Allow me to tell you a couple of stories. Stories to you and me, but everyday realities for the platform children of Sealdah Railway Station at Kolkata. For a few days, with a return ticket folded between my cell-phone and its transparent cover, a little diary in my bag, I roamed around the station, simply observing the platform children from a distance.
At Platform No. 1, around 11:40 am, a portable sound box slung across her shoulder, a girl of approximately 12, hair tied in a plait, swaying to a rhythm of her own, begins covering her beat with a knee-high girl child tagging along.
Around 12:30 pm, at the same platform, I spot another girl with hair cropped short, a boy, possibly her brother, tagging along as she walks the length of the platform towards the station end. Passing hawkers and waiting passengers, and nudging them with her begging bowl, she suddenly looks intently towards the sparrow perched at the edge of the platform and tiptoes her way towards it before it flies away. On her way, she plays a little game of throw and catch with the child but is quick to get back to work. A rogue traveller snatches her bowl from her attempting to engage in a bit of a banter. A man in a blue shirt shooes her away before going back to reading his newspaper. She moves on to the next bench and the next hawker who gives her some boiled chickpeas. The girl now gestures at a young boy hanging along the edge of the adjacent platform. He crosses the rail line as they joke and playfully push each other around before disappearing into the crowd.
Around 2 pm, from a vantage point of my choice, I look at three children playing around a blue cement bench on Platform No. 4. The eldest sister, wearing a red frock, possibly eight years old, a little boy of around four, and the youngest sister who could be two or three. The youngest child often ventures dangerously towards the end of the platform and the eldest keeps pulling her back, making her sit on the ragged mat. Every time the eldest attempts to lie down or put her feet up on the bench, the little girl pokes the sister’s arms or simply puts her hand over the sister’s face. This goes on for quite a little while. It’s difficult to not smile to myself as I recollect all the times that I was asked to babysit my sister as a child. The little brother, in the meantime, had hopped on to the waiting train and has now returned with a begging bowl full of puffed rice and a ten rupee note. The eldest ties the ten rupees within the end folds of her frock and they begin eating from the bowl. The youngest sister now takes a handful of the food and stuffs it into the eldest’s face. In some time, the eldest sister hops on to the still waiting train and returns with a few cucumber slices which are again shared among the three of them. She has now started walking towards the other end and meets a lady on her way, presumably her mother, and asks for something which causes her mother to raise her hand as if trying to hit her. But she stops midway and relents. From the ends of her saree’s pallu, she takes out a blue sachet and pours a little of its contents into the child’s spread out hand. The brother, too, has wandered off somewhere close by and the youngest now sits alone on the ragged mat next to the blue cement bench and plays with an empty mineral water bottle.
Announcements are being made for the departing trains and the delayed trains. Trains and crowds arrive and depart. Sealdah station sees a regular traffic of over two million people on a daily basis, and amidst the preying eyes of the unscrupulous, live the platform children of Sealdah.
A child rescued by Childline from Sealdah, who has been to Bombay, to Gujarat and is finally back at Sealdah, while staying at the shelter home says that the thing he is most afraid of is the ghost that peeps from the window and from behind the almirah at night.
‘Childline’ is an initiative by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Ministry of Railways, Government of India, in collaboration with organisations such as the Child In Need Institute that operates across the country including Sealdah. The one-point stop for children in distress is 1098. You may read more about the programme here.