When Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar and Orijit Sen come together for a book, you know you can expect an insightful, sensitive body of work. Trash!On Ragpicker Children and Recyclingwill make you really introspect about how we do away with 'waste' and what happens with it. The lens that the authors and illustrator use are children who are rag pickers. Trash! from the Tara books has earned the special mention tag by White Ravens Catalogue in it's World's Best Children's Books 2000.

Jaya, a slum inhabitant and Velu, a runaway, meet at Chennai's railway station. Alone and hungry Velu is greeted by Jaya who takes him for his first meal of the day -a vada(a savoury lentil doughnut) and a squished banana thrown as left-overs behind a marriage hall. Velu quickly adapts to picking litter with Jaya from different parts of town, each with its own set of challenges. The two children forge a camaraderie, with Jaya as teacher and mentor and Velu a willing student.

Velu, sits hungry and hopeless in a new city

On one such visit, Jaya takes Velu,  to a tree-lined road with bungalows a definite departure from the other busy and main streets Velu had seen till then.

"What will we get here? There are so few houses on this street!", Velu asked, puzzled."Just wait, you won't believe what all these bungla houses throw away," Jaya said.It was true. In the bin , Velu discovered ice cream cups, shoes, plastic, shampoo bottles, toys, even an old clock and a broken transistor."Careful", Jaya said when she saw Velu holding up the cover of a tin can. That'll cut your hand in half."They spent a long time picking up things from the bin.

Velu gets into the routine of picking trash every day, in order to survive. Jaya takes Velu to 'brother' who run a shelter for street children. Here the children are taught how to read and write. Naturally all the children are not attentive, and some have other deadlines to meet. The other silver lining in Velu's life are his Friday watching of Rajnikanth movies and an occasional sweet bun.

Velu's favourite actor - Rajanikanth!

Despite Jaya's warning, he borrows a hundred rupees payday  loan. The money is spent very quickly, and he starts to worry how he will repay the loan. Jaya takes him to a workshop for rag pickers where they discuss how they fit into the waste management system, segregation, what they would aspire to be if they could and a field visit to a paper factory where they see how waste paper is reused to make new paper.

The way Trash travels

The book has many fact nooks in the narrative, where we learn about the origin of the word ragpicker, differences between organic and inorganic waste, bottles vs cartons, how to reduce rubbish, rights of children, social discrimination against waste collectors, tree-free paper and the aspirations of rag picking children in India.

An example in observation and understanding recycling and reusing better

The book is a result of workshops done with rag-picking children; the authors aim with this book is two-fold.

  • Help the young reader empathise with working children, by listening to their stories
  • Create a context for the narrative by exploring systemic, social and child labour related information

Trash!On Ragpicker Children And Recycling does this very effectively. Though the authors have tried to stay unbiased and factual, the everyday story of Jaya, Velu and other street children will stir you. If it stirs you into reducing, segregating and recycling it is a good start. Illustrations by Orijit are interesting and informative for the young reader.The story has no happy ending, but we learn that Velu has adjusted to his new life as the book ends:

"Velu looked out of the window. They must have passed all this in the morning but he hadn't seen anything, Women carried bundles of paddy through the fields. A small boy sat near the road, watchingover his cows. Maybe they've started cutting the paddy at home he thought. He turned to show Jaya the fields, but she had slept off. Brother was sitting next to her, reading a paper. Before he knew it, the feilds disappeared and they entered the city."

This book will make you and your child notice the foot-soldiers of the recycling industry. It will make you think about the backstory of working children and perhaps the very least one can do is to treat them with kindness and respect when we encounter them on the streets or restaurants.