Girl on Wire

By Faria Athar
July 8, 2013

MUMBAI, India – Tension, anxiety and concentration. The girl’s face is a collage of emotions.

A young girl of about 10 years old does what most people would not dream of doing: balancing on a tightrope. Some may dismiss it as childish, but her perseverance and hard work say otherwise. It is clear she has put in hours of hard work to master this craft — it is easy to imagine that her next venture would be making her way across the rope on a wheel.

It is an extraordinary moment in an everyday setting. The plastic, hoardings and formal shirts all signal globalization among this spectrum of Indian colors. The girl, too, exhibits her bit of Indian revelry. The sparkly earrings, tiny nose ring, bangles and prominent metal pots on her head bear testimony to her village heritage. Her clothes may not be extraordinary, but her profound facial expressions give her more dignity than any other assets could offer her.

She balances on a thin rope tied between two colored wooden sticks. The pole she holds onto for balance looks heavy, weighing her down in ways both tangible and immaterial. Look carefully and you will see that it is tied around her neck and the thought of an albatross comes to mind. The men in the picture don’t seem to be looking at her. They have seen it all before.

Walking on a tightrope is probably not her ‘talent,’ nor does it come ‘naturally’ to her. It is the result of several hours of “deep and deliberate practice,” and the outcome of much failure and perseverance. Here the cost of failing is dangerous and painful — and if the tightrope is situated high enough, perhaps even fatal. The studied expression on the girl’s face indicates practice and perseverance, but also a hint of fear. One can only guess. She is not telling.

Unfortunately, the rewards she gains each day after all her practice are not very impressive, but she does not let that deter her. She will be here again tomorrow, and many more brave children all over the world will do the same. They are applauded and appreciated for their effort, but does this attention make them happy?

Although it is nice to think of rosy images of a brave young girl or boy, the real issue is hidden in plain sight: This is probably the most prevalent form of child labor you will see in India. Typically — outside the frame — one will see her parents or other adults collecting money from the spectators who have come to watch.  The money they get may not be much, but it is enough to feed the family for a night. A carnival, the hustle of traffic and of people, makes business better and perhaps more profitable by the end of the day.

The sad part of such depictions of sheer bravery is that they are so common; people watching hardly consider the scene to be child exploitation. It is a sunny afternoon in the picture, so the girl has evidently skipped school to perform and earn her keep. The question that must be asked is, does she even go to school?

This child may not have all the credentials or accolades to call herself  ‘great’, but she has the courage and bravery necessary to be successful in her own right.