The story begins like a nightmarish fairy tale.
A newlywed couple is lured away, along with fellow villagers, and imprisoned in a remote brick factory.
They work as slaves for 17 years, never leaving the grounds, bearing children who also become slaves.
One day, when their eldest child, a girl, turns 15, the father hears the brick kiln owner negotiating her sale to a brothel. He impulsively escapes in a truck full of bricks and makes his way to a courthouse in New Delhi — for the country is India, and the year is 1981. No judge or police officer will listen to this ragged, desperate father. But someone sends him to a man who has recently, quixotically, left his job as an electrical engineer to found a newspaper focused on the scourge of child slavery.
That man, Kailash Satyarthi, hears the desperate father’s story and decides to act.
Satyarthi rents a truck, rounds up some friends and descends on the brick kiln. Repelled at first by the owner, his armed goons and corrupt police, he persuades a judge to intervene, and manages to rescue the villagers, including the 15-year-old girl.
If his name sounds familiar, it is because Kailash Satyarthi has gone on to rescue more than 80,000 children from slavery, help change laws and expectations in India and then the world –and, last year, win the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan.
But there is no fairy-tale ending yet, as Satyarthi told me when he visited The Post this week.
“Still children are sold for less than the cost of a cow, and once sold they have less freedom than cows,” he said. In Syria, he said, the Islamic State is said to be selling captured girls for less than the cost of a cigarette pack.
“So what kind of a world we are living in?” he asked. “They are all our girls. They are all our boys.”
The chair of the Nobel committee noted at the award ceremony in December that 168 million children around the world are working instead of going to school — a shocking number, but 78 million fewer than in the year 2000.
“In this, as in so many other areas, things are thus moving in the right direction, and often much faster than we think,” the Nobel chair, Thorbjorn Jagland, said. “Satyarthi indeed believes that child labour can be more or less eliminated in his own lifetime.”
How? Satyarthi, 61, said it will require further changes in culture and greater political will. He is using his Nobel platform to push countries to adopt stronger laws against child labor and development agencies to spend more on schooling, which he said receives only 4 percent of overseas development aid.
He is pushing for more accountability from businesses, too. Some of the biggest western companies, he said, have learned to leave no traces in the Indian sweatshops where children sew their clothes, sometimes having labels affixed in Turkey on the merchandise’s route to western shops.
Satyarthi hearkens back to the day a desperate father appeared at his door.
“When I was writing his story, I gave up my pencil and started thinking: If she was my daughter, what would I do?” he recalled. “I would not just write something.”