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A day in the life of 7-year-old Salman, a zardozi labourer from Lucknow

The nursery student works two shifts for Rs 100 a week; his mother hasn’t heard of govt changing law

Written by Hamza Khan | Updated: May 17, 2015 8:48:20 am
(Source: Express photo by  Vishal Srivastav) (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)


Salman, 7, wants to grow up to be Salman Khan, the Bollywood star. That’s a long way away.

These days, he is learning zardozi embroidery in the old-world streets of Gullu ka Takiya in Chowk, Lucknow, where children begin early in the trade.

Salman lives in a small home with his mother Sayyeda, twin brother Zeeshan, and sisters Zeba, 8, and Farha, 3. “His father was mentally unsound, so I left him,” says Sayyeda, who works as a domestic help.

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After a quick meal of tea and chapati in the morning, Salman and Zeeshan walk to a nearby school, Children’s Shine. Both are in nursery, and study from the same textbooks in a class of 25. Right now, they are learning to read the English alphabet and count till 100. During lunch break, Salman plays with his friends. By 12 noon, school is over.

But when most children return home, Salman heads to the ‘adda’ for work. In a roughly 10-by-8 ft room, six workers are crouched around the adda — a wooden contraption to which a piece of fabric is fastened. They are busy stitching  zardozi embroidery on the stretched-out cloth.

“Aa gaya bodyguard?” says the 38-year-old workshop owner, as others laugh; Bodyguard was a 2011 Salman Khan starrer and the name stuck to little Salman, who would dance to the actor’s songs.

Salman sits down sheepishly among the others —  Hashim Ahmed, 16; Azeez Ahmed, 25; Ajeet Kashyap, 17; and Kashif Ali, 11. “Hashim joined this adda when he was 6, and so did Azeez, at about the same age,” says the workshop owner. Salman began working last year.

Salman’s first task is to apply pea-sized amounts from a glue bottle to places marked out with a chalk on the stretched cloth. He finishes it quickly. Then, he fetches tiny, shiny pieces of colourful embellishments, called nug, and presses them onto the drops of glue deftly.

Salman is again done in minutes, but he can’t leave before 1.45 pm, when his ‘shift’ ends. So, he runs errands — fetching needles, threads, and other paraphernalia from the closet, fetching water, and doing other chores. When he sits idle, his eyes stray to the street where children are playing.

“I play cricket sometimes too, when there isn’t much work, but Danish bhai doesn’t give us back our balls,” he says, talking about the person whose balcony faces the street.

Laughing, he adds, “I get Rs 5 from my mother, buy a ball for Rs 2 and have sweets with the rest.”

The co-workers treat the youngest in their midst kindly, joking with him and addressing him as ‘bodyguard’.

But does the owner know that according to a proposed amendment in the child labour law, children below 14 are banned from any kind of employment, except in family-owned businesses or in audio-visual entertainment, and that too after school? He says he has “heard of such news in the papers” but is not worried. “It might be illegal but this has been the norm here for ages, that’s why you see children working openly here without much fear of police,” he says.

Salman’s mother, he says, “insists we teach him zardozi”.

“Since she stays out the entire day, it also becomes our responsibility, being neighbours, to take care of her children. She doesn’t want them to fall in bad company and pick up bad habits,” he says.

Salman’s brother Zeeshan works at an adjacent adda, run by the owner’s 30-year-old brother.

When he reaches home at about 2 pm, Sayeeda serves Salman a lunch of khichdi and chutney. “What options do I have?” she says, talking about putting her sons to work. “In this area, zardozi is what we’ve known. And I also worry about the security of my children. This way, they don’t waste their time, stay safe, and learn something.”

Sayyeda isn’t aware of the government’s new move regarding child labour, but echoes the owner’s views — that this has been common practice here for ages. “I had asked my husband to set up a zardozi shop but being a rickshaw-puller, he didn’t have enough money. Now, I have gone ahead with the wish I had for my children,” she says.

The proposed relaxations for the entertainment industry and family-run businesses in the new Bill are subject to “a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic condition and social fabric in the country”. This description, in the proposed amendment, blends well with places such as Gullu ka Takiya, where most locals who are still in the trade started as children.

“I started in the year of riots, 1992, when I was 7 years old; I used to get Rs 9 per nafri (shift),” says the owner’s brother.

A local, Mohammad Farooq, 60, says he started at the age of 11 at his uncle’s adda. His neighbour Akhtar Hussain, 59, remembers working with him many nights in the light of a lantern in the days of erratic electricity.

They say the police “understand” their trade and there hasn’t been any major case or accusation of “child labour”. “We did read about some people trafficking children from places such as Bihar, but not in our locality, so police were concerned more about that,” says Akhtar.

Over time, the number of families sending their children to “learn” zardozi has been dwindling, they add. “There was a phase when people wouldn’t marry their girls in our families, fearing their daughters would die of hunger. But between 1980-2000, we had a good run, and people would say ‘marry into a zardozi family if you want to be rich’. Now, again, we are in a bad phase,” says Farooq. This is despite Lucknowi zardozi getting a Geographical Indicator tag in 2013.

Meanwhile, Salman has still not got time for a break. At 2 pm, he goes to a madrasa to study the Quran. “I liked playing kancha (marbles) with my madrasa friends but my Hafizji said that is a sin, and mother would scold too, so I stopped playing it,” he says.
After a muezzin calls for prayer at 4.50 pm, he returns to the adda and works there till about 9 pm.

For the first eight-hour shift, Hashim, Azeez, Ajeet and Kashif are paid Rs 100 each a day. For another shift of five hours, they get another Rs 100 a day.

Salman, however, is paid only Rs 100 a week. His mother doesn’t mind though. She wishes that Salman will learn the craft, and when he grows up, will get to work full time at the adda. Then, she hopes, he will support her.

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