Posted by: Mojo Jojo | April 6, 2007

Journalist Immy and the horror of child-labour

Experience, they say, is the best teacher. And I agree, for the most part. But is it fair when you thrust your hand into the fire and somebody else gets to feel the pain?

It’s not. But then, life rarely is…

This story goes back to the time when I was still a journalism student in a small town called Kottayam. My school, the Manorama School of Communication (MASCOM), was the offshoot of one of the bigger newspapers in Kerala.
Well, I was still a rookie back then – with an attitude that was brash and a perspective that was all black ‘n’ white. And in my new-found avtar as a scribe, changing the world topped my list of priorities.
Every week, we were supposed to submit three story ideas to Mr Thomas Oommen, the dictator and supreme commander of MASCOM (I don’t say this in contempt. Mr Oommen is one of the most fascinating persons I have ever seen — and I intend to blog about him soon). If you didn’t have them, it was advisable that you go to him with padding down the ass of your pants.
On that particular day, I was walking down Kottayam, searching for anything to write about, when I saw a young kid with Oriental features walk down the road. This was not something you see everyday in a place as down-south as Kerala, so I ran after him to enquire.
He was just fourteen years old, and he had come down all the way from Assam to work in a neighbourhood rubber tanning plant.
Child labour, AHA!
He was real helpful. And happy that maybe, just maybe, he may feature in a newspaper article.
Over a glass of orange juice, I asked him if I could come over to his factory to check things out, and interview his friends as well. The boy (his name was Som, I think) agreed eagerly, and we fixed an appointment at his place the next day.

The next day

The factory was the dirtiest I had ever seen. Thick sludge, liberally contaminated with grease and chemicals, covered the floor as big rats scurried all over its walls.
And in the middle of the muck worked young Assamese kids — their faces covered with grime and dirt. But the way they were showing me the place, you would have thought it was some Japanese palace.
It was then that the supervisor, a five-foot Malayalee, saw me. “Who are you??” he almost screamed. And when I told him that I was from Manorama, he almost burst his top.“You are a journalist?! Not allowed in this factory,” he started yelling. The noise brought the factory manager around, and thankfully, he did not think that throwing me out would be the right thing to do at this juncture.
“Hi,” I said, “I am a journalism student from MASCOM… And I would like to ask you a few questions about this factory.”
The manager, a plump person with a plastic smile, said: “Sure… I know the place looks a little messy, but we were planning to clean it within a week. And get some new machines.”
I got straight to the point: “Aren’t the children working in this factory under-aged? Som is only fourteen.”
I saw the smile transform into an expression of disdain. He called the kid and asked him his age. A little over nineteen, Som said, a worried expression on his face. He was in for it now. For trusting someone from a newspaper. For acting stupid.
I had a bad feeling about this, so I left.

Black, White and Grey

It was on the third day, while I was sitting and typing out my story, that I received the phone call. It was Som.
“They are going to fire me and everyone else under 18 years,” he said, his voice threatening to break with emotion, “I don’t know what to do now. I have two sisters and my dad can’t work… who will support my family now?”
Never in my life had I felt so guilty. I had cost a family its only bread-winner, all for a stupid story and some misplaced views.
“Could you get me a job,” he asked, “In your newspaper office as chowkidar, maybe?”
I couldn’t, to say the least. I was not even an employee and, in any case, a newspaper cannot afford to take a minor on its rolls. Bad publicity.
That evening, I went over to a senior reporter I knew in Manorama and asked him if he could try and dissuade the factory owner from firing them. He said he would try.
Life went on.

A month later…

A few months later, I was reminded of Som while I was attending a guest lecture at MASCOM. The speaker, a venerable old socialist, was speaking on child labour.
“We just can’t go out and get children removed from their jobs,” he was saying, “Please don’t assume that children like scrubbing dirty utensils when they should be out playing… they do so because of certain compulsions. What would you rather see — a child working out there, or starving out there?”
I could understand what he was saying. Abolishing child labour through force would be like throwing beggars into jail to end beggary.
After the lecture, I called the reporter and asked about Som. Apparently, he had spoken to the factory manager, who just kept giggling and saying: “Okay, Okay..”
I did not have any number to contact Som on and he certainly did not deserve another painful visit from the dumb-ass journalist from Manorama.
So, that was that. The blacks and whites had made way for the greys, and (probably) I had matured at the cost of somebody else’s life.


