Saturday was an evening to remember. Words are inadequate to describe the joy one experiences in taking street children out for a treat; it is rare for them to have something nice. This reporter turned social volunteer for a few hours when she joined an informal gathering to take 40-odd children to the Empire Circus. All of them were thrilled to bits about the circus trip; each and every one of them overwhelmed this reporter by coming up and shaking hands and wishing her Happy Diwali. All the kids were bright, surprisingly well-spoken in English and free-spirited. Humaara Footpath obviously treats them well.
Humaara Footpath is the brainchild of Shubhangi Swarup, a 25-year-old Xavier’s graduate. At the age of 18, she felt an urgent desire to educate street children and now has an informal network of 16 friends helping her realise her dream.
“I first started with the girls who sell gajras at signals,” she said. “We get together at least three times a week in the evenings in front of Tanishq at Churchgate, lay out chatais and do whatever they want, whether it’s drawing, story-telling, singing or English. The biggest need of the day is to create the desire to learn in them. That is the biggest hurdle. So forcing them to bury their noses in books is the last thing anyone should do.”
Once a month, the group gets the children together and takes them for outings. Their last ‘date’ was Kkrish.
“This time it was supposed to be Lage Raho…but one day a bunch of them accosted us on the streets and insisted we go for the circus,” said Shubhangi.
She admits to reservations about the circus policy with animals; but decided to turn the outing into a thought-provoking exercise.
“After this, the next time we meet, an animal psychologist will come and talk to them about how animals are treated in the circus,” she said. “Also, we will be pointing out to them that so many of the performers are children; it might get them thinking about their own lives. The whole focus of Humaara Footpath is to make them think for themselves; we can’t force any one opinion on them, but I will be doing my job if I can just make them aware of different viewpoints.”
At first, the study sessions happened daily, but due to hectic work and study schedules they are now less frequent, but one rule persists: each session has to last for at least two hours and no one is allowed to leave halfway. The number of students at each session ranges from five to thirty.
“That is when the madness starts!” laughs Shubra Swarup, Shubhangi’s sister. “As you can see, it is difficult to handle them all at once!”
The children, ranging from two years of age to fourteen, are a sprightly lot. The camaraderie they share with each other and Shubhangi’s group is more than evident. As we trotted off to the circus, children grabbed on to adult hands without reservation. This reporter was surprised to see that she was quite popular with the kids too.
The walk to the circus was as entertaining as the show: the children chattered all the way through, asked a number of questions, showed off their English (and surprisingly well too!), raced each other to the front of the group and playfully spanked each other to assert their superiority.
At the circus itself the group of 35 was joined by 15 others and it marched in and grabbed the seats.“We’ve spent Rs.50 on each child: Rs.25 for the ticket and Rs.25 for their snacks,” Shubhangi told us.
One snack package comprised pav, samosa and aloo vada. The children got plenty of cold drinks after that. Despite admonitions that she would become fat, Asha was generously given six glasses of soft drinks. Clearly, this group does not believe in skimping on treats.
This reporter found herself sitting between Mahesh and Nasir. While the former sat silently engrossed in the show, the latter let out a steady stream of commentary, much like cricket commentators, punctuated with the relevant noises at the right places. From the time when a line of elephants came out to inaugurate the five o’clock show with a Shiv puja to the time this reporter left one and half hours later, the boy did not sit quiet for even one second. Several children jumped in their seats with pleasure when the band started playing popular Bollywood music and burst into charmed applause when an elephant broke the auspicious coconut. The excitement amongst this young audience was almost palpable.
Thrilled with the gymnastic performance, Nasir cried out, “Arre dekho, Didi, yeh log darte nahi, bindaas hai sab!”
It is touching to see that the circus, almost stripped of its charms, still has enough power to win over a Bollywood movie.