Howrah Station

9 November 2007

Howrah Station, Kolkata. Bengal’s hub of trade and travel; more than one million passengers tread its platforms daily. Platforms whose inhabitants rarely see 20 years of age. Girls are, disconcertingly, almost entirely absent.

18 years ago, the sight of these children – as young as four, collecting rubbish for their food and six, inhaling solvents – was too much for one man. Tim Grandage was enjoying a successful career with HSBC bank when he allowing these boys to begin living in his home, jeopardising his career . Little did he know that the ultimatum his employer gave him was to trigger not only the end of his life as he knew it, but the beginning of a whole new world of hope for the children of Kolkata.

He founded an organisation, Future Hope, whose determination and vision has since turned around the lives of literally hundreds of Kolkata’s street children. From their humble beginnings on the floor of a one bedroom flat, they now run a school, offering an education not only to those lucky enough to be rescued but to the surrounding community as well. The boys trek for a week in the Himalayas each year to raise money, and for six months this year, I was lucky enough to be part of it.

It took three months of living and working at the charity before Laura, Mary and I were considered ready to visit the station; on the night of the 17th April, that time finally came. We started by wandering down the tracks, the only light coming from the headlights of the trains. Concentrating desperately on not getting human excrement between our toes, we tried our best to remember to look up and take in the unreal atmosphere around us.

Thinking back on it now it feels like a dream – the sinister surroundings, the overpowering stench, the surreal way in which the people were acting. I didn’t feel scared, amazed, anything particularly extreme; it was just grim, and it wasn’t until we got back that the severity of that grimness really hit me. The other two were affected far worse, however – Mary was sick three times when we got home.

The smell of fish was the first to hit us, slowly blending with urine and shit, but then this other one took over. It was so putrid it was actually frightening and as I was trying to work out what it was – perhaps vomit mixed in with all of the above – it dawned on me; it was the glue.

We passed numerous sleeping figures – hanging out of disused trains, lying rigid beneath railway arches – before we came across a small gathering. Amongst the group was a girl – about my age and beautiful – and with her were three men, perhaps a year or so older. We sat down a little way off and they came reeling over. They were extremely friendly and fascinated by us white girls . The girl proceeded to teach us a game involving clapping hands, which made no sense at all, as one of the boys’ eyes rolled back and forth in his head.

The reason we’d gone to the station was to look for a boy called Raja – only about 9 – who had recently run away. As they hadn’t seen him we moved on, wandering the station and its surroundings for two and a half hours in total. We came across many of the same sights, talking to them as we went, only involving younger and younger kids. One boy we saw actually inhaling solvents through his little rag could only have been about six or seven. Another, dancing around us with his bulging eyes, was a former Future Hope boy. He didn’t seem to have any wish to come back anymore.

I only had to go through such a harrowing experience once, but for these boys this was life. Raja has still not been found and unfortunately his case is only one example of what is a constant battle for this charity. That night I was told how it is now almost impossible to take on any boy past the age of ten, since they will inevitably already be in the grasp of drug addiction. Anil, 12, has been put through rehab more times than he cares to remember but somehow Howrah will always draw him back. The older station boys, understanding themselves to be beyond hope, will instead point out to us newcomers, those whose life has not yet abandoned them.

That night, although we didn’t find Raja, we did come back with a new boy called Ram. He was only 6 or 7, yet his voice sounded like a lawnmower starting up – a pretty sure sign that solvents had already found him – he had a tattoo, and I instantly fell in love. To think that little Ram could grow up to scholarships not only to the best schools and universities of Kolkata, but worldwide; to a high flying job; to a family – or perhaps just live past 25 – is almost too much to contemplate. I could never have believed how much the grit and devotion of one man could achieve. With the help of others, the possibilities are endless.