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Second Chance: Background Verification

Updated: Jan 17

Last week , while sharing the common space in kitchen, my cook timidly said in a half audible voice that she had dreamt of me visiting her humble pad. I was busy cooking my family’s favourite recipe for dinner. In my heart, I wanted her to go home early so she could make the last minute arrangements for her son’s birthday party the next day.  In the midst of all the action I missed her voice. She cleared her voice and repeated herself, this time a bit louder.

Kamna has been with me for three years now. I have seen her in her hard times and supported her as much as I could. She is a toughie. I nodded my head and said, “Sure Kamna, I shall see you tomorrow.” She grinned ear to ear as if my response mattered a lot to her. I looked at her and smiled.

With time, she has taken on the role of my personal assistant at home. From taking my phone calls, to keeping reminders of my child’s vaccination records to my doctor’s appointments and refilling my groceries, she does it all. So her son’s birthday party was an important To- Do in my list of things.

Next evening, I and my toddler were off in my car to her home. The little one had a special bond with Kamna and was overjoyed that she was visiting her home. Kamna had given the instructions very carefully and I had made a Google map of it on a piece of paper. We were great as a team and at that moment with the map on the car’s dashboard I could proudly say that we could well beat Google maps with our ingenious creativity!

Halfway through the journey however, my pride crumbled. The wide roads had given way to very narrow lanes, slightly broader than my car’s width and it seemed the width was getting narrower with each turn. There were houses everywhere, cheek by jowl, and I could almost see their dark interiors from my car’s window. By now, a few children had gathered around us, waving, making funny faces at my toddler. Soon they started running behind my car singing aloud some latest hindi number. While the toddler was overjoyed to see the amount of attention, I knew in my heart that we were lost in the maze of houses. To top my anxiety, the lane came to a point where my car could no longer move any further. It was enough only for a cycle rickshaw. I looked back and saw a deluge of faces on my car’s back some waving, some crying, some shouting and some just thumping their hands on it with excitement. Somewhere in between those faces I saw the lane through which we had driven in. There was no way but to go back. But I had to stop these children before I changed gears. I did not want to hurt anyone, even in a nightmare.

As I came out of my car, I was surrounded by the group. I could hear their cheer as if they were fans and had seen their favourite Hollywood star. Inside my toddler, seeing the whole group, started banging her small hands on the window pane as if excited on what was to come next. After explaining to them that I needed to back my car, they gladly accepted and also navigated me with their long stretched arms so I wouldn’t bang into one of the open door panes while driving back. By now a good crowd had assembled and all eyes were on us as if we were aliens from outer space in our red UFO.

After a lot of asking around and after exactly one hour and 20 odd minutes we had finally completed our less than 4 kilometres journey on map and were outside her humble home. The doors were painted a bright green and there was a tattered cloth on it to keep the inquisitive eyes away. My toddler was hopping around for a switch for the calling bell, an activity she loved to do. Outside on the wall was the ‘Sweet Home’ sign which I had bought once from Amazon but had gifted it to her since she had moved in to her new rented place and was all excited. Before I could tell the excited toddler that we had to bang the door latch, a young boy came out smiling but looking down.

Kamna had always given me detailed descriptions of her family members including the aunts, uncles and nephews who stayed around so I was by now an expert at recognizing them. Looking at the young boy in front of me, I knew this was her nephew, her aunt’s son. We followed him in and were treated as chief guests at an award ceremony. Everyone stood up seeing us and ushered us to the chairs near them. We sat on the edge of a chair, trying hard to balance ourselves on its three and a half legs. The little one insisted on sitting on my lap and it was getting harder and harder to balance her. Just then the young boy, noticing my discomfort, brought in a small stool and placed a tattered toy on it. Then he placed a paper and some crayons and the kid jumped down. 

He was clever.

A plate full of sweets and savouries was brought to us by Kamna with her usual sweet smile. I looked at her and asked her where the birthday boy was. She said he was still getting dressed up. While we waited patiently her nephew came and started speaking to my kid in passable but broken English. While the toddler, who is more English speaking than the English themselves, lit up and the ice was broken between the two, I looked at the boy in admiration. I asked him what he did and suddenly his voice went cold. He looked down and said, “Nothing”. His look had the guilt of a criminal. But he seemed like a fine boy to me. So I prodded a bit more and asked him what had he studied as if his doing ‘nothing’ did not matter to me. This brought some of his energy back and he seemed relieved to not hear, “Why are you not doing something”, the usual question.

