The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Between freedom and entrapment

If the little jharu has become a symbol of how the railway children work for their life and mobility, then there is something else ' less easily visible, but just as ubiquitous ' that might come to symbolize the obverse of this work. This is a piece of cloth soaked in anything from dendrite to other kinds of glue, petrol, photocopier solution, whitening ink or nailpolish remover. You will see the children quickly whip this rag out of their clothes, roll it into a ball, and then stuff it into their mouth for a few gulps of intoxicating vapour. Addiction to dendrite is almost like a subculture among these boys (and girls), and is also common among homeless children in the West. It can take on severe and incapacitating forms, and often leads to addiction to more harmful substances. But dendrite, in this case, becomes the basis of an exploitative and potentially criminal traffic with the adults who surround them.

One reason all the railway children give for their addiction is that it deadens hunger-pangs, especially when supplemented with paan masala. All the little paan shops near a railway station, and sometimes the tea stalls on the platforms, sell these substances to the children in full knowledge of how they are used. It is significant how, even in their addiction, the children work in little groups, unthinkingly sharing their chemicals and rags. This is also true of their love of gambling with cards, another group activity that has its own rituals and codes, its own ethic and ethics. Money changes hands during these games in an alertly-watched-over manner, and the big winner of the day has to treat his playmates to the next meal, thus ensuring that the losers get to eat even if they have played away all their day's earnings.

I remember Sheikh Akbar in Kharagpur station, about ten years old, far gone in his addiction, docile, abject, always drowsy, his eyes glazed, inhaling almost continually. One of the volunteers working with the boys had playfully snatched away his rag. The other boys immediately improvised a little game, in the same playful spirit, of recovering the rag from her. This they managed in no time, returning it to Akbar in a kind of solidarity looking like heartless pity. When the children get ready to sleep, in the afternoon or at night, the rags come out and are used almost unconsciously (like thumb-sucking, which many of them retain well into their boyhood), just as any other child would absent-mindedly play with his favourite rag-doll or a familiar corner of his pillow until he falls asleep.

If Akbar's case appears hopeless, there is also Shubhash in Kharagpur, almost twelve, with an incredibly melancholy face, whose aversion to dendrite is passionately moral. He has resisted addiction, hates the sharp smell of dendrite, and beats up his little brother when he catches him at it, but is also now beginning to give up on him. Perhaps this aversion has something to do with the fact that he has studied upto class V, and there are his mother (deserted by her husband for another woman) and three sisters at home. He has married off one of the girls recently, spending Rs 8,000 from his savings. And there is Sooraj too, in Asansol station, with a shaven head and a tikki, not older than eight, who has run away from a beauty parlour in Bihar, and therefore brags of his bleaching and threading skills. He is addicted not only to dendrite, but also to telling 'kissas', carrying around in his head a wealth of hilarious Bhojpuri tales, most of which are about a 'Biramhan', his 'Biramhani' and their mad, but holy cow. Sooraj briskly let me know the other day that he has supplemented his sweeping with some begging, and has also cut down on his glue-sniffing, because he has to raise an additional 800 rupees for the memorial rites of his father, who died last year of a burst liver. There is almost unanimous agreement among the children that saving money is crucial, and they usually cooperate enthusiastically in any effort to help them do so in a more organized way. But there are no government-run detoxification centres which the children might go to, and the private ones are entirely beyond their means and do not usually treat glue-sniffing. This is all the more unfortunate since many of the children genuinely want to get rid of their addiction, and will give you a full and graphic list of the withdrawal symptoms they have experienced when trying to rid themselves of the habit unassisted.

Sooraj's manner is a puzzling mix of the brisk and unsentimental, an infectiously camp drollery, together with an entirely child-like hunger for physically expressed affection, for being held, hugged or given a lap to sit on. These he would extract unabashedly from any adult who succumbs to his stories, sketches or comic charm. As a result, he makes even the most careful volunteer feel free and demonstrative while talking to him, sometimes egging the person on to massage his back, the aches in which he describes with an old hypochondriac's vividness, with exaggerated groans and sighs, delightfully caricaturing his own self-pity. And if the volunteer does feel free enough to give his back a little rub-down, Sooraj would turn around archly and warn him that he had no money to spare for the services rendered.

How is one, then, to describe this child's relationship with his own life, body, work and surroundings' Yes, there is an extreme and fundamental vulnerability. But it is also impossible to overlook, or to not marvel at and respond to, what he has managed to wrest for himself from this radically threatening and disempowering environment. To overlook this, or to see it as pure damage, would be to deny him almost as much as what he has already been deprived of. Yet to romanticize this, to see this way of life in utopian or sentimental terms, turning the child into some sort of a victim-hero, a Lord of the Flies, would also be deeply perverse ' although the temptation to do so is more compelling than most of us would admit.

After all, if we remember and think back honestly to our own earliest years, then we would have to admit that running away from home, being heroic victims of parental tyranny, and even being kidnapped, orphaned or sold to the gypsies or a travelling circus, and mixed in with all this the irresistible holiday-romance of the railways, of 'a painted station whistling by', are the stuff not only of immortal children's literature (Enid Blyton, J.M. Barrie, Leela Majumdar, Satyajit Ray) but also of almost every respectable and educated child's wishes, fantasies and lies. This is a vision of escape and freedom, of doing exactly as one wishes with one's friends and peers, of a communal life outside the patrolled borders of the safe, the secure and the settled, which perhaps does not go away entirely even after we have grown up. It flows unconsciously into our deepest anxieties, compulsions and sympathies as adults, adding to something as abstract-sounding as, say, our sense of social justice, or to our gut-level responses to unfairness, cruelty or victimhood, a mysterious and complex dimension that we might be loth to confront consciously.

There are laws, policies and conventions about children and their rights, which every child-worker will have to know, think critically about and work with or against. But there is this thing too ' internalized by the individual, yet collectively held ' informing his work with children, and his own sense of the private and public significance of this work. And the discourses of law, policy and rights cannot always accommodate or provide a language for articulating this dimension.

It remains, therefore, one of the many human challenges posed by the railway children in the lives of those who choose to work with them: not only to confront and tap into the origins of their desire to get involved with the children's brutal, yet peculiarly alluring lives of freedom and danger, and to do so honestly, constructively and creatively, but also to guard against the perils and excesses of such empathies and energies. It is sometimes tempting to forget that the railway children are not going to remain children forever. The only way to resist this temptation is to inform our perception of their lives with a relentlessly clear-sighted, unsentimental and pragmatic sense of the determining actualities. This will inevitably take us far beyond what most of us have done, seen, feared, known and imagined as children.

Hero and victim: these are the two extreme poles of a doubleness that structures the position and perception of these children in the eyes of civil society, and in the discourses of law and of the state. Heart-rendingly vulnerable, yet threateningly precocious, they remain poised between freedom and entrapment, liberation and confinement, destitution and delinquency; and in the eyes of the law and the state, between innocence and criminality, protection and punishment, welfare and rights. This doubleness is played out every day in their interactions with figures of authority, those who embody 'law and order' on the railway premises and the trains ' mainly, the Railway Protection Force. Although dangerously ambivalent, this evolving interaction is far from being one of simple victimization.

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