Conqueror of Hunger

English Translation: Srinivas Banda

Telugu original: “Gudem cheppina kathalu-6” by Anuradha Nadella

The other day, while I was checking the homework done by students sitting in the front rows, noticed some commotion from the elder students in the back benches.

On completing the home work checking, I reached the back benches to find Sunil in the middle of a small group. I wanted to know what was all the noise about. John Babu shot out almost immediately. 

“Miss, Sunil brought a cell phone. It has so many songs”. 

So, that’s the source of film music that was faintly reaching my ears all this while. 

“Sunil, give me the cell phone”.

“Miss, I switched it off. No more songs,” replied Sunil, slipping the cell phone into his pocket.  

“Where did you get that phone?”

“It’s mine. I bought it.” His response confused me. 

“Miss, he works at a hotel in Tadigadapa centre for three hours in the morning, before coming to school. He bought it with his earnings,” John clarified.

“Yes Miss. My Auntie put me there.  She says that I must understand the value of money and start earning now”.

“Auntie? Aren’t you living with your parents?”

Again, John explained. “He lost his mom long ago. His father married again. He addresses his step-mom as auntie,” 

This was unexpected! I felt sad to have asked him such a question.

“Sunil, Should you be spending your hard earned money on such unnecessary things? Wouldn’t your parents scold you if they come to know of it?”

“They will not bother, Miss. I will spend some of my earnings, on my own interests. That was the deal with my auntie, before I began working”. I was somewhat surprised  about the way he firmly dealt with his family. 

“Your interests! Do they include buying a cell phone?”

“Miss, I liked phones since I was a kid. My uncle often purchases new phones. So I got one. Anyway, it’s not a new one. My friend Nagu bought a new phone and sold his old one to me for three hundred rupees. You know Miss, I saved those three hundred by skipping evening snacks for one full month”. Sunil sounded proud. 

That was a jolt, but it also explained the fatigue on his face.

I recalled a conversation that took place on an evening, a few days ago.

I scolded Kartik for coming late to the class. He explained that his mother had just returned from work and hence he was late.

“All other kids are punctual. Only you would be late to the class, four out of six days in a week. Look at Sunil. He is always on time. And the first one to come too.”

“He will not wait for snacks in the evening. That’s why he manages to come so early to the class”.

Sunil responded angrily to Kartik, “I eat at the cafe while returning from school”.

“Of course you will. You eat out since your auntie never feeds you enough. My mother said.”. 

That spark was enough to start a fight. Sunil lunged upon Kartik and it took a lot of effort to calm them down. 

“I need nobody to feed me. I will earn myself and feed everyone,” Sunil’s face turned red with anger. He  stood up and left with a curt “Miss, I am leaving”. 

I was  pained to know that Sunil spent many hungry evenings – just for buying a cell phone.  

“Sunil, how can you concentrate in the class, if you starve yourself for buying a phone? You should concentrate on your studies so that you can get a good job. Then, you can buy whatever you want”.

He interrupted, “I know all that, Miss. But first, I will have to earn. And I have to prove my worth to my auntie”. 

I can sense the agony beneath his resolve.

Devayya sir stopped by our class. He seemed to have observed the entire episode. 

“You seem to be quite keen to help all these fellows for bettering their lives. You are sadly mistaken, since it would only be a pipedream. People like Sunil share just a fraction of their earnings with their family and demand stuff like chicken curry etc. Those family members inflate the ego of these kids, since they are now considered as earning hands. But sadly again, it never occurs to them that they should educate these children so as to secure their future and ensure a better standard of life for them, unlike the one which they are living. I am watching them since ages. Have tried my best to create awareness in them about this matter.  But no, they wouldn’t listen”.  

His depressed view unsettled me. “Sir,” I said. “Please do not say so. Let us try to change them. If we succeed in explaining to them about the better life that education could lead them to, may be…”

“My child,” he interrupted. “You may try whatever you like. I am tired of them”. He pressed his palms together, high above his head and headed to his home, slowly. 

Such an experienced person… and yet such a pessimistic view? Why? Can’t these kids be helped by anybody?

Next day, I started early and went to Sunil’s home. A lady was cleaning rice in the small space in front. She glanced at me, quizzingly.

“Amma, Sunil is an intelligent boy and it is now time for his education. At this tender age, you are sending him to work. He can get a nice job if he attains a qualification. Eventually your family would be out of financial troubles. It would be better if you may please let him concentrate on his studies for a few more years”.

An unpleasant expression hung on her face.

Now an old man, sitting on a nearby cot, responded between his cigar puffs. 

“Teacher, do you think that my grandson would become an officer? This house can sustain only if that boy also lends a hand. My daughter didn’t send him to work since he is her step-son. She does so, since he could add another curry to the plate”.  Of course he managed to conceal the fact that Sunil’s earnings are taking care of his smoking expenses too.

“Sir,” I pleaded. “Children of his age will not have enough energy levels to manage work and studies. If he focusses, good results will certainly follow. Moreover, child labour is a crime too”.

“So?” She questioned impatiently. “Will you slap a case on us?” 

Just then, Sunil entered. 

“Hey, are you instigating your teacher against us, so that you can leave the job?” Her arm lifted to strike him. He ran inside, escaping from it. 

I was dumbstruck. What did I come for? What’s happening here?

“Teacher, do not interfere in our family matters. You are here to teach. Mind your limits.” With that, she stormed into the house.

I was not expecting their attitude to change miraculously. I returned, with a firm resolve to pursue the matter and convince them.

                                                                *****

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