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The English Teacher

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Sonia with mother Zubeida and youngest brother Ramzan

First time I visited Sonia, she ran up to my cab and knocked at my window gesturing to spare some change. It was a familiar face - a girl dressed in red with a crooked smile and pleading eyes was staring at me. She was the same girl I had read about in a column written by city chronicler Mayank Austen Soofi. Although her hopeful smile was missing in person, somehow she was older, in a matter of few weeks.

Sonia lives on the pavement opposite Lodhi hotel- one of Delhi’s most luxurious hotels. The pavement that lies between two heritage monuments of Himanyu’s tomb and Safdarjung’s tomb is home to many roofless citizens of Delhi. Sonia’s family shifted to the pavement because their hut was forcefully occupied by another family. She wants to be an English teacher, but she is compelled to beg on streets. At the age of 10 Sonia is the sole breadwinner for the family of four ever since her mother left her alcoholic husband.

Sonia is the oldest of three siblings and the only one from her family who ever attended a school. On my next visit, I gave her two notebooks and a pen, it was the day before Eid. Sonia carefully kept the notebooks on the edge of that pavement boundary and started combing her hair with a tiny blue comb. Her brother started playing with the notebook and mumbled “I will tear it apart. I will set fire to your books”. Kids often imitate the adults, said the embarrassed mother.

Sonia and friends getting their weekly ration from a kind lady identified as Mrs. Robinson

Before leaving I asked her to promise she won’t beg anymore since we are working on getting her into school again. Sonia looked at her mother with a hesitant nod. All three of us sat at the t-point surrounded by deafening traffic, sharing a moment of hope.


It had been a month since I first met Sonia. In the preceding few weeks, we visited the nearby school for admission together. We made plans for her future and of her friends who need more assistance due to their refugee status. Sonia promised to teach the Bangladeshi refugee children till they get into a school. We tried arranging make-shift class on the same pavement.

Sonia en-route to her first school visit in a year

I was walking down that pavement again- broad streets as clean as satin sheets are adorned with neatly planted rows of beautiful flowers. I was the only one walking, everyone else had a vehicle. I could spot a red dot from far away. With a disappointed heart, I kept walking towards her.

She was lurking through the windows of luxurious vehicles flashing her signature smile asking for money. Sonia's mother and younger brothers were sleeping in the shade of an old tree on the triangular intersection of that busy road.

As I approached the mother with a sad smile, Sonia spotted me. She ran away while her friends ran in my direction. They kept pointing in the direction where she was hiding.

The mother stood up and greeted me with an embarrassed smile.

“When did you come back from home? Why didn’t you call me?” I asked remembering our last meeting where she stopped me from sending Sonia to school citing an emergency visit to her hometown as the reason.

Happy children with their share of sweets and soap

She responded immediately in a rehearsed manner: “I lost your number. Someone stole Sonia’s bag. I didn’t have money to go home. So Sonia is just earning some money. We will go home to my sick sister then.”

Thousands of children drop out of schools in the national capital owing to factors such as the need to earn for their family, lack of proper transportation, child marriages and others. After the age of 10, many children are introduced to the world of child labour and they learn skills that bring them money every day. In case of a young girl, lack of safety is another crucial factor. Sonia’s mother Zubeida had expressed concerns about Sonia’s safety amidst the growing rape cases in the city.

When Sonia finally came to me with a face that said- “Please don’t be disappointed in me” she didn’t look me in the eye.

I took her hands in mine and leaned in towards her. She didn’t smile.

“Do you want to go back to school? Do you want to stop begging?”

She hid behind her mother, waiting for the parent to respond. The mother cannot start working until they have a home and she can leave the boys behind. Sonia is the only way for them to feed themselves along with some helpful visitors who religiously give them food supplies every week.

What 10 year old child would not like to quit begging! She wanted to as well. But the privilege of wanting is not available to all.

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