A street called life
Take a tour of the New Delhi railway station with the guides of Salam Balak Trust. ANJANA RAJAN is sure they can teach you a thing or two
Photo: V. Sudershan
ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE John Thompson with one of the children living around New Delhi railway station
John Thompson looks like a typical tourist wandering through the streets of Paharganj, backpack slung loosely on his shoulders, a fuzzy beard and a patient expression on his face, negotiating the crazy traffic as taxi operators and rickshaw pullers accost him to ask if he wants a ride. John doesn't need a ride though. Neither does his companion Javed. They are there to show the way, not hitch a ride with someone else. A bunch of people follows them. They, unlike John and Javed, have no idea where to go, have seldom seen this part of Delhi, and even if they have, never from the perspective granted them today.
They are on a guided tour of the haunts of homeless children, led by tour guide Javed, whose address varied between the New Delhi railway station platform and a nearby temple complex for seven years before he was befriended by Salam Balak Trust, the well-known NGO that has been working for and with street children in the railway station area for over a decade. This guided tour with a difference is a brainwave of John, a volunteer who came to India from the U.K. to work with the Trust just over six months ago. Within that time, he has given the tour guides, including Javed, Danish and other youngsters who live at the Trust's shelter home, Apna Ghar, in Paharganj, an intensive course in English and a working plan, along with practical tips and small doses of confidence that he continues to dispense.
The tour leaves from outside the Railway Reservation Centre near New Delhi station every morning at 10. A two-hour journey that includes walking round the station premises and a rickshaw ride, it is more than the sum of its parts. Before Javed begins sharing his experiences from when this place was home, and introducing some of its current child residents to the group, he requests you to refrain from photography, to protect their privacy. New niches seem to appear at the railway station, where, to the irate passenger or harried tourist, the walls seem frequently to be made only of people. See it through the eyes of a child newly arrived alone, with impractical dreams to fulfil, or nightmares to run away from.
A casual glance at the tracks might merely yield a view of garbage. It is this garbage the homeless kids sift through in search of tidbits to be sold to the kabadi, the junk recyclers who have their headquarters in Paharganj. The garbage also contains food, says Javed, smart in his cap, clean-shaven, neat and serious-eyed, with a sharply etched face that has escaped becoming hard. "I ate this food. Yes, I got a lot of infections. Sometimes I would get good food too, like when I went into a wedding party. I saw chickens hanging there. I grabbed them and started eating. Then some people asked me with whom I had come. I ran away from there without answering."
Aiming for Unesco
Javed, studying in his second year of B.A., wants to do a Masters in Social Work and eventually work for Unesco. Today he is focussed, but when he first met Salam Balak volunteers over three years ago, it was hard for them to persuade him to give up his freedom. There are fun times, like Diwali celebrated tucked away in a crevice under the passenger over-bridge, above the roofs of the trains, in the safety provided by the impossibility of any adult save fire personnel being able to reach it. Often the fun is lacerated with tragedy: electrocution by the high-tension wires running just below the bridges; drugs, alcohol. Javed says he had 15 friends, all of whom died due to substance abuse. People spend lakhs on therapists and hi fi `spiritual' teachers who offer solace at a price. In Javed's forbearance, we find the essence of yoga gleaned from living life to the hilt. Javed is now a role model for others, and he estimates about 50 have given up life on the road for formal education, career options and a home at one of the Trust's shelters.
As for examples, John points out another dimension of the tour. It changed the lives of some of his friends who came from Britain. They work 13-14 hours a day doing jobs they don't enjoy, putting their energies into earning for what they consider necessities of life. Seeing how little these children need to be happy, their thought processes have been liberated, says John, who intends to return to the U.K. to raise funds for the Trust. One of his aims is to be able to have a running kitchen at Apna Ghar instead of supplying cheap food from outside. "It's quite controversial. Some will say we are selling poverty. But it's supposed to be a reciprocal process," he says, stressing it is not like taking visitors round a zoo. "We are trying to change people's attitudes."
The luxury platform
The tour continues. "Platform 1 is known as the luxury platform, as luxury trains terminate here. The police try to keep it clear of street children. To escape, the children hide in the space between the tracks. Can you see that space?" Javed points, and the vast cavity becomes obvious. "When the train is empty of passengers, the children climb on and find food there."
Why did Javed run away from his Bihar village when he was barely seven? Try asking him. Javed is a good speaker. Call up 9873130383 for John or Sekhar. Take a tour. You'll find India shining yet. Yes, much of India is shining shoes. But its eyes are shining while it's at it.
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