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In a playground across the road from a shelter home in Ayodhya Nagar, Bhopal, a group of boys is playing a boisterous game of cricket. Unmindful of the approaching darkness, batsmen scramble between wickets and fielders yell as they aim for the stumps. Inside, in the main hall of the shelter home, it’s all quiet except for the flicker of the television set. Ramzan Khan, 15, sits in an alcove in the dark room, lights turned off, his eyes glued to the TV.
On most days, Ramzan would have been playing with the boys outside. But not this day, not since he last spoke to his mother in Karachi on the phone a couple of days ago.
When Geeta, the Indian woman stranded in Pakistan for 14 years, came home to a rousing reception in the last week of October, Ramzan, who has been living in the Umeed shelter home in Bhopal for the last two years, hoped he too would be able to go home to Pakistan. The shelter home and NGOs in both countries had tracked his mother down to Karachi and got Ramzan to speak to her on phone and through video chats. But just when Ramzan thought he would finally get to go home, last week, his mother Razia refused to visit him in Bhopal, saying she felt the “atmosphere in India was not friendly to Muslims” and that she was not sure about her safety.
“He has been upset ever since,” says Ravi Kanojia, a teacher at the shelter home. “Even after she refused to come down, Ramzan called her again two days ago. He told her, ‘I am a Muslim and have been living here safely’. But she kept saying she couldn’t come.”
At 9.30 on a Wednesday morning, Ramzan sits with a ‘General English’ book, “reading grammar”, but doesn’t look particularly interested. “I want to go back to my mother,” he says stoically. He doesn’t look up from his book and doesn’t want to speak further.
Ramzan’s story, put together from sustained questioning by the police and authorities at the shelter home, is this: After Ramzan’s parents separated in 2009, his father, Mohammed Kazol Khan, a tailor, took him to Bangladesh, where his grandparents lived. Once there, Khan took to driving trucks and married again. Ramzan’s stepmother allegedly accused him of theft and beat him up frequently, and to escape the harassment, he left home.
Ramzan claims that after he strayed across the border into India, he went to Ranchi, Mumbai and Delhi, before ending up at the Bhopal railway station two years ago. Later, the government railway police shifted him to the shelter home.
Vijay Yadav, a coordinator at the shelter home, says that while his mother wants to take him back, his father has refused to visit him. “I spoke to his father but he said, ‘Jaise gaya vaise hi vaapas aayega (he will come the way he went)’, and hung up. He spoke in Bangla and said he had misplaced Ramzan’s passport.”
After he landed at the shelter home, Ramzan was admitted to a private school. But a year later, he dropped out – “he just refused to go,” says Yadav. He is among four inmates who don’t go to school. The other children, 15 of them, leave for school by noon and get back around 5 pm. Once back, the children noisily pile their bags in the hall and head straight out to play. So Ramzan spends all afternoon waiting for his friends to get back from school.
He usually wakes up by 6.30 am. Breakfast is at 8.30 am, after which the children play a few outdoor games. At 10 am, as the other children sit down for their homework, Ramzan lazily leafs through a General Knowledge book. His book is opened to a page on Indian cricketers. “I like Dhoni, not Virat Kohli,” he says when pressed to speak. When he does so, it’s in a low voice, without looking up. He doesn’t want to speak – not about his home in Karachi, not about the two-storeyed building that has been his home for the last two years.
“These days, Ramzan gets irritated when we ask him too many questions and goes into a shell,” says Kanojia, the teacher.
A little later, around 10.30 am, as children get ready for an early lunch before going to school, Ramzan and another teenager Anand serve them food. “Roti… roti,” he says, holding a steel container with rotis and moving swiftly from one child to another.
The children leave at 11.30 am after queuing up for prayers and the national anthem. After everyone has left, around 12.15 pm, Ramzan stands in the kitchen and eats his lunch of rice, dal and chana. That done, he goes back to the main hall, curls up in the alcove and watches an animation film on an English channel. “I have no idea what it’s all about,” he says brusquely.
“He wasn’t like this. He used to watch Discovery and National Geographic but these days, he looks very disinterested,” says Yadav, the coordinator.
Ramzan usually sleeps in the afternoon or watches television as he waits for the inmates to return from school. Yadav says the boy loves football and adores Lionel Messi, but he ends up playing cricket because that’s what the others play. Soon, the other children come back from school. Dinner time is usually around 8.30 pm and children have to be in bed by 10.30 pm.