I was inspired to write this narrative after attending a student leadership workshop. This story is entirely fictional, but there is no doubt that children working in developing countries face similar problems everyday. I hope this story will inspire you to think differently of the materials you own that are made through the hands of child labour. Above all, I hope this inspires you to have an earnest desire to save humanity.
“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
– “ Mahatma Gandhi, Indian ascetic & nationalist leader (1869-1948)
I lie awake on the dirt clay flooring of the loom with the echoes of the former Mahatma Gandhi. I hear the soft, gentle breaths of the other children in unison like a flock of peaceful lambs. A few feet away, I hear the stomach gurgles of either Papu or Shabnam, they are the “older brothers” of the loom since they have worked here for eight years now. They are kind and wise. Sometimes I think they hide their wisdom in silence and behind their distant eyes.
As for me, my name is Kailesh and I am nine years old. I do not have a lot, I do not take a lot, I do not know a lot, but I do think a lot. Only at bedtime can I think, wonder, reflect and dream freely. I think of the day my parents told me I had to come here, come to Uttar Pradesh: the land of the carpet industry. They told me that after I learn the marketable skills of carpet making I will not need to do anything else. I can earn a living making carpets. I cannot make a living from reading and writing. That was why nobody could afford to spend time at school. They had to do bonded labour to help their parents pay off their debt – ”like my sister.
My older sister, Sumathi, was working in a beedi industry rolling and tying beedi cigarettes. I was proud of my older sister for helping to pay off my parent’s debt. I saw her as a selfless, courageous figure who contributed to the well-being of the family. Later I became worried, worried for my sister’s life. One night she came home with a fresh scar. I asked her what had happened.
“The owner branded me with hot iron because my matchbox fell,” she sobbed. At the beedi place where my sister worked, the brutal owner would make his bondage workers tuck a matchbox between their chin and their neck; once the matchbox fell the owner would accuse them of laziness and being unfocused. It made me sad that night that my sister’s matchbox fell.
Then she explained to me that once the owner heard the matchbox fall, he punished her in front of the others. He branded my sister with a hot iron to show everyone the consequence of being “unfocused.” I visibly saw the words of Mahatma Gandhi upon the scar of my sister; this permanent scar of evil was made through the act of violence, the scar that killed my sister’s spirit. I hugged my sister in affection and started to cry as lumps of sadness grew in my throat. That night, I think my parents knew what had happened to my sister. But they would never ask her. They would never ask her because they were afraid to think that they had put my sister in such terrible danger.
I knew that they would have never asked me to leave home and work in a loom at Uttar Pradesh to earn my own rupees if they did not think that it was safe. Yet, it was upon impulse that I full heartedly wanted to come to Uttar Pradesh, so I would be able to help my parents and to free my sister from bondage.
I have been here for nearly two years now and I have helped weave almost four carpets. It is because our hands are small, our hands of laborers, that carpet-making becomes a long process. We are only paid by the inches of carpet woven, not by the hour. I want to work fast so I can make more rupees. When I get tired, I just wish that my parents and Sumathi would be there to hug me. I miss them. That is why my heart ties knots around itself from the pain I feel when I think of home. Most of the time, I just want to stop working. I have white, chalky humps all over my ten fingers. And when I cry over my hand, it stings those humps. I cry a lot, so I hurt a lot too. But everyday we start work right away from the first sight of the sun to the first sight of the moon. This is why I love night time. Night becomes my shield away from work.
I do not understand, I do not understand how the owner can whip us and beat us if we complain or grow tired. We are only children and we just do not understand how two small meals a day can stop the stomach gurgle. The owner says he cannot afford to feed us with too much or else we will become sleepy from being too full. Every week I grow hungrier and hungrier, I feel my body is being stomped on like the dirt floor. Nobody cares how hard they stomp a dirt floor, like nobody cares how hard I hurt from famine.
When Papu complained about how little food we get, the owner grew red. The owner took a heated iron and steamed it against Papu’s throat which caused him to scream like this: ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, until he could not scream any more. That day we did not receive a single meal. It took Papu almost five months before he could speak again. His voice became raspy and sad sounding. Now, he just chooses to be silent. Again, this was the work of permanent evil through the owner’s act of violence. Like I had mentioned earlier, Papu is very wise. His silence protects him from being branded by the hot iron. We all want protection. We all want to be free…
My thoughts become interrupted as my eyes dilate from the cackling ray of sunlight. As the light intrudes the peaceful sleepers from their night’s rest, we all know that it is time for another day of work.
We sit at the loom and our bodies immediately resume to its “natural” position. I observe the others. They do not hesitate before grabbing the string of wool which hangs from the ceiling. These balls of wool innocently hang from behind the wooden loom waiting for us to knot it and make it a part of the carpet.
Children beside me quickly knot the threads, beat the carpets with an iron hammer and weave by hand hundreds and hundreds of knots. I hate knotting the most. As I knot the carpet, I also knot my heart with pain and sorrow. If my heart knots anymore, it will choke itself and someday it will die. Someday, I will die.
Sometimes I feel my arms hate knotting too, that is why it hurts at times when I try to work. My arms try to tell my brain that I cannot work anymore, that people cannot stop stomping on this dirt floor. But I know that my family needs me to help them earn rupees and I know that my sister needs me to help her escape the beedi owner. I also know that since I am one of the youngest, people depend on me to help make the intricate patterns in the middle. Since Shabnam has poor vision, I know he needs my help too.
Shabnam says that his eye trouble is caused by his many, many years in the carpet industry. His short, stubby figure is the consequence of sitting down all day. He says that sitting down all day in cramped proximities is bad for his back, which is why he was not able to grow tall. It appears that the older brothers of the loom are tremendously critical. The young ones, like me, are afraid to object.
I know that constantly breathing in wool fibers is bad for my health. We concentrate on the precision of weaving that we do not bother to notice these small, mischievous particles that float in the loom. Sometimes, we become so occupied that we do not even notice when we are swallowing these particles. It spreads throughout the room, even when we have stopped weaving and have gone to sleep, the wool fibers still linger in the air that we breathe. When the sun shines hot light, the wool fibers cling to our skin and sweat. It becomes apart of our exterior until the day we are given permission to go to the public pump.
Papu nudges me and interrupts my thoughts. Like an honest, older brother he signals the arrival of the owner. The owner likes to make porridge or watery lentils for us and brings it in a medium, steel pot. The content of the pot is supposed to supply enough for two meals. The owner once said that if we make him proud he will bring us a feast of meat and vegetables – ”he has never been proud. Yesterday, like every other day, we did not make the owner proud, so today we must make the best of what is in the pot.
It is now night time at Uttra Padesh. Now I am free to think, wonder, reflect and dream. Tonight I think of violence, and the words of Mahatma Gandhi. It is not physical violence that we endure here at the loom that I resent. It is the violent minds of society that have given their young generation to the hands of permanent evil. I know my heart ties knots as a form of self-violence in hopes that I can someday escape. And the good, this temporary good, is given in the form of a miniscule amount of rupees a day. I wonder when I will ever earn enough. And I wonder, what is enough?