as children sleep on pavements outside the gated colonies of their affluent homes. But this distance is so profound that most people cannot traverse it in a lifetime. Our children were able to cross briefly this abyss that separated them. Together they learnt lessons about love and loss, about privilege and denial, about fear and courage, about egalitarian compassion, and above all our universal shared humanity. And on parting, some Shriram children shared mobile phone numbers, welcomed the Ummeed children to their school or promised to return to the ashram. At least a few did seem to have become friends.