His name was Raju.
I used to meet him twice a week. I was twenty years old and pursuing a Masters in Social Work. I would change a couple of DTC/Red Line buses to travel from my home in Sarita Vihar to Dakshinpuri in South Delhi where one of the centres of Mobile Creches, a non-profit working with marginalised children, was located.
As part of my curriculum, I was placed with Mobile Creches for my field work and was expected to spend two days a week at its Dakshinpuri centre.
Raju would be waiting for me there, and I used to look forward eagerly to spending the day with him. And all the other little children at the centre between the ages of three and six.
Being five, Raju was one of the oldest kids, and had a younger brother, Raja, who was also enrolled at the same centre. Every morning, their mother (a short, thin woman with sharp features), a domestic help, used to drop them at the centre before going to work. She would pick them up in the evening, and take them back home.
The centre had a fixed routine for all the six days of a week including a fixed food menu for the kids.
After a couple of weeks at the centre, I figured that Raju was extremely perceptive for his age. Was it because he was the elder son and used to watch his mother toil daily while his father spent her earnings on alcohol?
I was only twenty with no experience of handling little children, and that is where Raju, a five-year-old boy, supported me.
During the morning assembly, as we all sang the prayer loudly, he would make sure all the kids were standing in a line, with their hands folded and eyes closed. A few giggles here and there.
While the teacher served breakfast, Raju, without ever being told to, would quickly start distributing spoons to all the children.
At the centre, we used to celebrate all the festivals and that was pure fun. Resources were limited, so glue was made out of flour and water. And this homemade glue was used to make banners of triangle flags for the Independence Day and the Republic Day celebrations.
While we adults at the centre cut triangle flags out of discarded newspapers, Raju and gang of kids would apply homemade glue on them and stick them on a thin rope. The centre was then decorated with rows of triangle flag banners.
During Diwali, we made kandeels (traditional lamps) out of discarded newspapers.
Raju was always at the forefront of all the activities including assisting me in ‘handling’ the little kids.
Post lunch was nap time for all the kids. I would often lie down next to the kids, and then softly talk to the one who wasn’t too sleepy.
One such afternoon, as Raju and I talked softly, I asked him the most boring question:
“Raju, what do you want to do when you grow up?”
“Didi, I want to work very hard and earn a salary,” he said.
“What will you do with your salary?” I asked.
“Didi, I will buy my mother a saree,” he immediately answered without thinking for a moment.
Clearly, this was something he had already thought and planned in my mind much before I posed a question to him.
With a lump in my throat, I found it hard to respond to the five-year kid.
That was way back in 1996. It’s been twenty-four years now. But, I often think if Raju managed to buy his mother a saree!
My heart says he must have.
In spite of all the hatred and negativity around us, this world is still beautiful because of little children who continue to spread love and hope.
Slow down and spend time with kids. The benefits are immense.