The Lost Girl on the Train

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The Lost Girl on the Train

Illustration: Saachi Mehta

W

hen Iqra fled her hostel in Panchgani, she didn’t know that her life was about to change.

Iqra was packed off to a small, dingy boarding school after Class V, since the village she lived in near Indore had no higher education. She missed her family terribly. One day she decided that she would go back to Ammi. So in the dead of the night, she silently got out of her bed, collected all the pocket money she had saved up, and ran to catch a train.

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She hopped on to one happily and watched the stations go by. After a few hours had passed, she asked a friendly-looking lady when her village, Sivani, would come. That’s when she found out that she wasn’t headed toward Ammi’s loving arms. Not anytime soon at least. Iqra had been too elated at the prospect of seeing her parents that she hadn’t noticed she was boarding the wrong train.

Fellow passengers advised her to alight at Mumbai, the last stop, and take a train from there. As soon as she got off, she ran to the station master’s office and asked him when she could board the next train to her village.
It would only be the day after. She would have to spend the night at the station.

That’s where she bumped into Shafiq, a railway worker, who whisked her away to a seedy hotel room near the railway station. After his job was done, he put her back on the train to make her way in the world.

Iqra’s destiny could have taken her to darker places had it not been for one commuter who had taken note of the crying child and led her to Shobha.

***

Close to 8,000 runaway children have been found at railway stations in Mumbai since 2006, most of them between 10-15 years old. Some are running from abusive families, others have left looking for work, and a few others just want to meet Shah Rukh Khan.

You’ve probably seen one at some point – a waif-thin kid lost in a crowd or huddled up in a corner. You’ve probably walked away. It isn’t just you, the police have often walked away too. Very few people actually ask the children their story.

None of us want to get involved in the complicated, often-heartbreaking lives of the children stranded on our roads and railways.

I remember the time a child boarded my compartment with only one shoe on, crying loudly. Nobody seemed even mildly moved by his tears. In between sips of water and deep sobs, he told me he had been separated from his mother. He hadn’t run away. I took him to the constable on duty, who promised to ensure the child reached home safely. As I was walking toward the skywalk, however, the boy came running back to me. The constable had asked him to get lost as soon as I’d left.

None of us want to get involved in the complicated, often-heartbreaking lives of the children stranded on our roads and railways. They’re victims of problems too deep-rooted for us to address. So we look away.

Runaway kids have fled from real homes with real parents, but in the process lost their paths back forever. Trains are the easiest option for ticketless, panicky travellers – they’re constantly on the move, provide shelter, and rarely have anyone checking tickets. Once the children board these trains, they join the millions of destitute people already living on the streets. They are also vulnerable to predators like Shafiq, who keep a hawk eye to exploit the many children that come off the trains every day.

Occasionally, however, the gods smile upon these lost children. A kindly commuter will lead them to a kindly constable who will take them to the green makeshift tent where Childline India operates at most railway stations.
After the devil had had his turn with her, that’s exactly what happened to Iqra.

Iqra was found crying on a Dadar-bound train by a woman commuter who chose not to walk away. Noticing the weeping girl in torn clothes, the commuter immediately took her to the constable at the next station, where Childline India was called. On the other side of the line was Shobha, a curly-haired Maharashtrian woman with a large, friendly face. Shobha’s first instinct in these cases is usually to first ensure the child is fed, has had a proper bath, and is given fresh clothes. Later they would have plenty of time to talk.

Iqra took time to open up to Shobha. When she eventually did, she told the Childline volunteer about Shafiq. Over the next few weeks, a crack team was engaged with the help of the Railway Police Force to find this man. The force’s video team scrubbed the security footage at the railway station, and Shafiq was tracked down.

For the next couple of years, Shafiq’s case argued. During this period, Iqra stayed and studied at a children’s home in Mumbai. A year and a half from the day Iqra got lost, Shafiq was convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail.

Shobha emerged victorious at the end of this period. She knows that that not all cases have happy endings like Iqra’s. There are millions of children who are never found and millions who never get justice. But every happy ending gives Shobha’s life meaning. And every happy ending begins with that one commuter who chose not to walk away.

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