I had seen the boys many times before on the city streets.
The first time we spoke, I was sitting on the steps near a street vendor cart, eating doughy chapatis in the tourist district of Thamel, in Kathmandu, Nepal. The city’s hectic nightlife pulsed around me as he and his friend approached, shuffling bare feet under the glum lights of late night restaurants and bars. They quickly cram small plastic bags down the back of their pants.
“20 rupees?” they ask me in broken English, pointing to the street cart.
“We’re hungry!” they persist.
“No,” I reply.” If I give you money, you’ll use it to buy glue, not food.”
“We don’t do that!” they retort, glaring at me. “That’s bad.”
I stare at their protruding cheek-bones and wonder if giving them a few rupees would really hurt? But I know that it could hurt because I’ve witnessed it before: tourists give them money for food and they spend it on inhalants.
When I first moved to Kathmandu, the homeless children alarmed me. They gaze with hollow faces. Their hair comes out in chunks. They wear no shoes, only ripped pants and once-white T-shirts now heavy with dirt from picking through garbage dumps. Now, I’m accustomed to their ragged state. Gangs of them swarm the darkest corners of the city, surviving on garbage scraps and sleeping under cardboard tents.
The duo continues to deny my claims as absurdities. I scan them up and down, and judging by their stature, guess they are between 7 and 9. I ask them how old they are. They say they are 13 and 15.
Their small size is a result of malnourishment and inhalant abuse from an early age. I work in a Kathmandu city hospital where the street boys are regulars. They hardly come in on their own accord though. Frequently, foreign tourists drag them to the ER after witnessing their appalling physical condition. The children suffer from pneumonia, skin abscesses, and pink eye as a result of their glue addiction.
After asking me again for money, the boys deem it a lost cause. As they walk away from me the plastic glue bags appear from their back pockets, and taking a few pulls, the boys quickly forget my existence altogether. A cloud of hash smoke floats past me as the boys dissolve into the crowd.
The street boys of Kathmandu stand in huddles, playing cards and telling jokes, like I did when I was a child. But after I notice the crumpled plastic bag in each boy’s grip, I know that their lives are nothing like my own childhood. A shock jolts through me when one young gang leader squeezes a tube of glue into the bags of his cohorts. When I realize that these children are inhaling fumes, I feel bewildered, angry and depressed at the same time. A cheap and easy high never even crossed my mind when I was a child. I used glue for art projects. They use glue to subdue their hunger pangs.
As months pass, I see the same routine everyday: The street boys with glue bags pressed to cracked and dry lips, small chests heaving in and out as the bags expand and contract over their mouths like lungs. Soon, their eyes glaze over as they stumble around the dark streets with heads full of glue and vapors. No longer able to walk straight or speak coherently, they momentarily forget their homelessness, hunger, and poor health. Huffing glue is their escape from life on the street.
A week later, as I walk to work, I see the 15-year-old boy I had met near the street vendor cart. He lies on a piece of cardboard, tucked away between two stores. Another boy, curled into a ball, shares his cardboard bed. The boy I met appears to be sleeping until I look a little closer. He lies on his back, staring up into the hazy sky. His eyes are halfway open, glazed over and glassy. A look of pure desperation paints his face. It’s a look of raging anger at the world, yet, at the same time, a look of submission to his fate. Never before had I seen such a hardened look on such a young person.
Later that afternoon, I spot the same boy again. The Kathmandu streets buzz with more fortunate school children in crisp white uniforms, street vendors frying fresh batches of samosas, and business people running to catch the mini-bus. I wait on the corner of the busiest traffic intersection in the city, where the roads are paved and have fully functioning, but largely ignored, traffic lights. The sidewalks pulse with the flowing crowd as the streets teem with cars, taxis and rickshaws.
The boy stands on the corner next to me, wailing uncontrollably as tears stream down his face. He holds a brick by his head, looking as if he aches to throw it at someone. I shrink away a little, unsure of what to do.
He just holds the brick, ready to hurl it, but doesn’t. I glance around to see if there’s someone he might be aiming at. There is nobody.
He stands on the street corner, holding the brick, tears streaming down his growth-stunted face. They forge clean rivers down his dirty cheeks. Twin waterfalls of yellow mucus connect his nose and mouth. No one notices him.
Kathmandu’s residents hurry past him through the approaching evening. Dogs stop to lick their mangy fur. The boy with the brick continues his tantrum, watching the people go home to their families. He has nothing but a brick, a ragged T-shirt, and a bag for huffing. This boy, like hundreds of others in Kathmandu, has lost his childhood to a tube of glue. His eyes burn with hopelessness. As he decides whether or not to throw the brick it looks as if he wavers on whether or not he can make it through another day on the streets.
As the sun disappears and night spreads over Kathmandu, he won’t go home; he’ll go to his piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He won’t go to his family; he’ll go to his street gang. Garbage scraps from the back of tourist restaurants will be his dinner, and his solace: the crumpled plastic bag. Another huff and none of it will matter anymore.