It was completely silent, calm and dark. Then all of a sudden, he could see something bright, though his eyes were closed. A dog started barking near him. He opened his eyes slowly to see the dog chasing another one away. The sun had just risen, interrupting his sleep. In any case, he had to get going as the corner shop owner would arrive soon and open the shutters of his shop. The old man was one of the four friends Max had. He considered himself lucky to have them as friends because he did not have anyone else in this world. Max was a street child who slept on the doorstep of the corner shop.
He picked up his bag that he also used as a pillow. Inside the bag were the few things that he possessed. A few clothes that were on the verge of tearing apart due to repeated use, two notebooks and a pen and blanket that he used if it was cold. He had a bath in the small bathroom that was shared by a few shops where he also hung up his clothes after washing them. When he returned to the shop, the shopkeeper had already begun his business. Max tossed his bag into the space below a bench in one corner of the shop. The old man gave him a few slices of bread and some jam. Out of pity for the homeless child, the old man allowed him to sleep on his doorstep and also provided him with breakfast. Max also did a few odd jobs for the shopkeeper for which he was paid a few rupees.
During the day, Max roamed the streets of Chennai. He earned a few rupees daily by picking up recyclable scrap from dust-bins and selling them to a scrap merchant. Sometimes he would wash cars and at other times, he would sell small stuff at traffic signals to earn a tiny amount. He spent almost all the money he earned on buying food. His second friend was another street child called Udaya. His third friend was the kind Catholic priest who taught street children to read and write during the evening. He also provided them with clothes, blankets and food. His fourth friend was a dog called Chip. Max and Udaya had found Chip as a pup when he was abandoned by his mother. They fed him and took care of him and the faithful dog would sometimes accompany Max or Udaya as they went about doing what they did.
Apart from these three humans and the dog, everyone hated Max. Who would like a street urchin? People tried to avoid him. Policemen chased him away with their lathis (long wooden batons). School going kids of his age shunned him and would shout at him if he watched them play cricket. He badly wanted to take part in such games but the kids would never allow a street child to play with them.
He would play marbles with Udaya. In the evenings, after their “classes” in the Church with the priest, the street kids played football in the backyard of the Church. The kids were very grateful to the kind priest. He not only taught them to read and write in Tamil and English but also taught them basic mathematics, science, history and geography. He also taught them to speak English. Max could understand common English and could speak a few sentences as well.
What he did not understand was why people hated him. He was rudely sent away if he went up to people to sell small things. People called him names that he hated. They would call him a “street urchin” which he did not like at all. Worse, they would call him a “beggar” though he never asked for alms or food. Infact, if someone offered him money without buying the stuff that he sold, he would decline it and walk away! What made his blood boil was when someone suspected him to be a “thief” or a “pick-pocket” and tried to make sure of their belongings when he went near them. He had never stolen even a small thing in his life! They suspected a hard-working street child of being a thief when people who swindled millions of rupees were called “eminent persons” as they held positions of power! What a shame!
(To be continued)