Dr Moses had come across a young boy who is 12 years of age on the streets of Buldana shining shoes to make a living. It became apparent to Dr Moses very quickly that the boy had had a hard life from the very start with the death of his mother giving birth to him. He told Dr Moses that his father had also passed away from an accident. He is alone in the world with an older sister who is 15 years old and they currently live with a relative in a neighbouring village. He shared with Dr Moses that he pays his relative some rupee from shoe shining in return for shelter and food. It was to be a series of three accidental meetings that Dr Moses had with the shoe shining youngster and the third meeting that could potentially change this boy’s life.
Dr Moses had previously asked the boy, who I’ll call Master A, some questions about why he was shining shoes and not attending school. He shared his sad story and told him he would like to attend school but needs to work also. Dr Moses wanted to see if he could assist him in enrolling him into school and getting his education in Buldana while working at the same time. The boy said he would be keen for this to happen. What made this particular boy stand out from the hundreds of other children Dr Moses comes across in rural India who find themselves in a similar destitute situation is that this boy was working, rather than begging. Children who are orphans in rural India due to tragic situations find it obviously tough growing up. There are no social structures or government institutions to take these children in and care for them. He and his sister are lucky for the fact they have a relative who provides some food and shelter. But hundreds of other children are desperate for money to survive and vulnerable to trafficking when they beg on the streets. But this boy demonstrated a level of initiative and determination. And that was enough for Dr Moses to see something in this boy and to offer him an opportunity if he wanted it.
Monday morning my parents, Peter and Robyn, and I travelled to the preschool to meet the preschool children at Dr Moses’ Vidya Niketan English Preschool to welcome them to Buldana and for them to see their class and volunteer teachers in action. The teacher introduced the values and ethos of the preschool and the importance of it to the marginalised children who live below the poverty line in rural Buldana. School finished at midday and as we waved goodbye to the little pre-schoolers, we welcomed Master A. He had turned up to meet again with Dr Moses. His appearance certainly gave his conditions away: his white long sleeved top littered with grime, pollution and dust. He carried a comb to brush his hair and a dirty and stained carry bag. The bag contained all his shoe shining tools – brushes, nugget, dyes. He took each item out of the bag and placed them on the floor in front of us.
Dr Moses spoke to him at length, translating as he went along for our benefit. After answering questions so we had a better understanding of this boy’s life story and why he was working as a shoe polisher and not at school, he would then ask Dr Moses a question that was directed at us. The first one, “Do all the other people in your country look exactly the same like you?” This kid had a curiosity and a natural wit which pleasantly surprised us. His next question, “Do you have any money from your country?” My parents scrounge around in their bags. Dad has a $50 note and mum has a $2 coin. Master A is taken with the $2 coin so my parents tell him he can keep it and from then on we refer to the $2 coin as his lucky coin. He doesn’t own a wallet, and places all the cash he makes from shoe polishing into his pants pocket. That’s where the $2 coin goes too, but in the other pocket.
Master A comes across as a self-assured budding entrepreneur who knew what he wanted and wasn’t shy to ask and answer questions even though he was destitute. It is an amazing story of one boy’s resilience and attitude to face the harsh reality of the world he finds himself having to navigate in at such an early age and trying to make something of his life.
He originally came up with the idea of shining shoes from looking at others performing the job and so started collecting bits and pieces in his carry bag. He wakes early in his village, has some breakfast – a piece of bread and a chai – and takes an auto rickshaw to Buldana city where he works near the chai stands and outside the law courts shining people’s shoes. He doesn’t eat anything for lunch. There’s no meat on this boy and its obvious he goes without often. There are always lots of people hanging about especially outside the law courts so it’s a hub of an opportunity to make some money. He tells us he can charge 10 rupee shining shoes, many customers handing him a 20 rupee note and not wanting the change. It depends what the customer wants, but I think his rate is between 10-30 rupees. He said he could make up to 300 rupee ($6) a day shining shoes with about 200 rupee going to his relatives back in the village for food.
Master A sits and shares with us his vision of buying a proper shoe shining box where he can keep all his polishing tools in, look more professional and how if he had some more money he’d like to purchase new brushes and polish. That way he can charge more money per customer. Quite the entrepreneur! We ask him if he has a shoe shining platform where a customer’s foot is placed onto while shining and he responds, “no that’s only in Mumbai.”
