India’s Wonder Boy

If you stand long enough by the temple complex, you will see them – the pilgrims – weaving on bare feet through the choked, filthy side streets, past bone-thin wandering cows and past amputee beggars and street children and mangy dogs sprawled on their backs on the cobblestone. Patiently, the pilgrims pick their way through the mayhem of Puri, India, until they catch sight of the terraced white spires of Jagannath, a labyrinth of some 120 temples. Then they drop to their knees and pray – and, watching, you see how the gritty physical world and the shimmering spiritual realm are deeply intertwined in India, sometimes in strange ways.

*****

On the morning of 2 May 2006, a little boy stepped into the streets of Puri, in running shoes. Budhia Singh was 4 years, 3 months old. A slum kid from a nearby city, Bhubaneswar, he wore bright red socks and a collared white tennis shirt that drooped to mid-thigh. His task that morning, as prescribed by his coach Biranchi Das, a one-time all-India judo champ, was to run home: 69 kilometres back to Bhubaneswar, the largest city in the state of Orissa, through the rising heat of Northeast India’s most sweltering season.

If all this sounds stranger than a fairy tale, consider that Budhia is now, at age 6, a celebrity in India. He’s starred in a popular music video in which he runs, does judo, and unleashes a hip-hop chant, “I am Budhia, son of Orissa.” Indian newspapers regularly hail him as a “wonder boy” bound for the Olympics.

As he stood in Puri, Budhia was said to have run six half marathons and trained 190-plus kilometres a week. Sometimes he ran barefoot on asphalt. Almost always, he ran without hydrating. “If he drinks while running,” reasoned Das, “he will go weak.”This run wasn’t a race; it was a test with a spiritual resonance. Budhia was traveling a route that millions of pilgrims had ridden in buses: Running north from Puri, with its 900-year-old holy shrine, and past the Sun Temple, a World Heritage site boasting exquisite stone carvings. Das had alerted the media and worked his connections with the Central Reserve police force. A squadron of officers and cadets in khaki shorts was ready to run with the boy. Budhia stood hip high among them. He looked little and fragile.

In time, Das would be pilloried by critics arguing that no four-year-old should be forced to endure the ardours of long-distance running. Three days after Budhia’s Puri run, Orissa’s Minister for Women and Child Development would sweep in to arrest Das, who was also the boy’s foster father, on charges of child cruelty. Later, newspapers would air lurid accusations. Budhia’s mother alleged last summer that Das hung her son upside down from a ceiling fan, splashed him with hot water, and branded his skin with the words “Biranchi Sir.” Budhia himself told reporters, “He locked me in a room for two days without food.” Sukanti Singh took her son back from the coach.

All very damning, except that a medical report, conducted by a neutral forensics specialist, Sarbeswar Acharya, revealed that the scars on Budhia’s body were three to six months old. They were not caused by scalding water, Acharya opined, and not corroborative of Sukanti’s claims. And a newsbreak this spring only deepened the mystery.

On 13 April, Biranchi Das, 41, was murdered – shot dead outside his judo hall. The prime suspect, a gangster named Raja Acharya, who faces some 30 unrelated counts of extortion, murder and kidnapping, is now in jail, awaiting trial. He was infatuated with a lovely Indian actress, Leslie Tripathy. Police speculate that Das irked the gangster by cautioning him to stop harassing Tripathy. If they’re right, perhaps Das died for honour. Then again, you could ask why he was hanging out with a violent thug like Acharya in the first place. And was he himself the sort of tough who might thrash a child?

No one (except Budhia himself) will ever know for sure, and there’s an outside chance that the boy’s scars could have accrued without anyone striking him: In Bhubaneswar’s slums, open cook fires are always burning, and rusty nails and broken glass are heaped by the roadside. All that’s clear is that nearly every adult in Budhia’s life has caused the boy harm.

There is something about kids – their magic innocence, maybe – that can make adults go crazy. Anyone who has ever endured a child-custody battle knows how covetous grown-ups can get. And this is a story about adults going crazy – and about a child trying to remain whole amid the chaos. It’s a story about a sort of custody battle, one lacking moral clarity. Biranchi Das wasn’t a pure villain; in some ways he shined as devoted.

Back in Puri, he bent to the ground and tied Budhia’s shoes. Budhia started to run, at roughly six minutes a kilometre, up a long, slight incline, past roadside shops where vendors sold milky chai for 10 cents a cup and past bald patches of land where long-tailed monkeys crouched by the road, watchful and still.

