When a boy's home is a sidewalk

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Every day Hudayjah (that is how it translated phonetically; he cannot read or write) waits outside the gates of a New Delhi luxury hotel to shine shoes. He stands just near enough to be noticed, and just far enough away so he won't be shooed off by the hotel staff.

It is easy to spot Hudayjah. He's always wearing a torn, long-sleeved cinnamon-colored shirt, a torn pair of blue trousers, and thonged sandals. He is too poor to possess anything else.

At night he picks up his mustard-colored box of brushes and polishes and curls up for the evening on the hard sidewalk outside a local residence. He can stay there rent free and undisturbed in exchange for polishing the master's shoes.

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Sometimes others equally poor try to steal his shoeshine box.

He is very small and as thin as a stick. Hudayjah claims to be 21. But about 15 would be nearer right. He is actually Nepalese, not Indian, with two brothers, three sisters, and a mother and father back in Katmandu. He was lured to India by somebody who persuaded him he could find work in New Delhi.

When he got to New Delhi, his "benefactor" moved on to Bombay, about 1,000 miles farther south. Hudayjah can't manage such a move yet. He claims the journey will cost 130 rupees (almost $17). He had saved 25 rupees, but this was stolen from his pockets while he slept on the pavement. He points to the tear in his trousers caused by someone reaching in.

Hudayjah's only apparent means of survival is cleaning shoes. Some days he gets two rupees. On other days, no income at all.

A good day will bring in 10 rupees (less than $1.50). But his shoe polish costs him 2 rupees, 50 paises -- what he earns sometimes in a day. His brushes cost him double this amount -- 5 rupees.

He is very eager to know how long a visitor will be in Delhi. Probably he is calculating how much income he may get over the next few days.

Because he could not get enough food this week, he spent two days at the teahouse down the road from the hotel. They gave him work for two days and fed him in exchange for labors. Nothing else.

But if Hudayjah feels that life has done him an injustice, he doesn't show it. He has a warm, eager smile and he certainly responds to a nice day and is attracted by smart cars that flash by. But business, obviously, can be better.

One afternoon a regular customer was strolling some distance away from the shoeshine boy. Suddenly there was a rush from behind. It was Hudayjah in a great hurry. Breathless, he drew alongside the man. "Clean your shoes, sir,?" he asked half hopefully, half urgently.

"But, Hudayjah, you did them this morning. Remember?" Genuine disappointment and surprise flickered across his deep brown face. "I forgot, sir," he replied contritely. "It seems such a long time ago."

There are literally millions of Indians who lead lives of grinding poverty like Hudayjah -- scrambling not just for rupees, but also for paise (100 paise equal 1 rupee, or about 13 cents).

It is estimated that in a country of 652 million people, 45 to 49 percent of the population is on the poverty line. While the poverty ratio is remaining at roughly the same level, the absolute number of poor people has continued to grow. It is about 300 million now.

A lot of resourcefulness is required to live in India. For the destitute, a button dropped in the street or a piece of cloth dumped in the garbage is immediately salvaged.

Coal to keep warm is so expensive that the masses scrounge every little stick they can find. Whether in Delhi or out in the country, the beam of automobile headlamps in the early evening picks up columns of women scurrying along the road balancing bundles of sticks and twigs on their heads to light fires for that night.

Not everyone, however, sees India mired in poverty. Evelyn Harter, an American writer whose book "In the Bosom of the Family" has just been published, says of her impressions of India on this, her fourth trip: "There are more automobiles, more consumer goods, and more people (that's the bad part)."

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