‘As soon as the door opened, the children ceased work. Some held their needle poised in mid air’

Drawing on historic documents, interviews and memoirs, Jeremy Seabrook charts history’s changing and often loose definitions of ‘orphans’ in his upcoming book Orphans: A History. An excerpt: 

Early in the 19th century, a scandal occurred in London over the employment of parish orphans, girl-apprentices, seventeen of whom were employed in the East London workshop of a M. Jouveaux. These were ‘tambour workers’, who stitched embroidery onto fabric held taut over a tambourine-shaped frame. He so cruelly ill-treated them that five died ‘in a decline’. The girls embroidered on muslin from four or five in the morning till eleven or twelve at night, sometimes till two in the morning, occasionally all night. Their food was bread and water, a few potatoes or rice boiled in water without salt. They ate at their embroidery frames. The seventeen slept in a garret in three shared beds. When there was no work they had Sundays to themselves.

I found an echo of these ‘tambour workers’ in Delhi at the millennium. I met Harish, pastorally called ‘field worker’ with a non-government organisation. It was the work of this NGO to comb the dark places of Delhi in search of small captives bringing profit to their employers and unfair competition to the honest toilers of the blameless – and rich – world. One day, it was a small metal-making unit, then a zari-shop, or a place where trace metals were recovered from discarded computers.

I accompanied Harish to East Delhi, a maze of unpaved streets between concrete buildings. Narrow workshops spilled onto the public spaces. Young men and boys were welding: some wore eye-shields of scratched plastic, but most were exposed to the hazardous fireworks from their torches. They brushed off lingering sparks that stung their flesh. A boy looked at us through a shower of stars: an oily wraith glittering in the stony waste.

We turned into a gali, structures of corrugated metal on either side and stopped at a building. The door was closed but not padlocked. Harish pulled the clasp from the lock and stepped inside.

A dark blot on the dirty cushion at her head might have been blood. In a hoarse whisper she said she was the grandmother of the two boys. Their father was dead, and the mother, her daughter, had thrown herself in front of a train

The first sensation was of heat. On an earth floor, about twenty boys sat in front of wooden frames, over which was pinned taut fabric. Under instruction from older boys, they were embroidering the cloth with coloured thread – gold, silver, peacock blue, crimson and lime-green – sequins and small confetti-like discs. The motifs were birds of paradise with long, shimmering tails, abstract filigrees of gold, garlands of rosebuds and lilies. It was shocking, that from this inferno of heat and dirt objects of such splendour should appear.

As soon as the door opened, the children ceased work. Some held their needle poised in mid air; others stared, open-mouthed. A few began to cry: on their nose mucus formed a yellow crust. Flies circled everywhere. Beside each child – the youngest about seven, the oldest barely adolescent – stood a bottle of cloudy water. The only light came from yellow bulbs that oscillated on their flex like pallid eggs – inadequate for the work they illuminated. The boys blinked in the wedge of orange sunlight that came through the door. A slight breeze moved the stagnant air. Harish was calling the police on his phone. In a couple of minutes, two corpulent officers appeared, their belts tight over bellies grown fat on rice, beer and bribery. They asked ‘Malik kahan?’ If the children knew where the boss was, they were not going to say. They sat, skinny, cross-legged, passive. Harish, meanwhile was summoning a journalist, who also appeared out of nowhere to complete the scene of triumph over the forces of evil. The flash of a camera disconcerted the children. Some rose to their feet, unsteady on their thin legs.

By this time, a crowd had gathered outside – workers from industrial units and garment factories – and infants darting between the legs of adults. The children looked hungry and sleepless. The journalist asked them questions in the hectoring tone usually reserved for politicians. Where is your home? Who brought you here? Who owns the factory? Where are your mother and father? The boys remained mute, tableau of puzzled servitude.

No one spoke. Some of the rescued children, bored, resumed work. The policemen sat on metal barrels outside, smoking, perhaps thwarted of their expected pay-off from the proprietor. A boy of about eleven approached us. He asked Harish what he proposed to do with the children. ‘You will go to a government school.’ The boy asked ‘Who will pay our wages?’ ‘You are too young to be working. You should be in school.’ The crowd was hostile: they regarded the rescuers as villains, ruining the livelihood of families whose only support was these ragged urchins.

Orphans: A History by Jeremy Seabrook

‘Come.’ A wiry young man of about nineteen with intense eyes and a halo of dark curly hair, seized Harish by the wrist. ‘This’ – indicating a younger boy – ‘is my brother. He is learning zari work. He is an apprentice.’

We followed paths between workshops and makeshift dwellings of rough brick with tin roofs. The area was strewn with garbage – orange peel, banana skins, vegetable refuse, plastic bags, shit, discarded rags, rusty cans. The stench of a polluted canal was overwhelming. Bubbles on the surface burst in evil-smelling crepitations. I almost trod on a dead rat, the innards of which had been crushed like the inside of a pomegranate.

Outside some dwellings women were lighting small stoves, fuelled with waste straw and plastic, which warmed pots where rice simmered in pearly water. We stopped at a particularly wretched hut. The young man opened a plywood door. We stooped to enter. Adjusting our eyes to the darkness, we saw a bundle of rags in the corner, on which lay the emaciated body of a woman. Her eyes shone through the gloom.

She was at an advanced stage of consumption. A dark blot on the dirty cushion at her head might have been blood. In a hoarse whisper she said she was the grandmother of the two boys. Their father was dead, and the mother, her daughter, had thrown herself in front of a train. She had been a maidservant until, too weak to work, her employers sent her away. Iqbal, the zari-worker and his brother who worked in shoe-factory, were the sole support of two younger sisters and the grandmother who would not live to see them grow up. She wept at the thought of leaving them; and spoke of her gratitude to Allah, who had surely sent us to her.

In the presence of such dereliction, Harish fell silent. I took out my wallet and gave the young man two five-hundred rupee notes. He took them without a word. We went outside. Iqbal followed us along the glassy canal. He took my hand and would not relinquish it. Harish told him he wouldn’t get anything else and should go and look after his grandmother.

(Published with permission from Jeremy Seabrook’s upcoming book Orphans: A History, by Hurst, London)

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