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Running to a better life

Let's not shackle Budhia's future and imprison him in the bureaucracy of procedure and propriety, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: May 10, 2006 17:38 IST

He would have been just another poor boy forgotten in a faded corner of India. Leaning back in the luxury of leather, waiting impatiently for the red light to turn to green, you would have probably looked up to find his searching eyes on the other side of your shiny, sun-protected window-screen. Most likely his hand would be outstretched, hawking desperate deformity, in exchange for a coin or two.

You would have looked down at your cell-phone, the light would have changed just at the moment when the guilt was creeping up on you to compete with the irritation and heat; the car would have zipped past him, leaving just another street urchin staring at a world that could never be his.

Instead, Budhia Singh got a life. A local martial arts teacher rescued the three-year-old from the oppression and anonymity of poverty. Biranchi Das became both saviour and surrogate parent to the fatherless child. He had caught him just at the edge of the abyss. Driven by despair, Budhia’s impoverished mother had traded him in for Rs 800 when Das discovered him and his prodigious talent.

So, the boy who would have remained just another nameless poverty statistic became a headline. The child who would most likely have ended up a beggar or a teastall vendor or the boy who washes up after you and I eat, instead, got the chance to dream, and to dream big. The little kid who had been abandoned by his biological family was no longer alone. And when he ran 65 miles in a record seven hours, cheered on by 200 soldiers from the CRPF, Budhia Singh had already broken free from his past; the marathon boy was running the race of freedom.

But then came the biggest hurdle. Worse than memories of an alcoholic father, worse than the pathos of being given away by a mother who could not afford to keep him; this was the obstacle between the boy and his future: the tyranny of India’s politically correct lobby.

What sort of idiotic people are we? How self-indulgent and naive can our liberalism be? I’m writing just hours after a panel of government doctors has declared that the boy must not be allowed to run long distance. That’s not necessarily unwise — medical monitoring, as long as it is independent, is both advisable and welcome. What smacks of hypocrisy and misplaced idealism is the attempt to vilify the man who pulled the young boy out from the heart of darkness.

The state government, absent and inert, when Budhia was bartered for survival, now has a solution — it’s considering separating the boy and his foster father and placing Budhia in an orphanage or SOS village. The National Human Rights Commission has lifted the cobwebs off its files and demanded many explanations as well. And sundry activists are enraged by the ‘exploitation’ and ‘manipulation’ of a small child.

Drowned in the din is the gentle rebuttal from a small little child too dazed to understand what the fuss is about. Watching Budhia wrapped around the only man who has ever been a father to him, I was convinced of two things. First, the demand to separate them seems utterly cruel and unthinking. And second, Budhia must run. It will be India’s shame if the sprint in his soul slackens and surrenders.

So was it not uncomfortable and disturbing to watch this little big man run under the stern stare of a scorching sun, barefooted and brave, his endurance pushed beyond the pale? Yes it was. It is entirely possible coach Das may have put too much pressure on his protege. There is certainly a sense of too much too soon. The passion could be tempered and the talent transformed into a stable powerhouse instead of fluctuating brilliance that is destined to burn out.

So, fine. Bring on the doctors and the dollars. Let Nike design the right shoes; let the track queens and kings who have worried that the boy is being misdirected offer expertise and time; let the State spend money on his food, clothes and education. Groom him as India’s next Olympic hope; let the Flying Sikh from Punjab pass the baton on to the Barefoot Boy from Orissa. But for God’s sake, don’t imprison him in the bureaucracy of procedure and propriety. And remember, it was a local judo teacher who discovered him and created him — not any one of the zillion sporting federations who feed and fatten themselves on taxpayers’ money.

There are those who argue that the foster father is merely looking to inflate his own ego through the feats of his child. Maybe. But no more or less, I think, than any other family with the same opportunity. Pause to consider some of the other kids who have made their way to the record books. The youngest classical maestro listed in the Limca Book of Records is 4-year-old Satvik Bhatt, the grandson of acclaimed musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who began rigorous training in classical music even before his second birthday. Then there’s the 10-year-old who is the world’s youngest Microsoft-certified computer engineer. Or the 5-year-old who can identify the flags of more than 150 countries and has won India’s national award for exceptional achievement.

So why don’t we hear anyone talking about mental abuse, exploitation or pressure in any of these cases? Forget the so-called prodigies. What about parents who paralyse their children with performance anxiety before a board examination or a medical entrance test? What about teenagers driven to suicide because they failed some imagined benchmark set by their over-ambitious families? Where are the social workers and activists then?

Could it be that, safe within the cocoon of our middle-class comforts, we are convinced that what happens in our world is respectable ‘ambition’, and any other reality is ‘exploitation’? The fact is, we live in a society and age that worships achievement. Love it or loathe it.

In this ruthless world, merit may be a myth, but talent is not. This is a chance for a poor slum child to break through the class divide and travel on the same superhighway to success as everyone else.

Budhia Singh is an extraordinary child. Let him keep his date with history.

(The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 barkha@ndtv.com)