Rag tag lovers, 12 years old sell plastic clips and nail-paint on crowded trains. School, isn’t an option. Madame Meow asks for change.

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They pull in, chugging along with over a lakh passengers, these children’s futures.

 

Overfull, with metallic bodies covered in more scratches than paint, these chugging, screeching dubbas should not be the cause of happiness. Yet, every time I stand on a platform for the ‘Barah-daboh-Ki-Dheemi-Local’, my being rises with inexplicable elation.

Only, I’m a mere traveler – what of Those whose livelihoods, short-changed by fate and circusmstace, are knit between these broken tracks?

“How old are you?” I ask him, my Hindi translated into Marathi by a seat buddy.

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Careful, I clutch my wares to my heart – they might just earn me my meal today. Might.

“16.” He replies, smartly, running his hand through his hair. I smile: Hardly five feet tall, dressed in ‘torn’ jeans and a stripped-shirt reading “Rolls Royce”, he’s 12 at most. With sparkling eyes set above dirt and a mischievous smile, his hair is long, waist length and plaited.

He doesn’t go to school, he speaks four languages: none of them English.

“Do you like long hair? Isn’t it just for girls?” I quiz him further. “Wo Jackie Chan ka hai na?” He tells me, “uske lambe Baal hai, aise!”

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In Other Parts, trains are play for children

When I ask about his family and education, he shrugs and asks me if I want to buy some of his clips. I ask him where he gets them from. He smiles mischievously twisting his little pretzel-like body away, winking, “Kya didi?”

I laugh, gulp curiosity, and get myself to look at his clips. Little plastic things made to hold together women’s hair.

And these children’s lives.

The train stops at Lonavla station – Lonavla of samosas, chikkis and masala chai always smells divine. It also is the stop for Jhanvi (name changed) to board. She’s tinier than our Hero, who gallantly helps her in. That unnecessary song from Slumdog Millionaire threatens to play out in my head.

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When sold by children, becomes unappetizing.

They squeeze between the Veg Cutlet Walas and the sellers of chai, saving their bindis and polish for eager ladies. They leave their boxes in the women’s laps and scurry away – what if the women flick off a earring now that the little caretakers aren’t here, I wonder. But a silent trust exists, a code of “eeman” as the ladies consult each other’s choices for the red over blue.

Everything sells for Rs. 10.

Rs 10 for the fates of these children of the trains.

 

Jhanvi in a purple kurta, has unwashed hair dyed to red-brown: carefully tied with one of his clips. There’s a little flower pinned above it. Her neck has one of those plastic-gold necklaces. She doesn’t have the luxury of water and shampoo, but that doesn’t stop her from spending a careful minute each morning before some mirror shard hung somewhere, I imagine.

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Looking in I see mother, I see didi, with father lurking behind. Looking in I see the person I must be.

She says I should buy the red earrings. She tells me as I am fair it will suit my complexion, and shapes her hand into the sign for “waah”! Born to sway between chugging bogeys selling, she’s never been inside a school. Her home, her workplace, her temple is this train.

 

Last week, in conversation with a friend over chai and titbits, words turned to train tickets. “I never buy tickets for Ladies’ second class,” she said, “everyone travels without a ticket. Why should I pay eighty rupees on their behalf?” Unfair, I agree, complaining about the freeloaders. No ticket checking system exists. The locals’ don’t even have a gate. They practically ride for free.

They should definitely install gates, we conclude, our minds (practicable). Only those who pay should be allowed! “Trains are going to dogs!” We laugh.

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The laughter comes from Rekha and Hero leaning out of the train door now. I yell for them to come in. They do. And I am reminded of the word “dogs”.

 

Underdogs – monetary underdogs who have never seen the inside of a classroom, these children of the trains. Who, if such a gate comes up, with its ticket checkers and greasy-palmed watchmen, will be locked out on the other side with their plastic chips and their cheap nail polish; short-changed.

 

This is me, Madam Meow, hoping that the next station, shall bring Change.

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