Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conversations with Killers

One thing this fellowship does really well is to allow the recipient to say yes to pretty much everything (within reason, people). During college I barely had time to think, but now that the value of my time has plummeted like a share of Bear Stearns stock, I don’t say no too often. Sharing chai with strangers while drenched in sweat after a run, games of “Lock and Key” with slum children, and hearing out the sales pitch of a street merchant trying to sell fake Coach purses are all fair game. Or in this case, it’s taking up Rashmi (pictured), the Health Outreach Director (who you might remember had malaria), on her offer to visit a nearby social organization.

The organization is called the Jawaharlal Nehru Child Welfare Center. The name is deceptive, because it’s basically a juvenile jail. It does have other activities, like its housing and rehabilitation for the blind and lame, but the detention center seems to be its primary focus. Walking up, I thought it looked a little drab for a place meant for children rehabilitation. Then I was asked if I wanted to see the kids. When the director went up to the door and undid the padlock, it felt a little like we were dealing with animals at the zoo. Inside, some 20 young men were seated on the floor eating lunch out of huge vats of rice, daal, and some sort of vegetable creation. Half the kids rose immediately to greet us.

What followed was a somewhat alarming conversation. Rashmi nudged me, “Do you want to ask them any questions?” Through Rashmi’s translation, I asked one of the boys named Arjun, a well-dressed 17-year-old with neatly slicked hair, clean jeans and a plain white shirt, what he was here for. “Murder”, he said proudly. As if to make sure his reputation was clear to me, he added with his head high and a big smile, “Three murders.” His friends chimed in: “And three half murders”. They talked about his record like it was football stats and this guy was making his case for the Hall of Fame (whether he had assisted in three murders or only mortally wounded three people, I couldn’t figure out).

“How did you kill them?” I asked. “Knife! Knife!” he and his friends shouted. He made a decapitating motion along his neck with an invisible knife. Rashmi and the director kind of chuckled along with Arjun, because of Arjun’s explanation or my complete astonishment of the situation, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to know why he would kill all these people, to which he explained was for money. Most of these young men, I guessed from our conversation, probably came from poorer backgrounds. “How long, total, will you be here?” I asked. Three months. He had already tried to escape once, the director said, laughing. By now the whole lightness of the conversation was getting to be a bit unnerving. I heard similar stories from other “inmates”, told with comparable levity. When we left, I double-checked with the director that I had heard right. Three months, he confirmed. Rashmi added that “he is only a boy.”

The way they talked about these murders – the director and Rashmi included – gave me a creeping feeling that maybe the value of human life in this 1.1 billion person country isn’t what it is in the developed world. The other day I read in the newspaper how an old Indian man had been injured and was dying in the street, and was passed over by countless people before one man finally rushed him to the hospital. In the slums, a common echo among residents is that India’s population is one of the primary obstacles in the way of improving their situation. However, as we walked out I asked Rashmi if Arjun really was that shameless. She said that on the outside, he appeared happy because of the visitors, but inside there was turmoil over what he had done. Turmoil or not, at least I can take solace in the fact that I won’t be in Pune when his time is up.

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