25 Sep 2012

Unmaking of a thief

Narrated by Piyali Paul, YRC Drishtikon, Dum Dum. Recorded by Shahana Nag, September, 2012.
About Surojit
Surojit is 14 years old and has a younger sister who is 12. He has been struggling with school for some years now. Whenever he failed, he would be moved to a new school which would admit him in the proper class, that is how he managed for a few years. His father didn’t care whether or not he went to school. His mother however was keen that he got a proper education. She got him admitted in a boarding school in a neighbouring district when he was in class VII. However having become habituated to seeing violence he resorted to violence with his classmates. His mother was called for twice by the school. However the last time he beat his classmates very badly, the school asked his parents to take him away.
Family Background
Surojit’s father is a construction worker. He has multiple addictions: bidis, cigarettes, alcohol, ganja. His mother works in people’s homes and faces violence from her husband regularly. Unable to bear the regular physical violence, his maternal aunt invited the mother and the two children to live with her. The father followed them there and now lives with them. They don’t have a home of their own.
Three years back, the aunt’s husband, who was suffering from cancer, committed suicide. The aunt was romantically involved with an unmarried man who continues to stays over at their house and who she calls dada. Surojit has been taught to call him mama [uncle].
Life as a school dropout
Upon returning from the boarding school, Surojit remained a school dropout and started living at home. He soon got into bad company and began smoking cigarettes, drinking chullu, stealing. The gang would steal things like rods and spades from construction sites and sell them to people who break down metal into scraps. They would use the money for their addictions. Some people knew who the culprits were, but they didn’t get caught and the matter went no further.

Once, the gang tried to steal from a house in the adivasi neighborhood. One by one, the young people inserted their hands through a gap in the wall and groped around for things to steal. People inside the house realized what was happening, and got ready with a scythe. Surojit put his hand in last, and they caught hold of it and kept a grip on it. They realized it was small, a child’s hand, so they didn’t cut it off. Meanwhile, Surojit’s friends fled and he alone was caught, beaten and kept in the clubhouse all night. At 4am in the morning, some people from the adivasi para who drank with his father told him where his son was. His father brought Surojit back home, beating him all the time. His mother put him to sleep then, but in the morning, he was chained and locked up.

People from all over the neighbourhood dropped in all day to see the thief, as if he was an animal in a zoo. From then on, he was branded a thief and often chained up. People refused to let him in and stopped their children from interacting with him.
Piyali Paul,  Peer Counsellor
YRC Drishtikon
Read another post by her
Intervention by Peer Counselor
Peer Counselor Piyali lives two houses from Surojit and knew of his background. She had earlier identified Surojit as a vulnerable child and spoke to him at length for the vulnerability study. Piyali also asked her mother to speak to Surojit’s father to stop chaining him up. The father listened and released Surojit.

"One day I heard sobbing noises from their home. I rushed into see Surojit’s aunt holding a pillow over her son’s face to stifle his cries, and her companion beating the little boy mercilessly. Seeing me they removed the pillow but the beating continued. I lowered her eyes and came away, not knowing what to do. My own family had forbidden me from 'interfering'.

I realized that Surojit has grown up in a culture of violence. At home, he was accustomed to seeing his father drink and be violent with his mother. His aunt also beat her own two boys frequently leaving red welts across their body. Surojit was now violent with his younger sister. I felt it was natural for Surojit to resort to violence and delinquency.

I was determined to involve Surojit in the children’s workshops that I was going to conduct in my neighbourhood. However since he was labelled a thief, he resisted coming to the group and facing the other children in the neighbourhood for fear of being taunted. I worked with him separately for a few weeks doing various self-worth activities. In the ‘I Can’ session, he started off by saying that he could do nothing. When asked who appreciated him he said “No one loves me, no one appreciates me. Who do I name?” I asked him to think. He sat quietly for 10 minutes and then eventually thought of two people (My mother and brother) who had said good things about him – one being his football skills.

Several days later, on the 15th August, Surojit won a prize in a football match in an adjacent neighbourhood. He came running to show the prize to me. I found an opportunity and said, “We haven’t won these prizes, you have. Now do you know what you can do?” I made the moment even more special by taking a photograph of him with all his prizes. He felt happy and proud. He had achieved something after a very long time and was appreciated by lots of people. Now he felt confident enough to attend the group workshops.

I was also concerned about the group's reaction. Here I found the Ground Rules that were collectively made by the participants to be helpful. Amongst the list were also points like 'being careful what we say so nobody gets hurt', 'everyone is included'. It was everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the rules were followed. Anyone who breached the rules was reminded by the group of the way they had promised to act.

This strategy helped Surojit be part of the group without being humiliated. He has been coming regularly."

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