A Requiem

Posted on May 14, 2009


Will I be missed when I die? How many times have we thought about this? Some of us like to fantasize about the void that we will leave behind when we pass on to the next world. Some of us, very conveniently avoid even thinking about it, some others among us just don’t have the time to think about death: either because we’re too vain or because we’re too busy.

Two weeks ago someone I loved dearly, died. A 13-year old boy called Manoj. It was a regular day at work when I received a call from Vishal, my former boss. He said simply, “Just wanted to let you know that Manoj died on Monday night. Don’t know much, but apparently he was driving around on a luna on Hosur Road in the night, and they say he hit a stationary car.”

Too dumbstruck, I hung up. I turned to the person next to me and mumbled, “A boy that I worked with at Dream A Dream, died on Monday.”

So what’s new? All of us lose someone we love. But there are some we do not know whether to mourn their deaths or to cry in relief that they’re relieved of the inflictions of this world. I don’t know which one I was supposed to do for Manoj.

I met Manoj when he was 10 years old. He lived by a sewer in Adugodi, Bangalore. I knew him because he came to Makkala Jagriti (a community-based organization that we partnered with) and Dream A Dream. Manoj was an innocent thief 🙂 Yea, he was. The solemness in his eyes and his complete lack of planning his thievery were shocking and left one wanting to shake him up. The most beautiful eyes, a thin frail body, ridden with dirt and grime, he was like any of the millions of children in India.

He would come in to our office, wearing tattered clothes and feet that would bring the nearby dump into our sparkling clean office. The first two days we made him go into the bathroom and wash his feet. On the third day, we realised that some of the office stationery was missing. We knew whom to ask. We did not reprimand him. We simply asked him to empty his pockets before he left the office. Soon, he did not steal. Soon, he began to come in to the office with clean feet.

I would take him down the road at a stall to have idlis for breakfast. Now, that is not the fancy roadside thela where the BMWs stop for a “hip” snack. But here, auto drivers stop to have their meals or pack their grub for the day. There would invariably be just one broken down chair. I would offer it to Manoj, but he would insist that I sit on the chair, and he would plonk himself on the ground next to me. I would watch in awe as he gobbled down the food. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t eat at a place like this. But I looked forward to spending that half an hour with this brat who couldn’t speak any of the languages that I could. Our relationship was built on silence and acceptance.

Once, I challenged him to a running race. He humoured me. We began running, he ran just 4 steps and then stopped. He wanted to let me win. “After all, she is a girl”, he had said to our admin manager, Sunil.

Manoj stopped stealing our stuff, but continued to steal stuff from the community near his house. One time, he stole two broken tricycles and sold them for Rs. 30/- People nearly handed him over to the police, but Vishal and I went to rescue him! But we couldn’t save him always. He did end up in the juvenile custody home. Vishal and Joy (She runs Makkala Jagriti, a community-based organization in Bangalore) had to spend three days outside the magistrate’s office before they got him out.

But we knew this couldn’t continue. We knew that he needed to stop stealing so that we could help him improve his life. But that was not to be. We tried to get him to stay at Bosco, a semi-secure rehabilitation facility for male juvenile offenders. Vishal and I went to drop him there. We left him there, he begged to be set free. But we had to be firm. It broke my heart to see him like that, but I did not allow myself to give-in to those beautiful, pleading eyes. But, the next morning, he ran away.

What else could he do? His parents had no time or inclination to look out for him. If I remember correctly his parents were both alcoholics. Their house did not have a roof. But the worse was, every time a crime happened in the community, he was blamed for it. It was like they expected him to rob, he obliged. I guess he figured, that if he is going to receive the blame, then might as well receive it for having done it at least!

The second-last time I met Manoj was when Joy, Vishal and I went to commit him to the observation home. An observation home is unlike a remand home. A remand home has under-aged criminals who have committed serious crimes and have become hardened criminals. Once you get in there, it is hard to come out being anything except a dangerous criminal. An observation home takes in petty offenders and tries to rehabilitate them. Though it is a locked facility, there is a lot of space for the children to move about and engage in educational and sporting activities. We hoped in vain that would change our Manoj.

Then last year, when I visited Joy, I saw him there. There was glimmer of recognition in his eyes, but he was too shy to come and speak to me. Joy told me that he still finds it difficult to make friends or to trust adults, but he comes to the center and talks to one of the staff members regularly. Her words still reverberate in my head, “If it was our own child, would we leave him to rot? No, na? Then why should we give up on him.”

But Manoj continued to steal, and that fateful night, he was romping the streets of Bangalore after stealing a scooter! He died an unceremonious death. But there were some people who are going to miss him. Joy, Vishal and I are some of them.

What I remember of him is simply the innocence in his eyes when we tried to scold him. It was impossible. We were useless at it, and Manoj knew it. He never admitted to anyone else that he did steal, except to Vishal or to Joy. No prizes for guessing why!

RIP my little darling…

Your eyes they reminded me of who I am,
They told me I was loved,
I was important, I was yours,
Now your eyes are closed, never to open again,
I will miss you when I walk by your house,
I will miss you my little friend.