Wearing a green T-shirt and off-white trousers, Rashid stands tall and proud. His beaming smile is a measure of his confidence. Till you ask him about his past. "I don't like to talk about it," he says awkwardly.
Rashid performs with a group memeber, Gauri, during the rehearsals of the play. (HT Photo/Manas Gurung)
As a toddler, Rashid struggled with poverty and abuse at home. His alcoholic father used to spend everything he earned on liquor; he'd often beat him up with his mother. Until one day, when the frustrated kid decided he wouldn't take it anymore. "I decided to run away from home," Rashid says. "I was just eight or ten then," he adds, his voice brimming with pride.
Rashid says he knew, even at that age, that he wasn't simply running away from it all. "I wanted to get away from the abuse. But I also wanted make my parents proud."
Now 16, Rashid knows he's done enough to make his parents happy. He's on a 10-day trip to Scotland to participate in The Tin Forest International Theatre Festival which is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme for the ongoing Commonwealth Games. The National Theatre of Scotland, the festival organiser, explains it as "a celebration of Glasgow's industrial past and creative future".
He's accompanied by five other kids from similar backgrounds, six youngsters from mainstream society and his mentors from the Yuva Ekta Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO working with juvenile delinquents. The group is representing India in the festival themed "From Nowhere to Somewhere", and will perform later today.
Rashid with other members from the group during rehearsals for the play. (HT Photo/Manas Gurung)
Rashid plays the lead role in the play Shoonya Se Shikhar: it's about Raju, who ran away from his village to the 'big city' to fulfill his dream, and Maya, an aspiring dancer who wants to marry the woman she loves, both against her parents' will.
For Rashid, the role is not a reminder of his bitter story. Instead, he says it's a constant reminder of the dreams that he wants to fulfil. "I want to become an actor/director. And I want to work with Mira Nair," he chirps.
Does he plan to meet his parents again? "Not until the whole village knows my name."
Like Raju, 25-year-old Pankaj too ran away from home as a kid to escape abuse and child labour. But his story has swung between the good and the bad. His brother, who too had run away, was then with the Salaam Baalak Trust, which rehabilitates runaway kids it picks up from the New Delhi Railway Station in Paharganj.
Pankaj rehearses for his role as village panchayat. (HT Photo/Manas Gurung)
Running away wasn't easy for him, however. "I was hungry and just had Rs 4.50 in my pocket. But I didn't want to beg."
After a day of deliberation, fighting bullies, hunger and fear, and a close shave with the train ticket examiner, Pankaj made his way to Delhi and subsequently, SBT. "I wasn't very bright, but always liked studying," he says about his time there. That was until his father, a hernia patient, and his mother came to bring him back home. They promised to let him study and took him back to the village where they first stalled the admission process and then pushed him into farming. Pankaj was eventually put in a bangle-making factory, and soon found himself working at a dhaba.
He ran away again, and this time decided never to go back. Pankaj stuck to his decision, and has since then become a professional actor, currently employed with Kingdom Of Dreams' popular ensemble, Jhumroo.
Though his dream of getting through to the National School of Drama remained unfulfilled because of him not being a graduate, he says he couldn't be happier. "Jhumroo is a big production and there are so many experienced people," he emphasises on how he has no disappointments. "I learn something new every day."
Other than Jhumroo, Pankaj has also acted in the TV series Jasoos Vijay (produced by BBC World Service) and popular movies including Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! Acting aside, Pankaj also enjoys contemporary dance and has worked with choreographer Astad Deboo.
He currently shares his rented accommodation with another SBT kid who is now a graphic designer. Today, he's happy with where he stands in life. "I manage mine and my family's business and am proud to say I do a good job of it. I have married off both my sisters, and I had to handle it single-handedly."
Pankaj plays a village panchayat who may seem empathatic towards the "lower caste" but has an affinity towards the high and mighty. "I like playing negative roles," he quips.
Unlike Rashid, however, Pankaj has made peace with his past: his father died when he was in class 10, and his mother means the world to him now. His struggles, however, are far from over. He had to get his brother admitted in rehab to help fight alcoholism, but it never helped.
"I try to sensitise people against nasha (substance abuse), but in my own house things are the same. It's frustrating."Bridging gaps
It's been a tough journey for the Yuva Ekta Foundation too. Holding acting workshops for runaway kids on a regular basis has not been easy, even with help from the Salaam Baalak Trust.Puneeta Roy, the Managing Trustee at The Yuva Ekta Foundation. (HT Photo/Manas Gurung)
"Half our cast was going to be marginalized children and a lot of them did not have the necessary paperwork required to make a trip outside the country. We really had to start from getting their birth certificates, then their passports, and then their visas," says Puneeta Roy, the Managing Trustee at The Yuva Ekta Foundation.
Roy says that the group was on tenterhooks even 24 hours prior to their departure since they were still waiting for 5 visas to come through.
Another question that looms, even in the minds of some of the performers, is whether the Scottish audience will be able to identify with such a typically Indian setting, especially since a major chunk of it is in Hindi and the audience will have to refer to subtitles. "It was a deliberate attempt to take India across to them. There was a lot of brainstorming initially," says a determined Roy, stressing on how "there is a lot of transition happening in India."
"The idea was that we're very proud to be in India at this point."
Besides, for Puneeta, the organisation is all about bridging gaps of all kinds. And for her, the kids are the biggest testimony to that.
"These kids are an example of how they can fit right in if given a chance."For more information on Yuva Ekta Foundation's performance at the event, you can visit here.
The group's donation call before they left for Glasgow: