Special to the Star
DELHI, INDIA –He is an unlikely tour guide – skinny, enthusiastic, with a wide grin revealing perfect teeth. Shekhar Saini is just 19 years old.
He’s standing in front of the reservations office just outside the enormous, grimy railway station in Old Delhi – home to about 150 ragged, barefoot street children, some as young as 6.
In a country known for its many beautiful sights, Shekhar is here to show us something different – one of the sore spots off the usual tourist trail.
We had reached him on his cellphone the day before to book our tour of one of Old Delhi’s grittiest neighbourhoods, as street children experience it.
It’s a place he knows first-hand. Shekhar was born in Bihar, the poorest of India’s 28 states, and ran away at age 12, jumping on a train and eluding ticket takers all the way to Delhi.
"Basically, most of the children run away from the country because of poverty; they know they are a burden to their families," he says.
He quickly found that the children look out for one another.
"When I got here, I met another rag picker and he said `Are you hungry?’ and he took me to the Sisganj Gurdwara (Sikh temple) for a free meal," Shekhar recalls.
These children, it turns out, are not an anomaly, but integrated into the city’s economy.
They are not beggars – they work sweeping the train cars and collecting any leftover food. First-class trains are particularly good.
"My friend got into a car with a wedding party and got two pieces of chicken," he says.
From a bridge between the platforms, he points out some boys jumping between the tracks, collecting empty plastic water bottles, which fetch half a rupee each.
They make, he says, 60 to 70 rupees a day or about $2.
In a nook below the overpass, a child is sleeping under a piece of cardboard.
We walk past a juice seller who lets children sleep on top of his booth, and acts as a banker, keeping their scant rupees safe from theft.
Another shop on the platform is Chemist Corner, where sick children go to buy herbal medicines.
"Street children are crazy about Bollywood movies," says Shekhar. "Some will hop the train to Mumbai to see a premiere. They play hide and seek with the railway police; if they are caught they get badly beaten."
Shekhar was on the street until he was rescued by the Salaam Balaak Trust, a charity founded in 1988 by the Indian film director Mira Nair, best known for Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake.
Nair was a sociologist and documentarian until she made her first story film, Salaam Bombay, a moving portrayal of Bombay’s street children inspired by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
Nair used some of the proceeds from that film to set up the trust, which aims to give back to street children some semblance of their lost childhood. They are rarely willing to go back to their families but they can be protected from pimps and criminals and trained to do better paying work than picking up empty bottles.
Shakhar trained as a guide and is one of the trust’s success stories. He learned his excellent English from foreign volunteers at the Salaam Balaak shelter.
From the station we walk along a narrow alley where Shakhar points out the dusty shops of junk dealers who buy the scrap metal, glass and plastic containers that the street children scavenge.
Enormous transparent bags filled with empty water bottles are piled on the roof until they are picked up for recycling. Delhi has no municipal recycling program or even general garbage pickup, so rag pickers – both children and adults – play a useful role.
Shekhar knows everybody in this gritty neighbourhood and introduces his Canadian visitors with a flourish. We pass a tiny shop advertising a cold shower for 10 rupees, a hot shower for 15 rupees. There are some 300 cheap hotels and flophouses in the area, most without bathing facilities, he explains.
We nearly trip over a potter crouched on the sidewalk, rapidly turning hundreds of small clay cups on his wheel.
The cups are sold in the nearby pottery market to owners of chai (tea) shops and broken after a single use. This is necessary not only because dishwashing is not an option in such sidewalk operations but because of the caste system. Most Indians will not drink out of vessels that may have previously been used by a low caste or Dalit (Untouchable) customer.
The area is pulsi
ng with energy. Everyone is busy. As we walk towards the Salaam Balaak shelter, we pass many other traditional businesses and craftspeople including a dyer, a wicker worker, tailoring shops and people ironing clothing right on the street with heavy manual irons heated by hot charcoal inside.
A video game arcade on our left has a large clientele of street children.
When we finally reach the shelter on the upper floor of a narrow old house, we see some 60 boys in two large rooms milling about, playing, watching TV or napping (there is a separate shelter for girls.) Another room is set up with benches as a classroom. A sign proclaims that the shelter receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Salaam Balaak Trust also runs children’s shelters in Mumbai.
One little boy of about 7, a recent arrival who appears to be mute, wants a hug. He clings to me in a way that breaks my heart.
On the wall, there are pictures of the former street children playing soccer and going on excursions.
Mira Nair appears in some of the photos, an improbably glamorous figure.
Shekhar now has his own tiny apartment. He has been guiding for a year but his dream is to be a Bollywood star.
"I have already been in a 23-minute short," he says proudly. "I played a gang leader. Mira Nair invited me to the premiere of The Namesake but I didn’t see the film. I had to stay outside with the collection box."
Judy Stoffman is a Toronto-based freelance writer.