I have always found trains very romantic. It is so much better than sitting in a bus. Cannot say much about planes here. Trains have a nice, old world charm about them, I think. The chugging of the long bogies, the chai-wallahs and the hundreds of others things that are sold, the walk down one compartment to the other; I have always loved them. But what I had failed to register were the little boys who swept the compartments with the shirt off their backs, the little beggars we often shooed away. Recently I had the opportunity to talk to them.
Bangalore Railway station gets around 150 runaway boys and girls every month from various parts of the country. Most of them are from rural parts of Karnataka though, escaping to dreams of the big city from lives full of problems like alcoholic fathers, poverty, etc. The runaways are aged between 3 and 25. Some grow up on the platforms of the railway station. Some go back home, some run away again and some settle into decent jobs.
I met a lady called Shanthi who works for Bosco, an NGO that works for the rehabilitation of these children. She told me some amazing stories about them.
Some of these children do drugs. A few use ganja but a majority are addicted to 'solution', commonly available whitener. Drops of this whitener are put to a piece of cloth, rolled up in the shape of a cone and inhaled. This supposedly gives them a high. The rolled up cloth is called 'mike' in their slang. A bottle of whitener is normally sold at Rs 18. But the shops who sell them to these kids do so at around Rs 30-35! A group of such addicts can use up to 3-4 bottles every day.
Some boys are forced to work in hotels. Owners and middlemen trick these boys into going with them. Every boy would fetch the middleman a sum of Rs 50. The young boys are locked in in hotels and are made to wash dishes the whole day. This leads to skin problems, so much that they cannot use their hands or walk after some time. Few manage to run away.
The children are sexually exploited too. The dark corners of the platforms and empty bogies breed a lot of such activities. Homosexuality is prevalent too, with the older boys exploiting the newer and younger ones. The worst is the child prostitution. Some young girls would enter into the flesh trade for as little as a bottle of whitener for payment! There are also women who come from villages around Bangalore every morning, trade their wares the whole day and go back to unsuspecting husbands and children in the evening.
Bosco has been taking these children to their centre in the city. They are given training in various trades. Some are sent back home after counselling. They even help the children save money from what they earn as coolies, rag pickers, sweepers and middlemen for travel agents.
Something I never expected was the way these children opened up. I never thought they would speak about their activities. But to my utter surprise, they were very open about their drug addiction, illicit relationships, etc. They were all very very friendly too, probably because they didn't know I was going to write about them!
Among them, there was a 13 year old who already had a 10 month old baby! The father was just 15 years old! Another 13-year old who sells peanuts is pregnant too. Her 'husband' is all of 15 years and is very shy when we ask about his 'wife'. Most of the girls pretend to be married and wear mangalsutras and toe rings. The boys have long, ugly gashes across their cheeks from fights over women and drugs. It is supposed to be a matter of pride for them, an initiation process into street life. A boy with a gash becomes a man, if I understand right.
Some of these people lead very posh lives. Shanthi told me that they buy one pair of clothing every week, wear them till the next Sunday and throw them away. The women give their clothes to the dry cleaners! Most watch up to three films every day on a first day first show basis. They get everything they could possibly want in the railway station- food, freedom, women, drugs. Some of my friends who had accompanied me looked at their own old clothes with disdain. I could almost detect a look of envy in them!
These people lead sad lives. But then, the sad stories are the ones that sell. Poverty makes the best stories. What this story did to me was that it sort of sensitised me towards their kind. You normally tend to turn your noses at them at public places. I learnt that they are people too, not faceless entities. They have their problems, their joys and sorrows just like the rest of us, just the nature of problems is different. When I went there the second time, some of them came up to me to talk. And thanks to this story, I had become human enough to talk with them too.