King David

It will be a working Christmas. But I’m still feeling lucky myself these days.

Alessandro’s shooting a documentary in South India and I’m with him. We met a kid whose name’s Davide Raj: King David. He’s 12 and he’s living in a slum around Madurai, in Tamil Nadu.

His mom makes up him carefully in the morning as a kid deserves, and his brothers and sisters too.

Just the final check is stricter on King David, as he’s the younger one: she combs his rebel forelock and he’s ready to go. He shakes and protests against her a bit, but smiles indeed.

Then King David puts on his shoulder the hammer, a long one, but not as much as he’s, even if he’s not so big, and goes, walking barefoot and wearing his shorts, to break granite in the nearby quarry. Till 6 o’clock, when is almost dark and he’s still willing to play as a kid uses to.

His sisters will be back later from the soap factory, around 7. They are 16 and 17 and work since 4 or 5 years in the same place. There’s another brother, twin to one of the sisters, who’s supposed to be with them: he didn’t go at work today and he’s playing around with the dog. The elder brother is 21 and is at home, he’s unemployed. He had a job in a textile export factory in a District faraway in west Tamil Nadu and was living alone there. His father called him back from the job and home. He then quit, he’d like to go back, but can’t overcome the family’s (father’s) will. He’d asked to come to Italy, with us, I told him to give up the idea; it’s not a good place right now.
I can’t remember their names. I just remember King David.

The sun’s gone now. King David’s father, known as God in the village after his conversion to Christianity, is washing the granite dust and his sweat away, whilst King David’s mother – she’s also just back from the quarry – is back and forth inside out home, possibly preparing the supper. I can feel some excitement around, mainly for the camera nosing around.

The family can cut some 100 small stone pieces per day paid 1 rupee and 37 paise each. A-HUNDRED-AND-THIRTY-SEVEN rupees in total, some 230 cents of a dollar. They’re free, in the other hand. They have no working time to respect, I mean, so they’re free work from 7,30 in the morning till dusk every day, except on Sunday and the festivals. But they are free to work also on Sunday and festival if they desire. That’s flexibility. I guess.

Joe, helping us out with the Tamil language, organizes here with his organization some tuitions for the dropout kids, after they finish at work; he says the quarries belong to the Government of Tamil Nadu and are granted in long-lasting leases to businessmen, with good connections upstairs – ça va sans dire –, who let these families cut the construction material paying them by the piece. In fact you can see sometimes blue and yellow trucks coming down slowly from a sloping track; they load the stones and go. Few days ago one of them had a brakes failure and now it lays down reverse at the bottom of an idling quarry being the target for the kids’ pebble throwing games. The driver is said to be alive.

From above the quarry is surreal. From the bottom it looks the same. No bulldozers working, no machineries. Just men, women and a lot of children, their hammers and chisels pattering the silence, marking the rhythm and spreading echoes all over. I hear the kids calling my name, but it’s not my name. They’re calling King David.

Few Christian families live here, they belong to the Church of South India, protestants of the Union of Anglican Churches. On Christmas they will go to the small church under the Elephant Rock, the holy mountain. The church is a small light green cement and brick house in the middle of an earthy glade, down there, at the end of the slum, little fairway from the last huts, from a village made of poor houses built on the government squatted land with no services, no water, no toilets, no permission. I wouldn’t say they are abusive even though they’re illegal: here 85% of economy could be said hidden according to western standards, but here it’s just informal. So almost nobody needs or asks permissions or registration. What for? Unless should this soil become of some commercial value. Quite unlikely, I’d say.

The pastor comes only the first Sunday of the months. It’s not sure he’ll be here for Christmas, too many requests that day. The faithfuls will gather anyway, as they did last Sunday. They will read the Tamil Holy Bible, will sing and play drums and make noise. It’s all I understood. I’ve been told there are no problems with the Hindus, who have their temple just on the other part of the slum. On the Elephant Rock top there’s a Jain temple too.

There won’t be a midnight Holy Mass or a dinner or celebrations on the 24th. Just a mass (with or without pastor) from 6 am on the 25th, then some celebrations or and some food together – with meat, points out Joe.

Families here don’t work only in the quarry, a massive pit, an abyss running along the whole village, they are busy also in small pots and aluminium factories or in making appalam, crackers, cashew nuts you can find in each and every shops in India. And in every place there are children from 8, maybe 10 years old, on: they can start no sooner they are able to some work. They brake stones, prepare the dough, pack the cracker, cut aluminium foils with heavy machines or just polish steel pots, barehanded and barefoot, using toxic abrasive powder. They dropped out after 4 or 5 years in school. Why did you drop? We need money at home. Would you like to go back to school? We need money at home. I understand the second question was quite meaningless

Madurai is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, after Chennai, with a million inhabitants, and well known as the Temple City with the Hindu Sri Meenakshi temple visited by many tourists and pilgrims. There are also factories for the local market. Around Madurai there are also some 203 slums like this, with 303,161 inhabitants, mainly migrants coming in the recent decades from the surrounding rural areas and other districts.

King David’s family has the same story of the other 50,000 living in the slums. Why am I talking about King David’s family then?
Alessandro became keen over their Christian religion. About me: my name is Davide.

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