For the first-time visitor, Howrah Station seems like a riot waiting to happen. The huge railway terminal in Calcutta—by the banks of the Hooghly, tributary to the sacred Ganges river—is where First World efficiency meets Third World infrastructure in a collision of people.
India has its airports and its highways, but for most people, trains—big old steam engines, one of the few enduring and, at least usually, functioning legacies of the years of the British Empire—are the main form of transport.
For travelers and commuters, Howrah is the heart of Calcutta. A city of no-one-really-knows-how-many million people, and it feels as if half of them are trying to catch a train from Howrah at the same time.
Some race for trains that were late leaving, while others wait for those that never arrived. Families squat together with all their worldly possessions in a few bags around them. Older people appear to be just sitting around until they die, watching the world swirl past.
The noise of countless conversations and arguments fills the high, old colonial-style ceilings of the sprawling station along with the spicy smells of many meals.
In the midst of so much movement—with commuter “rush hour” times swelling the crowds to crush point—it is easy to miss the youngsters hovering at the edges. Until you move towards a platform or a food stall, when they will rush forward and hold out begging hands.
A few rupees for something to eat?
Scores of young boys make their home at Howrah, sleeping at the side of platforms and avoiding the police and railway officials on the odd occasion they make a cursory sweep of the area to move people on.
Small gangs jealously guard their platform patch ,and newcomers have to endure the initiation of a group beating before they are allowed in.
Sumir was just seven years old when he arrived at Howrah, frightened and hungry.
There were some problems at home, he recalled.
I loved my mother very much. One day my father came home and hit her and she died. I was scared, so I ran away and never went back …
A friend took him to Howrah.
The bruises faded before too long.
During the day, he and the others would either beg for money, or go out rag picking in the neighborhood, hoping to sell the scraps they gathered for a little money. A few hours could bring in enough for a meal, and there might even be some to share if another member of the gang was without.
At night, the activity around the station would drop to a mere bustle. There would still be some people to ask for money. And then there were the men who would come around and pay the boys to go with them to one of the sheds at the edge of the station.
Sometimes the others would hear screams.
Sumir told me his story as I traveled conducting research for Street Children: The Tragedy and Challenge of the Millions of Modern-Day Oliver Twists. Recently republished, this book look at the plight of the untold numbers of abused and abandoned children living on city streets around the world, and what is being done to help them.
All author proceeds are being given to support the efforts of programs like the one that rescued Sumir from Howrah Station.