The police officers surrounded Budhia, their boots scuffing the pavement with a militarised rhythm, and TV cameras craned in at the boy, shooting footage that would later verify that this run was no hoax. Thousands stood at the roadside. Later, everyone in Orissa would speak of how the crowds felicitated Budhia, and that word, carrying hints of fervour and ecstasy, seems to fit. Several times, spectators rushed toward the boy, attempting to garland him with a necklace of orange and red marigolds – the flowers that abound in Indian temples.

Budhia kept going. He crossed a bridge over the River Kushabhadra and passed the fishing village of Chandrabagha. With temperatures climbing into the 30s, Budhia drank only a touch of lemony water. He tired. Then, 5km short of his goal – seven hours, two minutes into his run – Budhia collapsed from exhaustion. He began vomiting and convulsing. Over and over, he bit at the arms of Jyotsna Nayak, the doctor tending to him.

Nayak later told a British filmmaker, “Brain irritation was there. Had I not been there, he certainly would have died.” And large questions seemed to hang in the air: Do coaches and parents have the right to conscript children to chase after glory? Who sets the rules? And why are we so transfixed by the bizarre achievements of a four-year-old boy?

Budhia was thirsty. Nayak gave him water. And before long, the boy bounced back. After all, he’d seen hardship before.

*****

Budhia Singh was born in Bhubaneswar’s Gautam Nagar slum, in a shanty that has since been razed to make way for the railroad. His mother worked, in Indian parlance, as a peon. She did domestic chores, earning 46 Rupees a month. Budhia’s father, meanwhile, was an alcoholic addicted to ginger – dirt-flecked firewater that women sell from battered metal bowls by the roadside in India. He was unemployed, a beggar who contributed nothing to his family’s welfare.

Budhia’s parents knew Biranchi Das, who was the president of their slum in Bhubaneswar, the owner of a hotel and a partner in his family’s taxi business. For more than a decade, Das had run an esteemed judo hall, handpicking athletically promising boys and girls from the slums and subjecting them to an almost paramilitary training regimen with twice-daily workouts, strict dietary rules and classes on combat theory. Seven of his students have become national champions, and more than 1 200 have launched careers with the Central Reserve police force.

I met Das four months before he was killed. He was stout and bearded, rippling with muscles despite a little potbelly, and he exuded the dark, burly beneficence of a Mafia don.

In 2003, he said, Sukanti asked if one-year-old Budhia could bunk at the judo hall. “She had three daughters, all older than Budhia,” Das said, “and already she’d sold the two oldest into servitude, as maids. She told me, ‘I can’t afford this boy. I can’t feed him. Take him.’”

Das said no – Budhia was too young for judo. But about six months later, according to Das, the boy suffered an accident. Riding the crossbar of a neighbour’s bicycle, he crashed, fracturing his ankle and shredding the skin on his leg. Untended, the wound festered and got infected. When Sukanti at last took her son to the hospital, doctors advised amputation. Terrified, she returned to Das. This time he said he’d care for the boy. Budhia lived with Das and his wife for six months, until his leg healed.

Then the boy went back to his mother, only to be hit by tragedy. Inside a month, Budhia’s father died. Soon after, Das asserted, Sukanti sold her son to a bangle vendor, a man who sold peanuts and gum from his bicycle, with the expectation that, in time, Budhia would work as an assistant. “The vendor didn’t take care of Budhia,” Das said. “When Budhia visited me after one month, his skin was pale, his clothes were dirty, and he had sores on his body.” Das said he bought the boy back for 154 Rupees. Then one day when Budhia was just three, the boy cussed. Das punished him, forcing him to run around a dirt oval “until I get back.”

Five hours later, Budhia was still running. Soon Das decided that Budhia would become the first Indian runner to win an Olympic medal. He began training the boy, riding on his bicycle as Budhia ran – 6.5km a day at first, then six, then 10. In time, crowds of adoring fans joined the runs, trotting behind the boy or rolling beside him on rickity bikes.

In October 2005, Das took Budhia, then three, to his first race – a half marathon in Delhi. Race officials forbade Budhia to start, but no matter. He was the darling of the 6-K fun run, and the ‘It Boy’ of a post-race gala. British decathlete Daley Thompson tried to score a kiss from Budhia, but Tim Hutchings, international administrator for the London Marathon, fulminated, “For a child of three to be training hard is verging on criminal.”

