A 12-year-old Delhi boy was reunited with his parents in July 2016 six years after he was abducted and taken to Bangladesh.

Sonu’s eyes remain glued to the blackboard, even as his classmates titter and exchange notes like children are wont to do. And when the teacher glances in his direction, the 13-year-old boy shakes his head helplessly.
Having received no education in his formative years, Sonu was made to cover the syllabi of classes 1 to 5 in just 12 months. Every childhood joy was sacrificed to make up for entire years spent in forced confinement in a foreign land. Unfortunately, the boy’s best efforts may not be enough to achieve his dream of academic fulfilment.
“My child wants to be a policeman when he grows up, but now it looks like he may not even become a clerk,” observed Mehboob Saifi, his father, his eyes downcast.
But before we join Sonu on his incredible 12-month journey and the sudden roadblock he has now come up against, let’s take a look at the scary incident that started it all.

In June 2010, Sonu – then a boy of six – was kidnapped by a Bangladeshi woman while he was playing outside his house in East Delhi’s New Seemapuri. He was taken to Jessore in Bangladesh, and made to work as a domestic help. Any sign of rebellion was rewarded with ruthless flogging and periods of forced starvation.
Early last year, hope arrived in the form of a neighbour – Jamal Ibn Musa – who asked Sonu where he hailed from. Sonu couldn’t remember anything beyond “Dishad Garden in India”. Armed with this meagre knowledge, Musa took it upon himself to unite the boy with his long-lost parents.
Playing a real-life Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the Good Samaritan came down to Delhi in an attempt to trace Sonu’s parents. The decision came at a heavy cost – Musa lost his job back home after the kidnapper filed a false case against him.
This, however, only strengthened the man’s resolve. He sought the help of some journalists, who – in turn – alerted external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Things moved swiftly from then on. Sonu returned amid great publicity in June 2016, much to the joy of his parents.

However, great challenges lay ahead. Sonu had not begun schooling when he was kidnapped, and six years later, he could neither read nor write. The boy could speak, but only in Bangla. Hindi was nothing more than a memory.
Sonu’s parents, however, wouldn’t give up without a fight. But how does one make a 12-year-old boy start studying from scratch? While putting him in a classroom with children seven years younger than him seemed unimaginable, directly admitting him to a higher class was bound to doom his academic prospects. “As Sushmaji had seemed helpful, I asked her for help. She said she would find a solution to our problem, and even promised to arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister,” Saifi said.
But Swaraj didn’t seem as accessible once the media hype died down. When all attempts to reach her failed, Saifi and his wife – Mumtaz – decided to take up the challenge themselves.
Over the next 12 months, Sonu underwent a rigorous academic routine consisting of everything from tuitions and madrasa classes to home-coaching by parents and siblings. Salma, a local tutor who had briefly taught Sonu before his kidnapping, also took up the challenge.

 “Sonu did not know the letters of the alphabet, or even basic arithmetic. He couldn’t speak in Hindi either,” said Salma. However, things began improving on the language front after Saifi and Mumtaz forbade Sonu from speaking Bangla at home.
A series of special classes followed, and Salma quickly familiarised the boy with two and three-lettered words before moving on to numbers and multiplication tables. “Sonu is very hard-working. Not once did he refuse to attend a class,” she said.
In the one hour of leisure Sonu was allowed each day, he would watch television. “I understand that we were being unfair to him, but there was little we could do in the circumstances,” said Saifi.
The rapid-education project took its toll on the family’s finances. Saifi’s job as a motorcycle mechanic used to earn him between Rs 25,000-30,000 per month, but his business collapsed soon after Sonu’s return. Finally, he was forced to take up a helper’s job at a nearby shop for a meagre salary. Debts mounted.

However, the actual shocker came when Sonu was ready to be admitted to a government school (they couldn’t afford a private one). He had made up for five years of lost time, and was good enough to be enrolled in Class 6.
Things, however, did not go the way they had hoped. “Every school we visited cited a rule that allows admission to a particular academic level only as per the child’s age. Going by Sonu’s thirteen years, he had to be admitted to Class 8,” said Saifi.
Despite knowing that Sonu would be at a disadvantage, the helpless couple complied by the government’s regulations. The boy was admitted to Class 8 at a local government school. “What could we have done anyway? This was a time when we would really have liked Sushmaji to intervene, but we just couldn’t reach her,” the boy’s father bemoaned.
However, that’s not to say that their gratitude for Swaraj has waned. “It is because of Sushmaji that our son was even returned to us. When I heard about her kidney ailment last year, I called her office to offer my own. But I wasn’t allowed to speak to her,” said Mumtaz.

Meanwhile, Sonu continues to struggle in the classroom. Though he was initially excited, despair began creeping in soon enough. “I can’t understand what the teachers are saying, but I will try to learn,” said Sonu on July 12, which happened to be his third day at school.
School vice-principal Parveen Kumar admitted that strict admission guidelines prevented the management from enrolling Sonu in one of the lower classes. “But we will spare a teacher or two to ensure that he gets special attention,” he said.
However, Sonu’s parents find little solace in Kumar’s promises. “It’s heartbreaking to see my boy return from school day after day without learning anything. Sushmaji brought back my son, but if she wants, she can bring his life back on track too,” said Mumtaz.
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