How fast can an infant pro burn out in Calcutta' Well, if she (or he) is ‘working’ the streets from the time of his or her entry into the world, it can take as little as three years.
Munna, Rakesh, Kiran, Abu… they are the ‘Sudder Street babies’ with different names, but a very similar fate: they were born to be rented out by their parents to women, who show them off to wring extra sympathy and a few bucks more from passersby and motorists waiting for the traffic light to turn green.
For the past few weeks, Amina Bibi (name changed), one of the ‘mothers’ of the Sudder Street babies, has been bringing 10-month-old Ruksana to the central Calcutta pavements every day. Before picking her up from her parents (who live beside the railway tracks near Park Circus station), she pays them Rs 70. “They have agreed to take a little less once she is a year old,” Amina said, looking forward to Ruksana’s first birthday more eagerly than her parents, explaining that Ruksana was growing “stronger and bigger” and, therefore, her potential as a tear-jerker was growing less.
For every Ruksana on Sudder Street’s pavements and the divider of Chowringhee, there is one Amina Bibi. All the mothers meet on the pavements around 10 am, just like any other office-goer who has a fixed attendance time. They work together, dividing the area into zones (they don’t encroach on each other’s turf), and work late, often till as late as nine in the evening.
Amina’s method of extracting sympathy gives a clue to how her ‘colleagues’ work. In this ‘line’ for more than 10 years, she has picked up a smattering of English. The moment she sights a white-skinned ‘victim’, she pounces on him or her before her rivals can do so.
“No money… dawai… very young… my girl,” she whines, addressing the wife if it happens to be a couple. She lets go of them only after she is assured that they are coming back “in a few minutes”. And she waits in front of the hotel they are staying in till they emerge.
At the start of the day, the women exchange notes on their “conquests” the day before — like the memsaab who gave Shakeela a tenner.
As in every other profession, there are the winners who earn as much as Rs 100 every day for their real parents. The winners must be very young, as recent an entrant as possible to the world. The winners must be whiners, which most of the babies are, for they are separated from their mothers and are not fed properly. And, if he/she has a visible sign of ailment (it could be anything, from an abnormal growth to a running nose), then he/she is bound to take it all.
So, the helpless ‘mother’ fending for herself and her baby always has an edge over the ‘child-less beggars’.