By now, a British filmmaker was tracking Budhia’s story, making a half-hour TV documentary, and Das was hatching intricate plans. He decreed that, after the Puri run, Budhia would run a marathon in Nayagarh. “After that,” he said, “he’ll go to Madras, and then there’s a race in Cochin, and onto Guwahati. After this we will take him to some events abroad.”

He never competed in these races. After his Puri run, Orissa’s child welfare department issued a medical report finding him “undernourished, anaemic and under cardiological stress.” The agency banned all children from entering distance races before the age of 14. In India, the ruling was largely seen as ridiculous. “How self-indulgent and naive can our liberalism be?” railed Khaleej Times columnist Barkha Dutt. “This is a chance for a poor slum child to break down the class divide and travel on the same superhighway to success as everyone else.”

Snubbing officials, a public poll named Budhia the second most popular person in Orissa. A steel company hired the boy as a spokesmascot, and a Dubai businessman flew Budhia and his coach to the Emirates for a splashy getaway at an amusement park. Then came the video that nearly deified Budhia. “We hoped the song would clear many misconceptions about the child,” said producer Rajesh Kumar Mohanty. “We have tried to compare him with the mythological Lord Krishna.”

*****

Over the following year, Budhia’s prospects seemed to brighten. With his mother’s permission, in September 2006, he’d moved to a state-run sports hostel, where he lived and trained with more than 100 other sports hopefuls, most of them teens. He had a new coach named Arun Das (no relation to Biranchi Das), who promised further glory.

Then, on a scholarship, he enrolled at the DAV Public School, arguably Bhubaneswar’s most prestigious academy. He was treated like a celebrity on his first day. After his classmates, all dressed in uniform plaid pinafore shorts, clambered to kiss him on the cheek, he addressed the entire student body, from a stage, chirping, “I am Budhia Singh. You will all be my friends. I will help you to learn running.”

I arrived in Bhubaneswar on a warm day last winter. The city is loud 24/7, teeming with a vitality that is both joyful and desperate. From my hotel room, I heard hundreds of garbage-eating crows cawing in a tree, the low throttle of auto rickshaws, and a nightclub downstairs where middle-aged men paid teenage girls to sing for them.

I later moved to a quieter hotel. I also began counting dead dogs I saw smooshed on the roads. In one week, I saw eight. Once, when I was riding with an interpreter, he ran over a puppy and never let the conversation falter. “So your brother,” he said, “he is staying in New York?”

Crossing the street was life-threatening. There were few public bathrooms, so men peed by the roadside; the stink of urine was everywhere. Orissa has the worst child mortality rate in India, and several times, young mothers trailed me, tugging at my shirt and begging me to buy food for their infants.

Biranchi Das’s judo hall was an oasis, secreted behind high concrete walls on the spacious grounds of the state museum. One day in the coolness just after dawn, recorded chant music echoed over the grounds. Das stood outside the hall, fresh from a 10km run, dancing in place like a boxer, then vaulting into a handstand. He plucked a little branch off the ground and began using it, as many Indians do, as an improvised toothbrush.

“How’s Budhia?” he asked. “What did Budhia say?” I hadn’t yet met the boy, but Das continued. “Budhia is a good child,” he said. “I miss him. He and I had a dream. It was not fulfilled. That is agony for me. In Japan and Korea, they start training athletes at age three. If you don’t take risks, you don’t get results. I am the person who took risks with Budhia, and I got results.”

As he spoke, a friend of his stood nearby, radiating his own athletic vigour. Ashwini Das, 55, is a devout yogi and an Art of Living instructor with the regal bearing and prominent clavicle that comes from a lifetime of Ashtanga and belly breaths. A few years ago, he told me, “I became interested in how Biranchi is growing up this Budhia. This child has an inner facility, and Biranchi just explored it.”

Biranchi drifted off, and Ashwini and I wandered through the deserted museum grounds. “When Budhia came to him,” Ashwini said, “the child had a physical problem, and Biranchi worked for Budhia as no parent can. Look, there are hundreds of millions of kids like Budhia in India – starving, without even a meal – and among all these children, Budhia alone became an inspiration.”

He halted and abruptly asked: “What is the nature of the mind?” I had no earthly idea, so I let him answer his own question. “Whatever you resist,” he said, “that persists. If you say, ‘I want to sleep,’ you can’t sleep. Meditation means deconcentration – and Budhia achieved this, as few people can. He had an inner quality.”

“You mean he was wise?” I asked. Ashwini looked at me like I was a total idiot. “No,” he said. “Budhia is a small child. He knows nothing of the world. I believe that he had a gift inculcated from a past life – a gift beyond imagination. He can run, and Biranchi brought that talent to life. He is the one who put the petrol in the Budhia vehicle.”

