Akilesh wakes up full of expectations. Just a week or so ago, he was freed from slavery. He is still sore after having spent many months polishing gemstones 18 hours a day. But now he is free and plans to celebrate his birthday for the first time ever.
Akilesh doesn’t know the day or year he was born.
“But my mother thinks I’m about 13 years old,” he says.
Hardly any of the children at Bal Ashram know exactly how old they are, or what day they were born. So that each child gets their own day to celebrate, Kailash organises special parties for the new children a few times a year. The date of the party becomes their new birthday.
School was unthinkable
Growing up, Akilesh sometimes saw children on their way to school.
“But for me and my siblings, school wasn’t even a dream. We were poor and always hungry. The roof of our house leaked and during the rainy season it always flooded. My father worked at a factory, but he would buy alcohol and drink all his wages away, every month.”
When Akilesh was 11 his father signed a contract with a stranger who was visiting the village. Akilesh would be able to go to school in exchange for working a couple of hours a day for nine months. The factory was hundreds of miles from his home. The wages, US$4 a day, would be sent home to his family.
Kailash organises special parties for the new children a few times a year. The date of the party becomes their new birthday.
“I was scared, as I had never been out of my home village,” Akilesh recalls. “But I really wanted to go to school and help my family.”
Tricked into slavery
It soon became clear that everything in the contract was a lie. Akilesh didn’t get to go to school. Instead he was locked into a cramped, dark room with five other children and forced to polish gemstones for jewellery, from seven in the morning until midnight, every day of the week.
“My whole body ached. My fingertips were torn to bits and my eyes were constantly stinging and watering,” says Akilesh. “If I made a mistake they would beat me. It made me angry and I wanted to fight back, but I couldn’t. I thought about running away, but where would I go? The owner told us that the police would arrest us if we told anyone that we worked in the factory. Now I know that that wasn’t true, but at the time I was terrified and didn’t dare ask anyone for help.”
Nine months later, Akilesh was allowed to go home. But his joy at returning home disappeared when his mother told him that his father had drunk all Akilesh’s wages as well.
“He did fix the roof,” said his mother apologetically. “But the rest went on alcohol.”
Akilesh cried as he told his family about the heavy workload, and that the promise of school was a lie. He showed them the wounds on his hands and his mother cried too. But after just a few weeks, Akilesh’s father told him that he had to go back to the factory. And soon he was back there, in the dark room.
After another eight months in the factory, Akilesh had given up hope completely. But one day, the door was broken down and the police stormed the building with raised batons.
“I was terrified,” says Akilesh. “But then one of Kailash’s activists came in and told us they had come to set us free.”
The activist helped Akilesh out of the factory and into a waiting car. His eyes smarted in the bright sunlight after months in the dark. Since there was a high risk that his father would force him back to work if he went home to his village, he was taken to live at Bal Ashram instead.
“And this morning I found out that I and the other newcomers are going to have a birthday! Nobody has ever celebrated my birthday before.”
Photo: Kim Naylor