It had been months. He missed his friends, teachers, the chatter in the classroom, and playing cricket. Online classes were not the same. “I could see on a tiny mobile phone screen the teacher writing something on a blackboard. I could neither read what they wrote nor hear what they said,” he says. On January 18, carrying a water bottle, chips, and his bicycle, the 14-year old Class 8 student ran away from his home in Surat to an uncle in Bhayander, Mumbai, 280 km away. He left the phone behind, and a note: telling his parents he was sorry for the trouble but he was going “far away”; “Yeh online classes mein kuchch samajh nahin aata (I can’t get anything in these online classes)”.
On Thursday, his parents got him back. His school plans to send over two teachers home for counselling. The principal of the school, an English-medium, grant-in-aid institution, says the 14-year-old is a good student but has been irregular since the online classes began five months ago. While he scored 74% in Class 7, he didn’t appear in the recent school exams.
The Rander police are not planning any action, apart from sending over some personnel to talk to the teenager. “We trust his statement. He has not committed any crime. The boy has returned safely,” says an inspector.
The teenager, who aspires to become a pilot, says he felt “ghunglaman (suffocated)” since the Covid lockdown began. The family’s one-bedroom flat on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Adajan is bare but for a divan, a television case with no TV in it, and a few chairs. Once his parents, who are tobacco vendors, left for work, he would spend days alone in the room, staring at the mobile phone — days which quickly turned to months. He has no siblings.
Almost the only time he stepped out was to help his parents carry tobacco bags up.
“I love playing cricket, but all my friends stay far away,” he says. Meanwhile, he kept falling behind in studies, with tuitions also stopped and no one to help him with problems.
The school principal says they called his parents thrice for a meeting, concerned about the “above average, well-behaved” teenager skipping classes. “But they didn’t come. Knowing that the family is not well-off financially, we had waived his fees for six months. We also gave the boy books.”
The 14-year-old could only think of one escape, to his grandmother and chacha, who live in Bhayander. His parents and he also lived in Bhayander till six years ago, but moved to Surat in the hope of a better life. He had last met his uncle and grandmother before the pandemic began.
When he left for Bhayander, on the bicycle gifted by his uncle, he thought he would “never return”, he says.
“We used to go to Mumbai by road on my father’s motorbike, so I was aware of the route and that it was 280 km away,” he says, claiming to have taken lifts with truck drivers, choosing only the elderly ones to be safe, and riding his bicycle alternately, to make it to Mumbai. He claims to have spent a difficult, cold night at the back of a truck, till a guard lent him a blanket. He says he thought of calling his parents to tell them he was safe, but was scared they would be very angry or come with the police. “I am afraid of the police.”
Around 10.30 pm on January 19, he knocked on his uncle’s door. “They were happy to see me. I just ate and slept. My uncle knowing I had left home without telling my parents called up my father to tell him where I was.”
The Rander police was also on his trail, having figured out with the help of CCTV footage of the apartment that he had left home on his bicycle.
On January 20, his parents arrived in Bhayander to get him back. Sitting with him at home, the father says they would never nag him to study again, or “leave him alone at home”. “We work hard to ensure he has a comfortable life, now we will work to keep him happy.”
This Sunday, he will drive his son to his friend’s house to play.