*****

Sukanti Singh felt otherwise. I met with her one afternoon in a lawyer’s office. Budhia’s mother looks about 40. Slender and fine-featured, she wore a Bindi (a red dot traditionally worn by married women on their foreheads). Her bony brow jutted out of her yellow sari. She was quiet, keeping her eyes downcast as men yelled around her.

“She’s illiterate,” said the lawyer, Suresh Routray, dismissively waving a hand toward Singh. “She knows nothing.”
Singh’s boyfriend also spoke over her. “Biranchi Das is a goon,” said Pranakrushna Khatua, a convicted bank robber, according to Bhubaneswar police records. “He threatened to kill Sukanti and her three daughters. He told her that if she said anything about the money, she would die.”

We were there to discuss the donations and endorsement money that Budhia had received during the 18 or so months he trained under Das. This past December, Singh told police that Das had embezzled more than 60 million rupees, about R10 million, from the Budhia Singh Trust. Routray, a corpulent man, about 40, with drowsy eyes and a broad mustache, prepared the legal papers. He did so because he’s the president of Salia Sahi (the slum Sukanti Singh now lives in) and also a prominent member of Orissa’s Communist Party.

Twice, I’d meet Routray in my hotel lobby, to probe him for details on how he arrived at 60 million rupees. His air was breezy and jocular. “Ah, Meester Bill,” he said, hailing me with bearish effusion, “Meester Bill! You want the papers? I will get you the papers.” He never got me any documents. Biranchi Das said that Routray was showboating to garner publicity for the Communist Party.

Now, in his office, I asked him, “What companies gave Budhia money?”

“Ah, there were so many companies, so many companies,” he responded. He named three, each of which, he reckoned, gave R4 000 or so. Then he repeated himself: “So many companies.”

I wanted to hear what Singh thought, and she bitterly lambasted Das. “When they stopped Budhia from competing,” she said, speaking to my interpreter, “he couldn’t make any more money for Biranchi. So Biranchi started torturing Budhia. There is no other reason.”

Singh argued that Das had bullied her into lying to the media. “That story about me selling Budhia,” she said, “it wasn’t true. I never sold my son. Biranchi just made me say stupid things. I said them because I was depressed.”

Singh talked of her husband’s death. “He left me without one pie,” she said. “My neighbours had to pay for the cremation. When they demolished my house to make way for the railroad, I asked Biranchi for money. I said, ‘You have taken all the money that my son earned. You should give me money to rent a house.’ He said, ‘There is no money left. We spent it on Budhia’s training.’ He is a liar.”

Suddenly Khatua’s cell phone rang. Budhia was calling from school. He’d just won a 100m race for kindergartners. I could hear his joyous voice coming out of the phone – and it seemed that he’d called to talk to his mother. They were still in touch, after all. Press photos have captured her cradling her slender boy in her own slender arms. She visits Budhia once a week, scraping together 10 rupees for the rickshaw ride.

But this was a big meeting for Sukanti Singh. An unfathomable pile of money was at stake, as she saw it, so she did not get on the phone to say hi. She just sat there stooped over the desk, staring dully ahead as she stewed in disdain for Biranchi Das.

*****

Two years after his 64-K Puri run, Budhia is still famous in Bhubaneswar. On the streets, he is a one-name hero. “Ah, Budhia!” people will say. “Marathon boy!” “Ah, Budhia, he is a miracle!” Once, when I went to meet him at a DAV Public School picnic, he wasn’t present. His minders at the sports hostel forbid him to go out in public without a security guard, and on that day, the guard had a holiday.

I finally met Budhia in his classroom. He sat at a desk in his plaid pinafore and brown V-neck sweater. Budhia was watchful, with the whittled, ropy look of a runner, and he fidgeted – overwhelmed, perhaps, by my looming, pale presence. “This man has come all the way from America to see you,” the teacher proclaimed in the singsong universal to kindergarten instructors.

Budhia said nothing; he just looked up at me, skeptically. I’d brought a present for him – a book about children of the world. I’d tried to make the gift speak to his worldview: Pasted to the wrapping paper were pictures of Budhia himself, running. He picked open the paper as the teacher translated my questions. “Do you like running?” she asked, vigorously nodding her head. “Yes, you like running. It is very fun, isn’t it?”

