I first met them at Kalyan railway station.
Our family moved to Kalyan about forty years ago when the communal riots were at its peak and several families were displaced. Out of fear, several families were fleeing and taking safer shelter at the railway station. Their children would play in the railway tracks and sometimes sell some items in the suburban trains.
The children were always seen at the station. There were a few smart ones too; among them was one who would carry a shoe-shine kit. He was a clever kid, about six or seven years old who would then charge Re 1 for shoe-shine. He noticed that some commuters were ‘regulars’ for the train which I used to take to Mumbai. He used to ask for Rs 5 and would promise that he would polish their shoes six days from Monday to Saturday; I was amused at this discount, or perhaps impressed by the young boy’s clever ways to make a living and agreed to pay. Many others did.
That was the closest I came to knowing the boys who always were seen and living on railway platform.
I read more about their life in ‘Platform Number Zero,’ Amita Naidu’s book [Marathi] on children making a living by cleaning railway compartments, collecting and selling scrap, occasionally stealing passengers’ belongings, and begging.
Amita Naidu is a social activist and met the ‘platform children’ while working for an NGO. She mentions that there was no need for people to ‘work’ for them because the children see a very different world and get courage to face it, they adapt to it. The real need was to understand them. While love and affection was the real need, the children had also developed their own way of judging and testing people before they moved closer to a person. The hostile circumstances had taught them many ways to protect themselves.
Amita tells stories of Anthony, Billu, Zaheer, Kekya, Munna, Kishor, Jaggu and others. These were children who ran away from home. Anthony stole a thousand rupees from his aunt for his mother’s treatment and then ran away. He joined the platform ‘club’ and saved enough money to return home and repay his aunt. He returned to find that his heart broken mother had died and the home was devastated. Anthony returned to his living on platform. Among unfortunate boys like him, there is Kekya who is disabled but a ‘bread winner’ for his family as he earns a good amount in begging. He runs away and uses novel methods to survive. And Munna turns to ‘poetry’ to express himself. Like:
“सायकल की चेन उतर गयी, चढाऊं कैसे?
बगलमें खडी है लडकी, पटाऊं कैसे?”
The author brings out clearly the urge to live and relate skilfully to a hostile world. She also brings out clearly the dilemmas in their lives, the constant threat of police and their use of these boys, the pains of growing up and ways of meeting the urges of adolescents. The best part is that their stories are not told to produce a feeling of melancholy, but they help us understand their lives.
For many like me who travelled daily by suburban trains these lives went unnoticed. The book unfolds their world and serves to heighten our sensitivities to this section of society which is largely neglected and misunderstood often as ‘criminals in making.’
‘Platform Number Zero’ is titled so because it is the invisible platform at which the train of their lives is permanently standing. Never moves out.
This is undoubtedly the best book I have read so far this year. Thanks Ms Amita Naidu.