The labours of May Day

Psalm of those who go forth before daylight

The policeman buys shoes slow and careful; the teamster buys gloves slow and careful; they take care of their feet and hands; they live on their feet and hands.

The milkman never argues; he works alone and no one speaks to him; the city is asleep when he is on the job; he puts a bottle on six hundred porches and calls it a day's work; he climbs two hundred wooden stairways; two horses are company for him; he never argues.

The rolling-mill men and the sheet-steel men are brothers of cinders; they empty cinders out of their shoes after the day's work; they ask their wives to fix burnt holes in the knees of their trousers; their necks and ears are covered with a smut; they scour their necks and ears; they are brothers of cinders.

Carl Sandburg

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The concept of labour invariably involves adults. When I do mention children working in the streets, I am accused of romanticising child labour; I and many others do know the reality is different in many parts of our subcontinent.

Several years ago I was asked to present a paper on Human Rights and the Child at a seminar organised by the Indian chapter of Amnesty International. I must admit that I did not think I was qualified; the organisers thought differently. I typed out the manuscript interspersing facts with opinion. It was a pretty clear-cut and sharp picture I recreated.

That morning I made my way to the University Campus; the other speakers were all somebodies, in that they had done extensive work in the areas they were to speak on – law, trade unions, academics; I was the only novice, so to say. The one advantage I had was that many in the room had read me…and disliked me!

Copies of our papers were distributed to the panellists. Mine was the only one that did not have footnotes.

I was to speak in the afternoon session. There was a break for lunch and some people came up with their dessert plates to tell me they had gone through my paper. This was rather unfair. Reading it was then a mere formality; they were already armed with queries. It was a bit queasy.

I did the ahem-ahem authoritative cough routine and decided to alter the beginning: “By the time you finished your lunch X number of children have died”. At least one smirk was wiped out.

What surprised me was the nature of questioning: “Your paper is very good, but why have you not provided solutions?”

No one else was asked this and no one had provided solutions. Which is why trade unions exist and there are constant battles for wages, working conditions and a lot else.

Did I have a reply for them? I merely said I had no answers but I asked the right questions.

And I believe...

"He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God's creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion. Above all, he saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all."

- Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

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Image: This picture I took in Varanasi.

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