I looked at Budhia and rolled my eyes. Tentatively, he smiled – and for a while, he seemed amused by me. We went back to the sports hostel, where he sleeps in a large concrete room, and he played a little cricket with me, waving a mop handle as I bowled him a yellow ping-pong ball. At one point, he sprinted into the kitchen and came sprinting back, giddy as he pressed his fist toward my hip. “Want apple?” he said in faltering English, his voice tiny and high as he skittered away.

Soon, though, I was no longer a novelty. Budhia sat down in the corner. I thought that maybe now he’d read the book that I’d given him, but no, very carefully he plucked a piece of paper from out of his pinafore and stared at it, delighted. It was the picture of Budhia himself, running and waving to fans.

*****

“You talked to Budhia? what did he say?”

I’d expected that Biranchi Das, facing the torture accusations, would shun all my calls and refuse to be interviewed. But in fact he was the most media-friendly person I met in Bhubaneswar. He was polished and genial, and it seemed that impoverished slum dwellers considered his office a small fount of hope. One afternoon I found him meeting with a man who needed money for his sister’s wedding dowry. Without the money, his sister couldn’t marry; her future would be cast into doubt. “Five minutes,” Das told me.

The meeting lasted for half an hour, and when the man emerged, he was smiling. Das had promised he would help, personally, in a couple of weeks. “Right now,” Das explained to me, “I only have 700 rupees [about R124] in my bank account. I am a poor man. I didn’t get rich from Budhia. All the money we got came to 1.32 lakh rupees [about R24 000], and we spent it on Budhia’s training.”

Yet on another occasion Das hinted that he had profited from Budhia. “I adopted him,” he said. “If he makes some money, I deserve some of it, don’t I?” Later, Das fed me what seemed an outright lie. “This judo hall,” he said, “is the production centre for Budhias. Right now I am training four new Budhia runners. They are all between three and five years old. They are training every day. They are practicing. I have videotapes, but I cannot show you. It is all very secret right now, but when the day comes – when it is time for them to perform – I will tell everybody.”

I asked at least five children at the judo hall if they’d seen any pre-schoolers besides Budhia Singh training as runners. They all looked at me with blank stares. No, they had not seen the new Budhias.

Even when he was joking, Das oozed swagger and bravado. One morning, he smugly summoned me to lie on the judo mat. Then he sicced one of his young behemoths on me as I struggled to break free of the boy’s hold. When the farce was over and I lay there, whipped, Das chuckled and tossed me a little tip – a two-rupee coin.

Das’s police record was not pretty. After the Child Welfare Committee for Orissa’s Khurda District took Budhia out of Das’s house, the judo coach allegedly organised a mob of 200 protesters to rally outside the home of Rabi Shankar Misra, the agency’s chairman. Misra contends that some protesters burned his effigy, climbed a wall into his property, and surrounded his house for several hours.

Misra also accused Das of using Budhia. “He got a free trip to Dubai out of him,” Misra told me. “Would he be able to go to Dubai otherwise?” (It was a valid critique, but a few days later Misra himself tried to milk the Budhia story for a free trip. In answering Runner’s World’s request that he e-mail some legal documents, Misra demurred. “I can give you a presentation on the complex issues,” he wrote, “in your office in USA, if invited for this presentation.”)

Later, in August 2007, after a street accident that saw Das’s seven-year-old son get harmlessly clipped by a motorcyclist named Sabeer Ekram, Das allegedly burst into the man’s home with 30-odd henchmen. Ekram’s mother, M.D. Manju, told police that Das beat her son up. “He pelted us with filthy expletives and threatened to set our house on fire,” she told the police.

Still, Das had close ties to the police. One afternoon, he brought me across town to visit his top contact at the Central Reserve police force – deputy inspector G. P. Mastana.

Mastana’s building was guarded by several machine-gun-toting officers who wore full khaki uniforms topped by brilliant indigo tricorner hats. Scores of young recruits were training as we arrived, running along in lock-step on a sandy dirt road. We went inside. Mastana’s office was grand, with a large desk bearing four black telephones and, above that, a plaque honouring men who’d preceded him as deputies. Mastana, who’s a Sikh, was sitting there in a turban, very erect, a bristling, fit 60-year-old.

The mood was a bit stiff, so I tried to break the ice. “Jeez,” I said to Mastana, “I wouldn’t want to wrestle you.” He did not laugh, but after a few minutes he spoke warmly of Budhia. “I admire the boy,” he said, “and one time I advised him. I told him he could be a supreme athlete, and I said, ‘After that, then you can do something good. You can bring glory to the nation – you can become an officer with us and set an example for others.’”