He said he was a graduate and had pursued a course in laptop and mobile repairing. I knew this guilt he had of being jobless would one day help him overcome all hurdles and find a job for himself.

Soon the birthday boy entered and the room was filled with cheer and laughter and music. We wished him, presented him his gift which the toddler had selected at the gift shop. After spending some more time, we decided to leave before it went dark. I was uneasy with the thought of taking the same route back through the narrow unmarked lanes. Kamna couldn’t stop gushing everytime someone complimented her children or her food. I was observing this young boy next to us. He had not left my toddler once, had kept a good eye on her when she went with the kids to dance a bit and even though maintaining a distance from her, he had ensured she never felt out of place or got hurt. I was amazed at his maturity. He was so like his aunt and my PA Kamna.

I made a mental note of asking her the next day a bit more about him and with that thought we decided to part for the day. After bidding everyone good bye and a lot of unsuccessful attempts by everyone to make us stay for dinner, we left. The boy not only came out to help us in the car, he even walked all the way back to the entrance of the colony ahead of us, where roads were wider and ensured we were out without any more hassles. What took us hours earlier seemed like a 15 minutes journey and I was thankful to him for saving my precious time.

The next day Kamna walked in with a spring in her steps. She thanked me a trillion times to have made it to her humble home. It got so repetitive that I had to glare at her and asked her to stop it.

I asked her if it was her nephew who played the host yesterday to us. She grinned and said yes. On asking her why he was unemployed, I came to know that the young boy had an alcoholic father who used to steal all the money from home to buy his drinks. In the midst of that and his government school education and the regular beatings at home from the drunk man, he made it to the top few in his school. Since he could not speak English and his personal background was not supportive, he shied away from applying to regular colleges and completed graduation through open school but with good grades.

Soon he realised he needed to study more to make his future brighter than what it was. So he enrolled in a private institute for a short course which assured jobs. He saved enough by teaching young children and paid it all for his education.

A month or two in the course, he came home one night to see that his home had been ransacked and his father was gone. Just as his mother was about to tell him what happened, amidst her sobs, three men entered the room and started asking for his father. They pushed his mother and he intervened. They took him away.  He was put in custody for stealing and gambling. These were charges against his missing father and since the men could not find his father, to take out their vengeance against the offender, they handed him to the police stating he was the one. They had perhaps thought that putting the son behind bars would bring the father back. But the father never returned. Police officers, on investigating, realised soon, that he had no criminal past and let him go after a few days. But by then his records were tainted. When he came back, people looked down upon him. Most believed he was a criminal. His mother was back to her life which was now more peaceful without the drunk man but his life changed.

The incident broke his confidence and he ended up not doing much thereafter. Everyone in the local shops knew he had been in custody and did not even offer him basic jobs. A year ago, a friend of his convinced him to apply for a call centre job as he worked there. It brought some hope to his life but after clearing all the interviews he was rejected during criminal background verification. Since then he had got into a shell and seldom went out anywhere now. He felt discriminated.

It set me thinking. By taking out criminal records and rejecting candidates on their basis are we not contributing to making more prisons than more schools? I would have understood if he were a bank robber, a murderer, a molester or a paedophile, but for a false case that was long closed and he was acquitted, are we giving him an even playing ground by discriminating against him so much? One irrelevant crime record marred his hopes for a brighter future to which he had a right as much as any of us.

In common law jurisdiction, an acquittal certifies that the accused is free from the charge of an offense, as far as the criminal law is concerned.   

Such a bias can affect someone who stole a petty snack from a road side shop when he was 10 and is now 30.

Having to relive one of the worst moments in their lives by explaining it to a stranger puts a lot of people off applying and unnecessarily anchors people to their past. While I understand the company has a lot at stake, when hiring someone with a previous criminal record, unless we give chance to individuals with trivial records to earn their living in the society we are only propagating more unemployment and dissatisfaction in the society. May be some corporate with a large team can make this a part of their CSR initiative and have strong mechanisms in place to check the incumbent’s work habits and behaviour to raise a red flag if something untoward is spotted. But to not give someone an opportunity because of a crime he has been long acquitted of or for a trivial crime in his distant past is like killing someone’s hope of a good life. We all make mistakes, sometimes knowingly, sometimes because there is no one to guide us to the right path, sometimes because we are caught in the wrong circumstances, but for someone who is ready to amend, the society must give them a chance.

For now, I have employed the young bright boy to drive me and am also funding his higher education. I am sure one day he will realise his dream

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