Think trains and different words come to mind to different people. During exams,  I  always opted to  write  about  ” a memorable train journey”  — one of the  the favourite ‘unseen   essay’  topics in Bengali/Hindi in primary school in the ’70s — rather than, say, ‘the cow’ — another regular — because I guess I had a better grip on train journeys than India’s sacred animal.  That was also the era  when most people I knew travelled by train.  I loved writng about train journeys because I loved the voyage — usually two to three days long — from Pune to Kolkata to see grandparents. The train zigzagged through the heart of India.  I loved the smells, the sounds, the cups of tea in clay pots in the middle of the night and the little toys one bought from vendors who clambered aboard. In high school, trains evoked images from  novelist and railway lover Paul Theroux — The Great  Railway Bazaar — a book I can read over and over again.The Orient Express, The Khyber Pass Local, The Frontier Mail, The Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, The Maridalay Express, The Ozora Limited – -a Grand Tour by train, a journey from London to Tokyo and back with as many mishaps as detours. In 1989, when I lived in Paris, I once landed up travelling in The Orient Express by default – because I had missed the flight to Budapest thanks to a local transport strike in Paris.  I got to the airport just as  the plane was taking off. My friends – a Japanese and a German — and I  rushed to the Gare de L’Est. We caught the  Orient Express  by a whisker. It  stopped at  Budapest. The journey was memorable for more reasons than one, but it was not quite the way I had expected to experience The Orient Express.

Trains still fascinate me. Two  years ago,   I got a rare opportunity to look at trains from an unusual perspective  — that of  runaway children who survive by collecting discarded mineral water bottles from the coaches.  Here is a snippet from my notes chronicling the lives of the platform children.

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Children’s song from Masoom (Click)
It is a week day afternoon at the Jaipur railway station. A passenger train pulls up and a young boy, somewhere between seven and ten, wearing a  soiled  shirt and shorts, gets down. He is unaccompanied and carries nothing beside a torn cloth bag. He looks around at the crowd milling around him and then gingerly walks towards the exit. The gait is slow, the expression on the face unsure, almost scared. As he saunters around, his eyes spot other children, his age, his size, adroitly getting in and out of coaches, carrying discarded mineral water bottles. The boy stands and stares and them musters courage to walk up to another boy, about his size, who seem somewhat accessible. The two strike up a conversation. As the minutes tick past, the young boy who has arrived in Jaipur looks a wee bit less fearful. He has aquaintances among the gang of “platform children” . The gang is not overtly friendly at the beginning but asks the newcomer to tag along with them to a place where he can have  a bath, and a nutritious meal. The boy who introduces himself as Saddam readily agrees. Hours later, Saddam is barely recognisable. His face is scrubbed, his hair brushed, his clothes are clean and his lips break into a beaming smile as he plays carom with many of his newfound friends. The place: FXB India Suraksha’s daycare centre which offers runaways and other vulnerable children a refuge.
The centre exists to help children who are tossed into precarious  circumstances through no fault of their own. It exposes them to a new way of looking at the world, equips them with skills and lets them make a choice. Many lives have been saved this way. It was started following an informal investigation- into the  lives   of children living on the platforms of the Jaipur train station.
(Adapted from Hopes Alive, Surviving AIDS and Despair, authored by Patralekha Chatterjee)
Photos by  Patralekha  Chatterjee

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