Society

Song Of The Street

Before 'Slumdog' Azharuddin Ismail, there was Shafique of Salaam Bombay. And at the New Delhi station, at any given point, there are some 2,500 runaway children seeking shelter. Join the 'guided tour' chaperoned by a reformed streetkid, Brijesh...

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Song Of The Street
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A few days after we saw pictures of the‘slumdogs’ donning tuxedos and dining at the Governor’s banquet in LosAngeles, newspapers ran a picture of Azharuddin Ismail, the youngest of the castwho played the lead role of Slumdog Millionaire, having his meal bylamplight in a Mumbai shack. The show is over kid, you are back where youbelong. Harsh words those may sound like, but could reality have been anydifferent?

When Mira Nair was casting for SalaamBombay in the late '80s, she auditioned many street children and the oneswho were selected received training in acting from Barry John through an actingworkshop. The film was highly acclaimed, being the first of its kind, making astreet-bound hero/protagonist, Chai-pao, out of a real-life ragamuffin.Shafique’s brief but epic journey -- from life from under the streetlights tolife under the arclights, and everything that comes with it -- lasted as long asSalaam Bombay was in the theatres.

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I met Shafique in 1991 at a school forstreet children run by Salaam Balak Trust at the New Delhi Railway Station,where I had volunteered very briefly.

Reality had begun to sneak in onShafique, like a quietly rising flood, taking him back to where he belonged. Itwas one thing to play one’s own self in a film -- his real-life mannerisms hadto be honed only a bit to make them camera-friendly. From that fact, to reallymake the transition -- that is, to have the capacity to come good as differentcharacters for different films -- is not a guaranteed skill.

Since Shafique had already tasted theglamour of the tinsel world and felt he had a chance of making it big there, thesamaritans of SBT kept finding him employment at different studios, sometimes asa light boy and at other times as a camera assistant, in order to keep himwithin the folds of the entertainment industry, waiting for the day lady luckmight smile back at him.

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SBT ran a makeshift school for streetkids on the terrace of the Railway Police remand cell. These were essentiallychildren who had run away from their homes in villages or small towns, mostlyfrom Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, perhaps due to the brutality of an alcoholic fatheror a stepmother or simply driven by poverty.

A runaway child usually arrives as aticket-less traveller straight to the railway station. The railway terminal thenbecomes home, or at least a place where the homeless child instantly finds aroof over his head, leftover food from pantry cars to fill his belly, a possibleemployment as an unregistered railway coolie or a sweeper. The natural byproductof such a shelter is guaranteed indoctrination in crime (petty and serious),drug and sexual abuse, possible HIV infection. For SBT, the railway stationserved as a readymade contact point to find miserable children living ahigh-risk existence and get them back to some semblance of normalcy.. Shafiquewas the posterboy for the kids at SBT.

The hype surrounding SlumdogMillionaire made me enquire about Shafique’s whereabouts from my oldcontacts at SBT. It’s been a strange trajectory for him. Apparently, afterfailing to make anything out of different lines within film-making, Shafiquemoved from a suicide attempt and later a stint in jail for theft and violenceand has finally been rehabilitated. He now runs an autorickshaw in Bangalore andis married with four children.

I decided to make a trip to SBT andjoin the ‘guided tour’ conducted by them of street kids in Delhi whichbegins from the New Delhi Railway Station and is chaperoned by a reformedstreetkid, Brijesh.

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Everyone meets up under a peepal treebehind the Railway Reservation office. There is an elderly Californian couplenow based in Christchurch, New Zealand; a New York-based documentary film-makerwith his video-camera and his Indian assistant, who he introduces as his soundrecordist -- the chap’s only job is to hold the mike gong, even that he dropsa few times during the course -- and myself. We begin our two-hour tour, call itthe Streetkid City Walk, with Brijesh.

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Brijesh being filmed during the walking tour

This handsome, well-turned-out boy, whospeaks a smattering of English and will celebrate his 21st birthdayon March 25, seems an experienced hand. He promptly points out to our film-makercompanion that he should have carried lapel mikes instead. We walk through thevarious railway platforms, halting at places that serve as makeshift school,dispensary, lending library and contact points for street kids run by the SBT.

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Frequently, bright-eyed, unwashed kidsgreet us with a namaste. Some shake hands with the foreigners. A boy appearsfrom behind one of the stationary wagons, looking quite spaced out, and goesinto a wild jig. Brijesh tells us this boy is on drugs -- though he was likethat not very long ago. Now he is addicted to sniffing the whitener used forcorrecting typewritten sheets. The Californian couple say you find them evenwhere they live.

Brijesh himself ran away from a crueluncle’s home in Merwah, Bihar, when he was eight. Travelling in awestern-style lavatory in a Delhi-bound train, Brijesh got off at the Kanpurrailway station. The ways of the world soon taught little Brijesh how to findemployment. Like other kids his age, he started collecting used packaged waterbottles to be refilled and resold at half the price.

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The business found him regularly in thehands of cops. He was sent to remand homes many times, only to return to hisbusiness at the first opportunity. Soon, he now laughingly admits, the cops knewtoo well what he was up to. One day, when he was selling water bottles, a copheld a burning cigarette butt to a wound behind his ear, and then slapped himhard repeatedly on the same ear. Brijesh could not bear the pain, dropped allhis bottles and ran and wept. At that point, one of the older street kids, awhitener-user, offered some of the stuff to Brijesh to sniff to relieve himselfof the pain. Brijesh says his head swam in circles when he first sniffed. He nolonger could feel any pain. The ten-year-old had become an addict.

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Soon after, Brijesh landed at the NewDelhi station, where at any given point there are some 2,500 runaway childrenseeking shelter. Here he found he could not carry on with his old business. TheDelhi cops were stricter with the reselling of water bottles. Brijesh startedsweeping trains and discovered that if he rummaged through the rubbish carefully,he could fish out a neat twenty to twenty-five rupees everyday. (It’s a secrethe still keeps to himself and wonders if any other kid has figured out that atreasure lies within!) The money came in handy for buying whitener and movietickets. Every Friday he bathed and put on fresh clothes to watch, preferably, aSunny Deol matinee show.

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Food was never a problem, thanks toleftovers from the pantry car. He remembers the Howrah Rajdhani catered the bestmenu. At times, for a change of taste, he would visit the Bangla Saheb Gurudwaralangar. But the little boy would get constantly beaten up, robbed and abused bythe older boys and cops alike. Sniffing of the whitener had turned him into azombie.

Eight years ago, Brijesh met SBT at oneof the contact points at the railway station. He is completely rehabilitated onthe drug abuse front now and passed the 12th standard examinationlast year. He is currently studying tourism through correspondence from IGNOU.His uncle showed up a few years ago to take him back but he refused. Life hasgiven Brijesh a second chance. But the ground beneath his feet is not yet firmenough that he can afford to fall and stand up again.

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As we parted ways, our documentaryfilm-maker stuck his mike under my face and asked me that rarely asked questionin television journalism: How do I feel hearing Brijesh’s story?

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