Das was leaning forward in his chair now, listening with rapt appreciation. The troops scuffed by on the roadway outside, and it seemed almost forgotten that we were talking about a little boy who was still learning to read. “What did Budhia say?” I asked. Mastana stared me down, somber and earnest. “Budhia said he was willing.”

Two days later, I saw Budhia on the track at Kalinga Stadium, but he didn’t seem particularly focused on athletic supremacy or national service. He was dribbling a soccer ball as some teenage girls in full soccer regalia made pretend futile attempts to steal the ball. He was laughing.

“Budhia is doing his training,” his new coach, Arun Das, told me before detailing the boy’s current regimen: eight or twelve kilometres a week, a little stretching, a little hopping and bounding, a little horseplay with the soccer ball and the discus.

Arun Das is a genial and wrinkled man, about 60 and a tad flabby, dressed in a blue nylon track suit. As his older runners muscled their way through a speed workout, he sat on the grass, canted back in a lawn chair, savouring the mild winter sun as he spoke fondly of Budhia. “He’s like a son to me,” he said before adding with a warm, self-derisive chuckle, “Well, more like a grandson.”

I asked if he saw Budhia becoming a champion. He laughed. “Now is not the right time to say. Come back in 12 years and I’ll tell you.”

“But what kind of times is he running?”

The coach looked skyward for a moment, searching for the numbers. “For the 400,” he said, “about two minutes.”

Two-flat is good for a little kid; it would put Budhia in about the 85th percentile among six-year-old American boys. Still, I was surprised. The stories I’d read suggested that, like Biranchi, Arun was driving Budhia toward world-class glory. (One headline read, “Budhia gets new coach, dreams for Olympics.”) But now I got an inkling that Arun Das was like no other Budhia caretaker I’d met in all the days I’d spent rattling around Bhubaneswar in auto rickshaws. It seemed he might be playing a gentle trick on the Indian people – administering workouts, proffering photo-ops, and gamely sustaining the illusion that Budhia was on the brink of greatness while simultaneously protecting the boy. He was, it struck me, letting Budhia be a kid in a society where a leisurely childhood is a luxury.

After a few minutes, Budhia trotted toward us, to high-five a sprinter standing nearby. I tried to ask him a question, but by the time my words had been translated, he was already running off toward the steeplechase pit for a game of tag with the soccer players. These girls lived with him, and it looked as though they cherished him as a mascot.

“I am playing,” he squealed as I stepped toward him with a question. “Just let me play.”

*****

I saw Budhia just one more time, at his school, on a day his class was doing “magic painting.” Again, the teacher came over to his desk to interpret. “Was it hard,” I asked, “doing all that running for Biranchi?”

“No, I just did what I was asked.”

“Was it stressful?” He shook his head: no.

“Was Biranchi nice to you?”

Now there was an awkward silence and I could hear the high, happy din of the other students larking about, unsupervised. Budhia stared at the floor, biting his lip. The question seemed to put him under enormous pressure.

Biranchi Das had helped deliver him to a new and wonderful place in his life. A peon’s son destined to caste-bound misery, he was now standing in a cool, pleasant room filled with the nation’s elite. He’d transcended social barriers in a way that few Americans can fathom, and he’d performed his own kid-magic. He had survived all the craven adults fighting to control him.

There was something elegant and beautiful about this lean little kid whose smile, at times, bordered on beatific. Maybe, in time, this magic would prevail. Maybe Budhia would turn out all right. But maybe, too, he was scarred. He seemed brooding and insular now. He kept staring down. He said nothing.

“He is not able to express himself,” said the teacher. “The question is difficult.”

I stopped my interview. Budhia finished his painting (of a Christmas tree), and then the class streamed outside to do calisthenics in the red, dusty schoolyard. There were two parallel lines of kids, and the exercises were supposed to be done in unison. But of course they weren’t. Every kid, including Budhia, flubbed the performance. The lines were a melee of children idly scuffing their feet and wiping their noses and scratching their legs. I stood there and thought about how all of these kids would carry their own quirks – and the history and traumas of their earliest childhoods – forward from here, all alone, ultimately, against the challenge of growing up in a world filled with tough questions.

Eventually, the teacher told the kids to sprint to the back of the playground. I watched for Budhia to stand out – to lope ahead like a sad, lone gazelle. But by now every single kid in the crowd was screaming with glee and sputtering and swerving along over the dirt, and I lost him in a swirl of dust.

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