Akash Das, aka Chhotu, is only 13. Yet he has a huge responsibility on his young shoulders -- that of earning bread for his family.
He has never been to school neither has he been able to dream the dreams typical for someone his age.
"My father is mentally challenged and on one fine morning, we could not find him anywhere. He just vanished from our lives. I was only 8 then yet I do remember how Ma had wept on that day," Chhotu told rediff.com.
"Soon after, Ma got me 'employed' at a roadside food stall. I have been working there for the last three years. I earn about Rs 70 per day. Since my employer buys me clothes twice a year, I give my entire 'salary' to Ma.
"I have 4 younger brothers. Three of them are also into odd jobs but we do hope to get the youngest one to a school. When I get to meet my other 'working' brothers, we talk about how to help Chhoton have a better future.
"Wish Ma were not afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Wish she could work in more houses as a maid. Then we could have saved more money."
Akash spends more than 10 hours at the food stall and gets four meals apart from his daily wage.
Around 10 in the evening, he leaves for home -- a shanty in Baghajatin, in south Kolkata.
"At times, I feel God is unfair and unjust. Ever since childhood, I have seen poverty, misery and tears. Why didn't I see any improvement in our lives over the past few years," he rues.
"My employer often sends me to deliver food to several homes in the locality. There I see children of my age enjoying themselves -- they go to school, watch television, play football, study and lead a comfortable life."
"Why can't I have a life like them? What have I done to deserve this life of poverty and hard labour? Who can provide me with an answer," he asks, tears rolling down his eyes. We just stood there, speechless.
Image: Akash Das. | Photograph: Dipak Chakraborty
Child labour is a dagger through India's soul. The country has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest child labour force in the world, with an estimated 30 per cent of the world's working kids living here.