ON 21 FEBRUARY, 17-year-old Ayushmaan woke up at 4 am. It was the first day of the higher secondary examinations organised by the Maharashtra state education board for twelfth-standard students like him. The portal to an undergraduate degree and better employment opportunities, board exams are a milestone in the life of students in India. Making his way past the boys sleeping all around him, Ayushmaan retrieved a textbook from a nearby shelf and came back to sit down on his mattress. He tried to ignore the pangs of anxiety in his stomach. Under the sterile glare of the tubelight, he studied from his English textbook for two hours, until daylight broke.
After bathing, combing his hair and dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, he collected his books and went down to the front gate with a friend, and they both went over the syllabus. The yellowing buildings shaded by huge, dense trees were just beginning to show signs of morning activity. At 9.30 am, Ayushmaan’s stomach began to turn again, in a combination of hunger and anxiety. “When will they come?” he asked his friend impatiently.
Finally, two well-built men bowed through the low, barred gate. Ayushmaan stood up with relief. Picking up a plastic bag that contained two pens, pencils and an eraser, he and his friend got into the vehicle to be driven to the examination centre. There was another reason for his eagerness to leave. He was stepping out of the premises for the first time in four months. This was not a dormitory or a hostel, but a juvenile detention centre called the Umerkhadi observation home—one of two such homes in south-central Mumbai. The men who arrived to pick up the boys were not relatives but local armed police officers, who had specifically been assigned this duty after a prolonged administrative back and forth.
Ayushmaan, and his younger brother, who is now in the twelfth standard, are first-generation learners. Their father is a sweeper and their mother a domestic worker. Ayushmaan had full attendance at his junior college right through the eleventh standard. Two years ago, his education, and life as he knew it, came to a halt when he was charged with the rape of a three-year-old child. According to the chargesheet filed at Worli Police Station, Ayushmaan’s neighbour found him lying naked next to her three-year-old daughter at the anganwadi—a childcare centre—where she had left her. The document states that her daughter’s undergarments had been taken off and that there was semen on her private parts.