Little entrepreneurs of Fatehpur Sikri

Deep Saini with a group of children in Fatehpur, India
The poet boy (speaking to me), the girl with the food-platter (seated) and other children at Fatehpur Sikri
February 2, 2016

The sky in India, especially in and around urban centres, almost always looks gray. But everything else about this incredibly diverse country is vividly colourful – literally and metaphorically. It is a land of stark contrasts – good, bad, beautiful and ugly – all coexisting, often simultaneously in space and time. Having just returned from an extensive and intimate experience with this “assault on the senses”, as V.S. Naipaul once called it, I find myself returning to it again only seven weeks later, this time as part of Ontario’s Business Mission to India. The wheels of the plane have barely left the ground when the memories of the last trip start coming vividly alive again. One of them, in particular, will stay carved in my memory forever.

The first leg of our last journey was a seven-day road trip from Delhi through four western states of India – a courageous move considering that we all knew what driving in India was like. A friend once referred to it as ‘horizontal bungee-jumping’. That was an understatement.

Our first day on the road brought us to the fabled Taj Mahal. I’ve always been fascinated by the Taj, but not for the reasons one would read in tourism brochures. For me this architectural marvel is more of a tribute to the thousands of hands that chiselled it out of white marble than a heartbroken Emperor’s memorial for his wife. Anyhow, having savoured this splendour, we headed west to spend the night at the Bhartpur Bird Sanctuary. On the way, we stopped briefly at Fatehpur Sikri – the capital of Mughal Empire during the late 1500s. It is here that I was to meet my ‘little entrepreneurs.’

The star-attraction at Fatehpur Sikri is a uniquely designed red sandstone palace built by the Moghul Emperor Akbar. After an engrossing tour of the palace, we were walking to the adjoining mausoleum of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti. Suddenly, a girl, her teenage face already showing signs of weathering, rushed up to me, and waving a handful of pens in my face, she pleaded,

Sahib (Sir), please sahib, buy a pen.”

“I don’t need a pen,” I replied tersely. You learn to auto-respond this way after a few encounters with what is ubiquitous pestering of this sort at most tourist sites in the country.

“Please, sahib, it is only 10 rupees.”

“Didn’t I say I didn’t need a pen?”

Although ten rupees amounted to only 20 cents, I really didn’t need a pen. Especially one of these pens; I found them rather tastelessly ornate. Sensing the uncompromising finality in my tone, she grudgingly backed off.

I had barely taken five steps further when a cheerful little boy offered to recite poetry to me, in return for money, of course. I stopped, connected with his curious eyes, and before I could say anything, he rolled off lines from a 1960s poem by the celebrated Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi:

“Meri mehboob unhé bhi to mohabbat hogi,
Jin ki sanai né baqshi hai isé shakl-é-jameel…

Sahir, as he was popularly called, had taken an entirely contrarian view of the Taj Mahal’s popular image as a monument to love:

My darling, they too would surely have been in love
Those whose toil has blessed it with such beauty…

The words stopped me in my tracks for two reasons: I used to love this poem for its no-holds-barred exposure of the pain and suffering behind an emperor’s indulgence; and hearing this seemingly illiterate kid, born some five decades after the poem was written, recite these long-forgotten lines with the authority of a seasoned poet was a rare treat.

Sensing my incipient interest, the boy continued:

Un ké pyaron ké mukaber rahé bé naam-o-namood
Aaj tak un pé jalayi na kisi né kindeel
Meri mehboob kanin aur mila kar mujh sé…

Their lovers’ tombs still remain nameless and unmarked
No one has ever even lit a candle on them,
My darling, we should start meeting somewhere else…

Savvy entrepreneurs know when to seize an opportunity, and this one was too obvious to miss. So, not surprisingly, a whole bunch of Sahir’s great-grandsons suddenly appeared out of thin air, each clamoring to offer his own collection of poetry. 

“This is getting out of control,” I recall a voice whispering in my head. I am now looking for a dignified escape, and before I find it, my eyes stumble on a little girl, no older then 10, bright-eyed but very shy, unmistakably new to this environment dominated by pushy, extroverts – all boys. She’s holding a small platter of food in her hands, looking for a customer.

“What are you selling, sweetheart?” I enquire.

Chawal aur bhajia” – “rice and curry” – she replies, her voice barely audible.

Kitna ban jaata hai din mein?” – “How much do you make in a day?” – I ask.

“Hundred, hundred-fifty rupees,” she whispers, her eyes downcast, betraying a hint of “I’d rather be somewhere else.” Or perhaps my own mind wishes she were somewhere else.

Her beautiful innocent face; her neatly-done hair; the sparkle in her eyes…my mind wanders to the thought of my own granddaughter. “What if our Leyla had to do this for a living? After all, this girl too is someone’s Leyla!”

“What’s your name, béti (dear girl)?”

“Sophia.”

“Why are you not in school?” I ask.

Before she has a chance to respond, the poet boy jumps in, “No, no, sahib, we all go to school. All of us.”

Then others join in cacophony, “We go to ---- (I can’t recall the name) school…we study in the morning and only do this in the afternoon… this is to raise money for our school, sahib…for books… for stationery… sahib… see sahib, I know angrezi…I can count… one, two three, four… I know angrezi… a, b, c, d, e….”

The shy girl with the food-platter never gets a chance to answer.

I am just starting to be impressed when the rest of our party – those who had continued to the mausoleum – returns. It’s time for us to take the bus back to the parking lot.  We have to hurry. As I walk away, still thinking of the shiny-eyed girl with the food-platter, our guide turns to me and, without a hint of doubt in his voice, says, “None of them go to school, sir. They hang out here all day. They just make up these stories to extract money out of the tourists. Logon ko chootia banaaté hein, sahib – They mess with people’s minds, sir.”

“What? What rubbish! This just can’t be true!” I think, but I dare not say aloud, perhaps because I realize somewhere deep inside me that it is true. Who would want to admit that he’s just been made a chootia out of by a bunch of barefoot urchins?

I exhale, quietly, my mind still preoccupied with the little girl, “She’s someone’s Leyla. She should be in school,” as my feet hurry away towards the bus that could now leave any moment.

Suddenly, I’m jolted out of my silent conversation with myself by a familiar voice,

“Please, sahib, please buy a pen from me.”

The girl with the pens was back. Still emotional from the experience I had just had, I no longer have the heart to shoo her away. I pull out a 20-rupee bill from my pocket,

“Here, take this. I don’t need the pen but you can have the money.”

“I want to sell you a pen, sahib; I am not a beggar,” she retorts resolutely with a hint of indignation in her voice.

I am stunned. I feel a strong sense of embarrassment. I am unable to decide what to say or do. I wasn’t prepared for such dignified response from a poor kid in a country where so many have their hands out at every corner.

The bus driver is now honking; he’s rolling the vehicle forward. We are leaving. As I rush in, I turn to the girl,

“Come over to the window, I’ll buy two pens from you.”

I hurriedly take a seat by the window, and just as I hold my 20-rupee bill out of the window in search of the girl, a dozen hands go up seeking to snatch the bill out of mine. I can’t tell which one of these belongs to the girl with the pens. The bus begins to roll, the hands chase the open window. The bus accelerates away. The bill is still in my hand.

Dejected, I slump back into the seat. My daughter, who’s taken the place next to me, notices a teardrop in the corner of my eye. She puts her hand on mine,

“Dad, please don’t be so hard on yourself. These kids get yelled at all day. You at least sat down with them and talked to them like they were human beings. You already did a lot.”

“Did I?” I silently ask myself, as the teardrop grows.

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