Tales of resilience
A tour organised by street children offers rare insights into their place in the micro community of a railway station.
Photo: Yashas Chandra
New beginnings: Street children in the Salaam Baalak classroom.
HAVE you ever wondered what life is like for street children who live in and around the New Delhi railway station? If you're anything like me, you'd probably never have even noticed them as you scrambled your way to catch the train to your vacation destination, or as you arrived, bedraggled and dreaming of your bed at home.
For most commuters, the lives of the station-children strike in brief bursts of horror and pity: the near-naked boy with no legs who slides his way through the filth of our compartment's floors; the little girl with sun-streaked, matted hair who wafts through the compartment singing a tuneless melody. By and large, the ephemeral lives of these invisible children who wander bereft of permanent shelter or family remain hidden to even the most discerning of eyes.
Not for much longer, however. An innovative initiative, spearheaded by Salaam Baalak Trust, aims to demystify life on the streets in an ingenious manner: a two hour tour of the New Delhi Railway station and its environs, led by its true connoisseurs children who have grown up on the streets.
I arrived, breathless and apologetic, at the appointed hour and location, just as the tour began. Two young, smartly dressed men addressed the group in near-perfect English and introduced themselves as the tour leaders. The first, Shekhar, described his career as a debutante actor. Javed, the second, discussed his aspirations to work with the UNDP after completing his Masters in Social Work.
The excellent oration and the finesse of the leaders baffled me, and just as I opened my notebook to check whether I had misread the part about the tour being led by children from the streets, Shekhar added that he had, as a runaway child from Bihar, spent much of his adolescence on the streets we were standing on. Javed echoed his story. They had both encountered Salaam Baalak Trust in their teens, and through it, were able to slowly unravel themselves from the addictive web of street life.
The tour leaders took us across railway platforms, through traffic-choked arteries of Paharganj, and to favourite street children-hangouts. Seemingly nondescript locations were transformed, through the eyes of these unlikely storytellers, into an animated stage upon which the budding dreams and blighted hopes of children were played out every day. Pointing to the train-washing track, Javed revealed a nugget of street-life wisdom. "Children take their showers on those tracks, usually on Fridays, as it is a special day for station-dwellers. Not for religious purposes, but because that is the day that Bollywood films are released!"
As we stopped on Platform 12, Shekhar gave us a first-hand account of the station mafia in true Pacino style. "Nearly 300 runaway children arrive at the station every day. The mafia leader of a particular platform captures some of these children and trains them in "skills" such as picking pockets, singing and begging.
I walked ahead hurriedly, stopping at a fruit stand. "Railway children have a special relationship with fruit sellers and chemists," Javed pointed out. "Immediately after a luxury train arrives, children run through them to find uneaten fruit and then give it to the fruit seller. In return, the vendor allows them to sleep on his vendor ceiling at night, and even protects them when the station police arrive. The police sometimes beat the children for no reason, though," he said ruefully, "and that's where the chemist shop comes in handy."
The importance of these symbiotic relationships is not to be understated, the leaders emphasised. "Though there is suffering, life on the railways is also about friendship, love, and a strong feeling of community. Even in the direst of circumstances, people look out for each other."
My admiration for the leaders peaked as they told me of their plans to publicise the tour in an effort to draw national attention to the lives of station-children. "We want more Indians, especially students, to join us and learn about the issues that these children face," said Shekhar. For an inimitable insight into the courage, determination, and resilience of the human spirit and for some fun book your place on a tour. For more information, contact Shekhar at: +919873130383.
India Beats Features stories of the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.
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