The Wild Dogged ones

Brutalised and abused, they love their freedom. Hiding the obsessive longing to become Bollywood superstars

Samarth Pathak Delhi, Hardnews

Street children. You see them everywhere, at red lights (through the windows of air-conditioned cars, while the radio plays Jai Ho), at crowded marketplaces (while shopping for the latest designer jeans, shades and handbags), near eateries (while relishing burgers, pizzas, thanda matlab... and the likes), and at places of worship (while praying to god for "success and well-being in life"). Still, they remain ‘invisible entities' left to be ignored, disgraced and abused while everyone looks the other way.

Life on the streets is no easy living. Everything is learnt the hard way. It's a constant battle for existence. From abject poverty, hunger and homelessness, to sex abuse, physical brutalisation, exploitation and hard labour, to drugs and gang wars, the children on the streets face it all, in the dawn of their lives. There is no one to care, to protect, to guide. Uncannily, this is also a life full of freedom, outside institutions or control, there is no one to answer to, no one to hold back, no one steering the wheel of destiny.

Yet, it is also a life which pinches, punches and pulverises cruelly, without remorse, every single day, every single minute. Each step opens up a myriad problems to be faced, obstacles to be overcome and struggles to be overcome. This continuous struggle makes them resilient and mature, many years before adulthood arrives, and inculcates a sharpness of mind which well-protected and cocooned, middle and upper class urban kids, can never match.

Most street children near the railway platforms are runaways from rural India. A majority of them belong to poor villages of UP, Bihar and Bengal, and are roughly between 8-13 years of age. According to an estimate, every tenth train in Delhi contains at least one runaway child. This means that every month, nearly 900 runaway children come to the Capital in pursuit of a better life, but end up living on the streets.

A plethora of reasons compels them to run away from their homes. Some wish to escape from the vicious circle of poverty and bleak futures. Some wish to run away from their alcoholic fathers, violent stepmothers and sexual abuse. And many, inspired by movies, dream of making it big in life by going through the same struggles their ‘hero' went through. Invariably, they all head for the cities starry-eyed, with big aspirations on their little shoulders, completely unaware of the challenges their future beholds. Still, no matter how hard the times, their hopes remain unfazed, dreams unbroken, spirit indomitable.

Shekhar came to Delhi when he was just about 12. He ran away from his village of Munger in Bihar to become a ‘Bollywood actor' -- like his idol Shahrukh Khan. But destiny had a different plan. "The Delhi of my dreams was very different from the one which I saw. I dreamt of getting a good job, driving swanky cars and residing in big buildings. So I ran away from my home. But I was very scared when I saw the city's railway station. There was a flood of people, and I was all alone," he told Hardnews. Today, apart from the several plays he has acted in, Shekhar works as the coordinator of the Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO working for the upliftment of street children in Delhi. His is a rags to ‘life's not-so-bad' story, while he coyly admits he loved the "street life much more", where he spent two years of his adolescence.

Another kid, Anil, overcame his shyness and lack of confidence by learning spoken English at the Salaam Balak Trust. Today, as a result of his toil, he is employed with the NGO as a tour guide (showcasing the architecture and geography of drop-outs and slum kids) while pursuing his graduation from the University of Delhi. He said to Hardnews, "I no longer bother if any one is laughing at me. I can now speak to foreigners, and they appreciate my work. I just want to work hard with honesty and get a good job after I get my degree."

However, while some succeed in their endeavours, there are many others who end up biting the dust. Faced with hunger and exile, many fall into the inescapable net of prostitution and abuse. Javed, an urchin near the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi, reveals how runaway children end up being used for sexual favours. "Pimps and dalals keep an eye for new kids at railway stations, busy marketplaces, slums and footpaths. Usually, they lure children with promises of food, clothing, shelter and money. A street child is extremely vulnerable and often gives in to their demands," he told Hardnews.

Isn't there a measure to put a stop to all this? "There is a nexus between corrupt policemen and pimps. Often, a street child is first beaten up and smashed into submission by constables, and then personally escorted by them to the kothas or other sleazy joints. This is very common. In such a scenario, who will protect us?" says Ruhi, 16, a ragpicker.

An important aspect of street life is that most of these kids are in the dawn of puberty. For them, the mix of testosteronic rush and freedom is the gateway to all kinds of ‘experiments'. Very early in life, these kids develop a serious dependence on drugs. It is whiteners and glues for the fattoos (who are beginners, usually aged between 8 to 10 years) while the dadas (or pros, aged 12 to 16 years) do ganja (marijuana) and charas. "A street kid, on an average, earns about Rs 70-80 a day. Out of this, Rs 30 goes in procuring drugs. One may not get food to eat, but a day without drugs is impossible. Drug peddlers and addas operate openly in the bylanes of Paharganj and Jama Masjid right under the nose of the police," says Javed.

