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Down the memory lane with my friend Robin Romano

11 November 2013, New Delhi

It was the evening of Diwali - ‘the festival of lights’ when Nina called up breaking the devastatingly shocking news that Robin Romano is no more. For a moment everything ceased for me as I stood up in sheer disbelief. When she repeated her sentence, I painfully realised that Robin had bid this world adieu. I did not share this with my wife and children at that point in time.

A little later when my neighbours began lighting the lamps, my eyes frantically started searching my beloved friend Robin’s smiling face in every flame that lit up. I didn’t light any lamp, not only because I couldn’t muster the courage of doing so, but I did not want to limit the aura and energy of this extraordinary individual in just one lamp. He transcended into a world that knows no limits and boundaries even when he hadn’t departed.

Standing where I was, I could feel his fire cracker wit, tight hug and kisses all around me. This feeling dates back to 1995 when Robin was working on a film on Iqbal Masih. He was introduced to me by another dear friend and Brother Pharis Harvey. Over the next few years we started corresponding with each other. His professionalism and penchant for fighting child labour gradually drew him close to me. I could feel the passion deep down every word that he spoke against child labour.  We got to meet each other amidst the real action on the streets of Bangkok during the physical Global March in 1998.

As an agile and enthusiastic film maker on one hand, Robin wanted to capture each and every bit of the historic march through his lens, and on the other hand he effortlessly slipped in the skin of a true marcher and activist shouting his lungs out waging a war against child labour. To my surprise, I saw him chanting slogans in Hindi and Thai.  He suddenly swung to me and embraced me in a tight hug with his eyes brimming with tears of joy.

I was carefully observing Robin from a distance as he continued taking pictures of the marchers with at least three cameras of varying sizes and make. He whispered in my ears seeking an interview slot. I immediately agreed. He was carrying a tripod and the apparatus.  He asked me to step out of the crowd and both of us walked down to a bridge across the road from where we were able to see all the marchers.  He interviewed me at length that day and over the next couple of days he asked me several questions related to various facets of my work. Robin was with me all throughout till the march passed through Asia.  In India he got to learn all the slogans in Hindi. He gelled with all of us during the march. Robin was a perfect confluence of creativity and altruism. His concern for the most marginalized children echoed in his work beyond perfection.

From the very first day we turned into thick of friends. It was so heartening to see all the core marching children bonding so well with Robin. His rib tickling humour amused all of us. He was as playful as a child, but never did he lose focus of the job at hand. His impeccable knowledge about the subject and commitment to the cause of child labour was commendable. He didn’t mind climbing up the trees, getting on the trucks or seeking favour from strangers for that matter to allow him access to their terrace for taking clear pictures of the march.

Robin was so unassuming that he could eat just anything; lie down under a tree, or in the verandas of temples and mosques for taking a quick nap. He was very approachable – a quality that drew him close to people with a natural ease.  I invited him to speak at various public meetings during the march and the response from people was simply terrific.

By the time the march culminated in June 1998, Robin and I had become very close friends. Owing to his affable and charming nature, not only the marchers but my family members too made great friends with him. I can still remember how disturbed Robin was, when I had been attacked by child slave mafias. He used to anxiously enquire about my health and recovery almost every day.

Robin was a perfectionist. His pictures on child/ bonded labourers can render anybody speechless. Apart from the offices of Global March and Bachpan Bachao Andolan, he visited our rehabilitation centres, Bal Ashram and Mukti Ashram and captured those memories through his lens several times. Our offices, rehabilitation centres, publications are enlivened by Robin’s timeless pictures. Robin is and shall always be alive through his pictures and films. His pictures spoke million words resonating his spirit for the cause. His invaluable contribution at Global March’s International Conference on Child Labour in Washington DC in July 2012 brought a whole new perspective to this most neglected sector where child exploitation is rampant.

Last year, while he was on a Goodweave mission to India, I had the privilege of inviting him over to our office and felicitate him along with other colleagues at the Global March International Secretariat and those at my Indian organisation BBA. Little did we all know that it would be his last visit ever. His talk was so inspiring that my colleagues still remember every bit of it in deep admiration.

Earlier this year soon after I returned from Cote d’Ivoire after understanding the actual situation of child labour in cocoa farming, I happened to speak to Robin to seek his opinion about the issue. He was very appreciative of the work that Global March intends to do in the country for protecting the children from unabated exploitation in the cocoa fields. His documentary Dark Side of Chocolate had irked many associated with cocoa production, but that could not deter his spirits. He was a true gutsy and stood tall for his conviction when he decided to screen his documentary right outside Nestle’s headquarters in Geneva.

Some time ago he had expressed a strong desire to travel across the globe with me for about six months to develop a coffee table book on child labour and slavery. We had decided that while Robin would click all aspects of child labour for this book, I would provide a concurrent narrative for his explicit pictures, so that our book could serve as a reckoner on the subject of child labour in the times to come. In fact we had started conceptualising this idea. Unfortunately this dream and his life were cut short by this tragedy which has left indelible scars of agony and pain in my memory.

Every single picture that he clicked and every single film that he made reverberated with his deep anguish against child labour and slavery. His work has come a long way, and would continue sensitising the world against child exploitation. It is impossible to visualise child labour without donning Robin Romano’s hat.  Nobody is immortal under the sun, but why did God call Robin so soon?  We all needed him so badly in this crusade against child labour. This void can never be filled. This pain won’t die down. All that I can say is......... Robin, my dear friend, I will miss you till my last breath.

Kailash Satyarthi