Reeds in the wind
Shalini Rawat

Midway Station: Real-life Stories of Homeless Children
by Lara Shankar. Penguin. Rs 150. Pages: 99

Midway Station: Real-life Stories of Homeless ChildrenAccording to a report published by the United Nations, there are 150 million children aged three to 18 years on our streets today—and their numbers are growing fast. Some left the harsher realities of the place called ‘home’ on their own accord, some were abandoned, while the rest have known no other place but the pavements as their home since birth.

Living under the most unhygienic conditions, they often go without food and are defenceless against the vagaries of weather and are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Drugs, alcohol and ‘sex as play’ are their only pacifiers.

Lara Shankar has encouraged a few of these children living on railway platforms, to speak about their journeys from home to homelessness, their day-to-day struggle to survive, their trials and tribulations, their dreams and aspirations.

The economic reforms are unleashing an era of cut-throat competition, an intense new version of the survival of the fittest, weakening the social framework. This translates into little protection for people in general and none for children. Rather than being considered as society’s future and part of the productive process, this increasing class of homeless and defenceless uneducated outlaws is then perceived as ‘preying’ on the system to survive and a sheer economic liability for the society. As their numbers grow, public sympathy wanes and society’s backlash increases.

The author attempts to make us realise the most obvious cruelty we commit each day i.e. indifference to the world of the street child. From cleaning our car windows at busy road-crossings to the little rag-pickers in our back-lanes, we stubbornly chose to ignore to see the fear and pain in these kids’ eyes.

Candid (and I believe, very patient) conversations with these children have revealed that they are much more worldly wise than most kids their age. Having eaten from temples and gurudwaras alike, they are secular and deep inside believe a God exists. Mostly in conflict with law, they obviously abhor the ‘system’ that presumes them to be guilty until proved innocent.

Having to deal with money makes these children realise its worth very early on in life and rehab centres which stress on play and education are viewed as waste of time. A vocational course with some startup support may help. Since they are used to living an unfettered and adventurous, albeit dangerous life, getting them back to the mainstream is a challenge.

These touching narratives may provide institutions that run shelters for these kids, the counsellors, the government and the public new insights into what ails the social fabric of our country that forces our kids to paradoxically search for ‘shelter’ out in the ‘open’.