  1. Nice…..It got me thinking….do you remember how many under-aged kids we had in MCC? There were plenly of them serving in the mess…all the kakas’ and ramaswamys’……i even forgot the names of them all….real puny guys…and if u ever asked them their age, they would all say they were above 18……well trained to say so by the college authorities…. and i dont think that i even wondered about it for a while…and yea it could be desperation that made them come and serve us.

  2. I have also always thought things were black or white..for a while now I realise most things fall in the ‘grey zone’…

    I complete understand and agree with your sentiments..

  3. Mac: Yeah man, that’s the point. And as it is just a by-product of that thing called poverty, we cannot get rid of it just like that – without affecting the real reason.
    I remember the mess guys… that was child labour too … but I would say they got a sweeter deal than the ones at the rubber processing plant. Hell, by the end of it Kaka and Ramaswamy even learnt to speak English 🙂
    Anyway, I don’t know what’s the moral of this post… mebbe just that life’s real confusing..

    DDH: Hey, thanks man… Just an incident from my life. But it was quite one 😉

  4. Yeah can understand your dilelma Jimmy. It takes hard lessons to teach us that the world is just not a simple place.

  5. talking sense huh? hope it lasts.
    i also wish i hadnt learnt about life at the cost of others. and i also wish … i hadn’t learnt many things

  6. @3inOne: Yeah, it was weird because that incident taught me something that went against everything I had learnt at school or had newspapers tell me.
    It’s not a simple place… yes.

    Rama: Ha,ha … I hope it doesn’t, actually. A post like this generally means I am in a very sordid mood.
    My job sucks bigtime!

  7. heyyo… that was a good post. actually this is something Iv realsied sometime ago… also, the question of minority empowerment. remember this yarn by Abe Lincoln.
    Some whites one day caught hold of a negro decidedly to scrub him white. They scrubbed all day. But when he started showing signs of ‘cleanliness’, it was because he had died of a cold….
    u cant just rid the world of all its percieved evils without checking on what happens after.

  8. journalism is a hard job jimmy, i do not envy your position…a very difficult lesson too.

  9. A good story beautifully told 🙂

  10. i just saw page 3 again last nite, and now am reading this. there are these things about each profession…

    but it must b crazy to take back work home everyday… and make it food for thaught. Life is so much beyond the cozy things we sometimes associate it with…

  11. journalese spillin over into ur blog…good signs..

    Kids servin in the mess at our college was one of the greatest ironies i thought..a place of education, and there we had kids serving us, cleanin our tables..good deal or not, they deserve a better deal..all people do..but then, whoever said we always get what we deserve

  12. Ab: Sad, that one. And what makes it sadder is that the people in your story killed the black with supposedly “good intentions.”
    Cats: Yeah, on-the-field journalism’s quite hard indeed … probably why I chose the desk instead. 😉
    But things could get bad over there too. Especially when the media company you work with has a different political ideology than your own…
    Fan: Thanks a lot, mon ami 🙂
    Life Happens: Yeah, I watched Page 3 too. It’s nice, but I thought they really stereotyped characters in there. Like, more black ‘n’ white than grey.
    But it was something different from the usual, of course 🙂
    Everyman: Yeah, I think you are quite right.
    But then, there are many out there who deserve a better deal, and our mess guys weren’t at the bottom rung. I guess.
    But hey, not up to me to sit on my cozy armchair and sermonise on who is better off than whom. Fact remains, we are still, with all our supposed misfortunes, the luckier of the lot…

  13. still thinking …..

  14. Apart from the obvious – a piece of work that’s thought provoking and strikes a chord – one thing i really REALLY like is how you’ve used the words aptly to narrate your story and to convey exactly how you felt, rather than twist the words so much that the essence gets filtered in all the jargon used in the process of describing an emotion. (< -- kinda like this sentence... haha :) ) sometimes writers tend to get so carried away with the words, they forget the emotion they're trying to convey and it becomes all about the words.. What do you think? (ever felt that?) as a rookie myself (or half a rookie if i were to compare myself with you, ha! 🙂 ), it was an interesting read. reminds me how the beginning of every day for a journalist is a fresh page, waiting to be filled – how even the dullest of moments can be transformed into an adventure if you have a way with words, which you do.

  15. ps.. Journalist “Immy”??

  16. @ Sharad Mathur: Ha ha…. Well, making you do that was my aim, in the first place…

    @ Tisha: Hey, thanks! Real nice to know somebody thinks my language is good … my bosses certainly don’t think so 😉
    Yeah, you are right about things becoming wordy when the writer gets carried away …. but hey! I was thinking I was one of the ilk too! And don’t worry da! You ain’t half a rookie (or a rookie, for that matter)… this comment bears testimony to that! 🙂

  17. so true

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