Geetanjali Krishna: Children of a lesser god

Geetanjali Krishna: Children of a lesser god
Geetanjali Krishna / New Delhi April 19, 2008

This could be a huge tourist draw if the government cleaned it up,” I murmured to my friend Mahima as we gazed upon the network of star-shaped pools across Urdu Park under Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. I imagined them filled with water, reflecting the moonlight. However, further into the park, as eyes adjusted to the darkness, we realised the reality of Urdu Park was quite different. In dark corners and lonely nooks, many people squatted on the floor. Most were children, dirty and ragged.

I caught a whiff of something tantalisingly familiar from them. “Glue,” said Kaivalya, one of the Jamghat volunteers, “all children here sniff it.” But they looked too tiny to be into substance abuse, I said incredulously. “They probably aren’t as young as you think — the glue stunts their growth…” he said. Just then, a boy, apparently teenaged, appeared. All the children swarmed around him, shouting excitedly. “Look carefully and you might see his tube of glue — he sells one squirt of it for Rs 2,” said Kaivalya. A little fellow darted away from the group clutching a handkerchief. I now knew enough to realise that it probably contained two rupees worth of glue. Suddenly Urdu Park began to look less beautiful to me.

“It takes most children less than a month on the streets to take to glue,” said Amit, who started Jamghat. He and his friends estimate that almost every single child on the streets of Delhi has been sexually, physically or mentally abused. The children face other problems as well — the money they make begging, pushing carts or as coolies, is more often than not, snatched by older residents of the park, even by the police themselves. “It is sad,” said Amit, “but the fact is that today, few are willing to take on the responsibility of these troubled children.”

In fact, even Jamghat was originally conceived only as a theatre group. “I first met the children of Urdu Park in 2003, when Action Aid asked me to conduct some theatre workshops,” said Amit. Along with fourteen street kids, Amit moved to a campus where they lived, worked and played together. “We performed for Prince Charles when he visited India, and got lots of media coverage,” he reminisced. But soon after, the money dried up. The children by this time did not want to disband, having grown used to having a roof over their heads and the tough love that Amit gave them. Amit also couldn’t abandon them knowing that they would have no option but to return to the streets. “That’s how Jamghat just developed into a home for street children,” said Amit.

Running a residential facility for street kids isn’t easy — the children have faced too many traumas to be trusting. They’ve lived without rules for long enough to baulk when any are implemented. “We have only two rules in Jamghat — no drugs and no abuse,” said Amit, “other than this, they are free.” All in all, over 35 kids have been rehabilitated so far — some have even chosen to go home, while others work or study. Amit abandoned his own dreams of a career in theatre to help these kids earn their upkeep though street plays. “We don’t want people to just give us money,” said Amit, “we’d welcome more sponsorships for our plays though!” While we were talking, the baby of Jamghat, four-year-old Saddam, returned from school, pleased as punch with his new uniform. Seeing us looking at pictures of kids in Jama Masjid, he said, “it’s very far from here…”

He’s probably too young to know how right he is.


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