Besides drugs, sex is rampant. Young boys and girls become intimate after facing struggles together and fall in love. This fondness usually leads to sexual encounters among children. Homosexuality is common, and it is the younger kids of the lot who end up being exploited by their gang leaders, pimps, local goons and cops. "Usually, the kids indulge in unprotected intercourse, which leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases. Pregnancies in adolescent girls are routine. They either deliver the babies and run or lose their life in the process," says Shekhar.

Street children usually live in groups, and operate as one unit in their areas. At the New Delhi railway station, territories are specifically divided among numerous gangs, with each gang ‘owning' one platform. Every group consists of 10-14 members, and the eldest of the lot (and the strongest) is the undisputed leader. Boundaries are meant to be respected, and no trespassing is tolerated. Fights break out often, especially over food and money.

Still, in the midst of the hardships, friendship blooms. No street kid eats alone. Food is shared between all members of the group, even if it means sharing a single loaf of bread among eight of them. Anil recounts, "Once, one of my friends told us that there was a wedding near Ajmeri Gate. So we all quietly gate-crashed and gorged on chicken and biryani. When the guards came, we all grabbed whatever was around and managed to bring back some food for the others too."

A candid Shekhar reveals, "The Shatabdi Express is the golden egg for all street children. As soon as it stops, you'll find kids in it searching for food. There are half-empty juice packets, chips and sandwiches to eat, and water bottles to be sold (after filling them with tap water, of course)."

In Old Delhi, the langar at Sisganj Gurudwara is the ‘special' treat for street kids. Ali, a 14 year old urchin, says, "We go there after bathing well, so that we are not thrown out. I love the dal there, and I try to get extra sweets and rotis from there for my friends too. It's bad to eat alone."

Escapades from the clutches of the police, which happen frequently, further enhance the strong bonding between the kids. Anil reveals, "Delhi police take care of the area outside the platforms, while the railway police are in charge inside. So whenever we got in trouble, we kept running in and out of the station to escape both. If anyone was caught, we used to try our best to save him from the police." Ali adds, "Everyone thinks that street kids are thieves and cheats. This is why the police always target us, beat us black and blue and force us into juvenile homes. In winters, to save ourselves from the cold and the police, we hide ourselves in sacks and sleep in car parks, or near the Jama Masjid. Spending winter nights under open skies is tough, so we all cuddle together and keep each other warm."

Movies have a profound impact on these impressionable young minds. Most children Hardnews spoke to were fascinated by Bollywood, secretly revealing their deepest desires of one day becoming big actors and actresses. Reckless, adventurous and fearless, most street kids imbibe these traits by watching films on the local chai wallah's TV set or at dingy cinema halls in the vicinity. Their fascination with films often borders around insanity, as Anil reveals, "Many children travel without ticket to Mumbai just to catch a movie in the land of Bollywood."

This fixation explains their tendency to emulate their favourite actors by buying cheap designer jeans, tight tees and shades from the pavements. Says Shekhar, for whom "movies are life": "When I was on the streets, I used to be at Sheila cinema hall in Paharganj every week without fail. I used to save money just to splurge on a movie. Mujhe lagta tha ki khana toh mil hi jayega kahin se, par movie nahi dekh payenge to kya hoga?" (I used to think that food we will get anyway, but we just can't miss a movie."

Films not only act as means of entertainment, but also ‘inspire' these young minds. Their aspirations and dreams are propelled by the heroics of their ‘on-screen' idols. Most kids aspire impossible dreams, to make it big in life. They ‘want' to drive cars, own mansions and have money to throw around.

They hate their past. Having faced extreme hardships so early in life, they yearn to earn money -- to avenge the abuses they faced in early childhood. Very few of them wish to return home, because "going home would mean I have lost" -- a sentiment most street kids share. The handful who return do so because they terribly miss their village and the feeling of "home".

Most agree that they never had a childhood. "We have seen much more than any other city kid. We have eaten out of garbage pits, drank water from a sewer, have been molested and brutalised, abused and thrashed by police and people; but we have never shed a tear. We are tough and strong, and the day we lose our confidence we would be chewed and spitted out by the world. So, we have to carry on, come what may" says Geetu, a 19-year-old beggar near Jama Masjid.

What's the mantra of their life? "It's simple: Be happy and make everyone else around you happy. As simple as that. I might not become an actor, but I know I'll give my best to prove to myself that at least I tried. I do not want to live with any regrets. In life, you cannot afford to be pessimistic or dwell on negativity. Think positive, face everything like a man, and never bow or crawl before anything," Shekhar replies, his smile intact.