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How I Made Money By Running Away From My Hostel

At the age of 10, my little adventure had turned into an inter-state police operation.
Illustration of two schoolboys
Qutub Alam's little escapade with his friend Shakir turned into a dramatic chase across the state. Illustration: Pratiksha Chauhan

In 1995, I was 10 and a Class IV student at the Jamia Millia Islamia school in Delhi. I was also a resident of the school’s hostel. That summer, after spending my vacation in Etah in Uttar Pradesh (UP), I was probably the first one to reach the hostel. As soon as my uncle dropped me off, I went to sleep in my room since I was sad and missing home.

I woke up a bit later to the sound of Shakir, my friend in the hostel, sobbing. “He must be missing home like me,” I thought to myself and tried to console him. As I wiped his tears, he asked, “ Bhaagen kya (Should we run away)?” I didn’t even hesitate before agreeing. We decided to go to Shakir’s home in Dhampur, a town in UP’s Bijnor district. His parents had given him a ₹100 note—a huge sum for a 10-year-old. Mine had given me a mere ₹5.

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Having lived in the hostel for five years, I knew all the secret passages and hidden exits of the building. And on this lazy summer afternoon, nobody noticed us as we flung our small bags over our shoulders, and ran out of the hostel gates. When we boarded an auto, our driver’s question—“Are you kids running away from the hostel?”—shocked us. “No, we are brothers and we’re going back home,” we replied. We promised him ₹35 and he agreed to drop us off at the Kashmere Gate bus stand. At this point, Shakir and I acknowledged our friendship, deepening with every part of this adventure, and shook hands, saying, “ Aaj se hamari pakki dosti (We are best friends from today).”

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Qutub Alam during his time at Jamia Millia Islamia school, Delhi. Credit: Qutub Alam

Our first hurdle was when we couldn’t get a direct bus to Dhampur. We decided to get on one to Moradabad, which was closest to Dhampur, and reached there at around 11 pm. Upon arrival, we came to know that there is no bus service to Dhampur. So we slept on the inquiry office counter, only to be woken up by cops. “What are you doing here? This is no place to sleep,” they shouted at us angrily. We swiftly scampered out of the bus stand and were accosted by a tall (and shady) man, who offered to help us get on to a train to Dhampur. Once at the train station, we couldn’t find a train. “Why don’t you spend the night at my home?” he asked. We agreed. On the way, we began to doubt his intentions. “I’ve heard stories that some people kidnap kids, break their legs and turn them into beggars,” Shakir told me. I got very scared.

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The man was walking a few steps ahead of us. I shouted, “ Bhaag, Shakir (Run, Shakir)!” We ran like our lives depended on it while the man chased us. After a point, he gave up. We returned to the Moradabad bus stand and slept on the floor. At dawn, we found a share-taxi to Dhampur.

A few hours later, when we reached Shakir’s home, his sister couldn’t believe he had come back. Their father was travelling and his mother was happy but suspicious. “Nobody has come back from their vacations so our holiday has been extended for 15 days,” lied Shakir, convincingly. And so we stayed, gorging on great food and playing with the neighbourhood boys.

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Alam during a political event in Delhi last year. Credit: Qutub Alam

Catch Me If You Can

In the meantime, as we discovered later, all hell had broken loose back at the hostel. When we didn’t turn up for the evening attendance, the wardens started looking for us. First, they organised prayers for our safe return at the local mosque, and then they waited for us to turn up. And when we didn’t, they informed my family.

I come from a family of zamindars and politicians. Three of my uncles are in politics, winning several elections and affecting poll outcomes with their influence. My father is a founding member of the Samajwadi Party and a close associate of its senior leader, Azam Khan. When they heard I was missing, he rushed to Delhi along with Azam Khan and my other uncles to pressure the police into finding us. They carried with them suitcases full of cash in case a ransom was demanded. They were convinced we were kidnapped (it’s common in the state) and my family was already floating conspiracy theories about who was responsible for it.

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Azam Khan, then a minister in the ruling government of Uttar Pradesh, sought help from Rajesh Pilot, the Minister for Internal Security at the time. In a short while, there were police jeeps looking for us across Delhi, picking up people for interrogations and talking to all the hostel office holders. Everyone in the university knew two kids had been kidnapped. By the next day, prayers were being organised across all the mosques in the area. A police team was sent to the hometowns of both the missing kids.

A Homecoming With a Difference

Meanwhile back in Dhampur, Shakir had a change of plans. “Let’s go to my nani’s home; I’m missing her,” he told me. We got our bags and left for the outskirts, where his grandmother lived. We had barely walked a few hundred metres when we saw four police jeeps rush past us with sirens blaring. Curious, we stopped to watch what was unfolding.

That’s when I spotted Zafar, our hostel’s caretaker in one of the vehicles. Our eyes met for that brief second. “Stop the car! They are here,” he shouted and jumped out of the running jeep. All vehicles stopped with a loud screech. I couldn’t understand what he was doing here so we decided to make a run for it. Of course, the cops caught us in no time. “ Naak me dum kar rakha hai tum dono ne (You two have driven us crazy),” said the sub-inspector in charge, as he bundled us and drove us back to Delhi.

When we reached the hostel, we were taken to meet my father and Azam Khan. My father wouldn’t talk to me, so Azam Khan did. “Why did you run away?” he asked. I told him everything, that I didn’t like the hostel and was missing home. “Nobody cares for us here,” I said plaintively.

The next day, he opened a bank account for me in the university with a deposit of ₹2,000—a massive amount! He also instructed the warden to take special care of my needs. For a long time, the hostel wardens kept asking me about well-being and whether I miss home. In the hostel, I was a kind of celebrity. Everyone knew us. And with ₹2,000 to my name, I was also the richest kid on the block too.

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