We are definitely moved by Master A’s story but also his larger than life personality and keen desire to be educated. My dad Peter quietly informs Dr Moses that they would like to buy the box and the polish for Master A. And so the adventure begins with us all taking a car ride to a steel box manufacturer down Chikhali Road and then to a shop on the first floor opposite the stadium area to purchase brushes and polish. Master A sits in the back seat of the car with my parents, I’m in the front and the car follows Dr Moses’ sister Varsha on her bike as she leads the way through the chaotic streets of Buldana. Master A is captivated by the inside mechanics of Dr Moses’ car – putting his face up close to the air vent and letting the cold air from the air conditioner rush over his face, the electronic windows that go up and down, and the locking system on the door. He’s like an inquisitive two-year old. Then Master A hangs out the window like an over excited dog who can smell the approach of sea air; his eyes wide open with pure joy and excitement. I think to myself that if Roadie is the luckiest street pup in India, then now I believe Master A is the luckiest shoe shining 12-year old entrepreneur in India! He knows his luck has changed.
We arrive at the steel box manufacturers and Varsha (Dr Moses’ sister) translates as we three foreigners look on in anticipation. A box appears with a lid and a clip lock and before we know it Master A has it on the ground opening the lid up and placing all his tools from his stained bag into the box. He closes the lid and clips the lock, and holds onto the steel handle. There’s a bit of a noise as the bottles of polish in the plastic coke bottles clash about inside. Master A opens it up again and the five men from the steel box shop give him some sound advice of placing the bottles at the other end so they won’t move when the box is lifted up and carried vertically by its handle. The steel box costs 300 rupees ($6.00) and Master A is more than a little happy when the money is paid and he is told that it is his. We check in with him nonetheless and ask, “is it okay?” He comes back with the affirmative Marathi response for yes, “hao” and a large smile.
Next stop replenishing his stock of brushes and polish. So back in the car, and up to the main street again. Master A hangs out the car window again with his shining new brushed steel box proudly at his feet. He is trying to give Bohoka our driver directions to the shop, but Bohoka does not speak Marathi (the local language) but we point to Master A and show him we are following Varsha on her bike again. He then sounds out an overly excited yelp and points to a shop on the other side of the road. We tell him we know and we follow the bike in front as it makes a right hand turn. Before the car even completely stops, Master A has unlocked and opened the car door. Bohoka turns around fearing Master A is going to kill himself before getting to the shoe polish shop and tells him to close the door. The car pulls up and Master B informs my parents in a mix of Marathi language and hand gestures that he’ll leave the box in the car. Finally, we are all out of the car, he springs up the steps towards the shop and we follow where we watch with anticipation as he discusses what he needs with the humdrum shop keeper. Master A knows exactly what he wants, and we just stand in the background like his support posse. A special polish, brush, and two tins of nugget – one black and one dark tan comes in at 275 rupees ($5.50). My dad Peter hands over the cash and Master A walks quickly back to the car with his goodies in a plastic bag to collect his brushed steel box.
He opens his steel box up using the seat on Varsha’s motorbike as a support and adds all his new polishing tools to it. He quickly snaps it close, and in that very moment he is off – literally walking off to work. Varsha calls out to him and mentions that he may like to say goodbye and thank you before leaving us. He is just so wrapped up in this amazing moment, like a child on Christmas Day unwrapping gifts left under the tree. He returns and he shakes our hands saying thank you. He is the sort of kid who has ants in his pants and is quite eager to try out his new wares. He has accumulated a few friends around him now, who are asking him what’s going on with these foreigners who are driving him around in a car. It must really be a peculiar sight from their perspective. We watch him walk away down the road carrying his shining steel box that glistens brightly in the afternoon haze on the streets. Master A turns back as he walks and waves to us with a smile of appreciation. We three wave back.
Dad. Mum and I jump back into the car with Bohoka and drive down the road towards home. And as we pass him on the left hand side of the road, we notice he is talking with his much taller friends who are walking either side of him, one of which is holding the lucky Australian $2 coin between his fingers that my parents gave to Master A earlier. We are all amused and happy to have been able to assist Master A today and to witness his pure delight at been given a lucky break.
Dr Moses has offered to enrol and pay for Master A to attend a Marathi middle school in Buldana. The school year commences at the start of July, and Master A, if he wants, will go into 8th Standard (Year 8 in Australia). We will keep you posted of the outcome.
My parents went for a walk to see if they could find Master A at the law courts a day after helping him and as soon as he saw them he ran over to them full of smiles, conversation and head wobbling carrying his brushed steel shoe shining box.
PS There are more photos to show for this post but unfortunately we have had some internet issues with uploading them today.