Polishing Away His Future


Hailing from a backward village in District Lodhran, located on the northern side of River Sutlej in eastern Punjab, eight year old Shahbaz migrated to Karachi with his family for better prospects, better lifestyle. Will his dream lifestyle ever be achieved in our cities?

Before coming to Karachi about a year ago, Shahbaz dropped out of class two as his parents could not afford to educate him further. Although he longs to get educated, attaining education does not feature on his list of priorities.

“We are poor; cannot afford to go to school. To have something in the belly at night is more important than going to school. I don’t’ want to go to school again. But I want to learn how to read and write. Sometimes maimsahib (madam), for whom my mother works as a domestic help, gives me tuition at home. That’s good, because it fits with my work schedule,” says the little imp.

Everyday Shahbaz leaves his one room rented house, which he shares with his parents, two sisters and three brothers, in a poor shanty town of the city for work at a posh locality in the metropolitan. Scurrying after the “babus” (gentlemen) coming to office in their luxurious cars, he is courteous as he holds the car door open for them and politely offers to polish their already shining shoes for a mere Rs 10 (less than $ 1) a pair.

At first glance Shahbaz does not look like a regular shoe-shiner. For once he is decently dressed and is also clean unlike most other myriad shoe shine boys scattered about the city, who are messy. Most shoe-shiners carry a little wooden box around while offering their services. But not Shahbaz; he has a home-made small sack, slung over his shoulder, in which he keeps his tools of trade—shoe polish, brush, rag and a pair of slippers for the clients to put on in the office while their shoes get an extra shine.

One really wonders why Shahbaz is bartering his carefree days to buy food for the family. His father, who was a cobbler in Lodhran before shifting to Karachi, is now employed as a security guard in the same building where Shahbaz works. His mother is working as a domestic help while his elder brother is working in a pizza shop.

“Yes, my parents are working but they do not have well-paying jobs and their income must be supplemented. This is why I have to work also,” was the justification given by Shahbaz who has given up his innocence for a piece of bread.

While his co-shoe-shiners are pesky little scalawags who are "rough around the edges", Shahbaz is rather “refined” and knows how to take ‘no’ for an answer. He does not pester the babus and thus is secluded from their harsh tone, criticism and of course, abusive language. Perhaps it is due to Shabaz’s “refineness” that people usually have him polish their shoes
once in a while.

Syed Zaheer Ali working in an office in the building where Shahbaz is polishing away his future says: “I occasionally have him polish my shoes. Not that I need to, but as a way of helping him out. There is nothing much that we can do to help him; we are also in dire straits due to the economic situation. So once in a while I have him polish my shoes.”

Another of Shahbaz’s so-called ‘regular clients’, Kamran Umar, says: “I know child labour is not to be patronized but he is also not getting any social support from the government and self-proclaimed champions of child rights. I am just thankful that at least he has not fallen in the hands of the professional beggars’ mafia. He is not out there on the streets begging
from some rich crook!”

A sentiment Shahbaz also shares.

“I don’t beg. I work at least 6-8 hours daily polishing shoes. Business is not good. I have a brisk business during winters when men wear shoes. Nowadays in summer they start wearing sandals and chappals. Only the big babus wear shoes. Sometimes I manage to polish 5 shoes, on a good day 10. Just Rs 50 – Rs 100, which is better than begging.”

“You cannot say ‘no’ to the little kid, holding his entire business enterprise in his hand. His is the heart-wrenching portrayal of children of the urban poor, who are struggling to scratch out a living on the streets at the expense of an education that could lift them from poverty,” says another client, Adnan Munawar. “He, too, might have wishes, desires, longings, which his parents cannot fulfill. How much can he manage to make by shining 9-10 shoes daily? Certainly not enough to have his wishes fulfilled. So sometimes I just give him some loose change which he can spend on himself.”

Does Shahbaz have any desire, wish?

“No. I don’t have any wish. We are poor people, what can we wish for? Had I been educated than I too might have aspired to be a doctor. We poor people cannot afford to dream and hope to succeed in life.”

Had Shahbaz heard of soul legend James Brown, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or any of the other illustrious shoe-shiners who made it big, he too would have set his eyes on making it big in the city. Right now his innocent life passes by as he offers shoeshine services. His dirty hands with grime filled nails receive a few coins for his services, which he gives to his parents at the end of the day.

It is about children like Shahbaz that the Nobel laureate poet from Chile, Gabriel Mistral, has said:

We are guilty of many errors and many faults,
But our worst crime is abandoning the children,
Neglecting the fountain of life.
Many of things we need can wait,
The child cannot wait.
Right now is the time his bones are being formed,
His blood is being made,
And his senses are being developed.
To him we cannot answer "Tomorrow",
His name is "Today"

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–  Salman Sabree  11/3/09


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