Show Hide image

India's runaway boys

Hundreds of children live in a cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in a railway station in Kolkata

Six years ago, Sheikh Alamgir ran away from home. He was seven years old. The Sealdah railway station in Kolkata has been his home ever since. He is not alone. More than 500 children live within the precincts of the city’s second-largest railway terminus, surviving through begging, petty theft or hawking goods on the platforms. Most of what money they earn is spent on drugs (heroin or cocaine usually) or else on tubes of Dendrite, an industrial adhesive that is a particular favourite with the children at Sealdah. (It is estimated that between 100,000 and 125,000 children live on the streets and railway stations of India’s major cities, and that more than half of them have some form of drug addiction.)

Alamgir’s body clock is synchronised with the rail timetable. Most of the trains that come into the station are short-distance suburban commuter services. But his preferred quarry is the long-distance trains that terminate here, and which can be scavenged for leftover food and empty water bottles once the carriages have emptied.

For Alamgir and his friends, the working day begins around 10.30 am, which is when the Rajdhani Express arrives in Sealdah from Delhi. Until then, the children are largely invisible, sleeping on top of cornices, under staircases and in other neglected corners of the station.

If the day’s pickings have been good, there will be an impromptu feast. Any additional money made from selling the empty water bottles or picking a few pockets is used to buy drugs and glue.

The first time we met Alamgir, he was hunched over a drawing book at a cramped drop-in centre run by the Mukti Rehabilitation Trust, not far from the station. The Rajdhani had been delayed that day, so he and his friends had been late finishing “work”. While Alamgir drew, other boys played carrom or ludo. He looked younger than anybody else in the room, but he was highly assertive and burned with a fierce sense of entitlement. When someone else got an extra biscuit, he was quick to demand one for himself, and he thought nothing of upsetting the carrom board if he sensed he was losing. On another occasion, he ganged up with an older boy, Abhijit, to loot the biscuits left over from the day’s tiffin.

Violence arrives suddenly and frequently here, and most of the boys were nursing an injury of some sort. Nonetheless, in the midst of it all, a kind of solidarity endures. The night before we met him, Alamgir had stayed up to attend to Abhijit, who had been bitten by a dog. And whenever a boy is in trouble, the others will rally round.

The boys take great pride in cultivating a wild and abusive machismo, partly as a protection against what they have to live with. They will have witnessed casual violence daily and will, in many cases, have suffered sexual abuse, sometimes as a kind of initiation by older boys, and sometimes at the hands of petty criminals or even the police.

More than a hundred girls live in Sealdah, too. Alamgir introduced us to a group of them, aged between ten and 17. They generally regard strangers with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, but are highly protective of the younger boys. Later, however, Alamgir told us that one of these girls had robbed him of 500 rupees when he fell asleep as they were watching a film together. Many of the girls have sex with the boys or are raped, and messy pregnancies are common. And, like the boys, most of the girls take drugs and sniff glue.

There is a thriving market in narcotics in Sealdah. Dendrite, which is widely used, is freely available over the counter in most shops. A small tube costs only seven rupees. Harder drugs are sold clandestinely throughout the station, though you need to know where to look. Unlike many boys of his age, who tend to stick to Dendrite, Alamgir smokes, sniffs and snorts whatever he can lay his hands on. He washes irregularly, believing that having a bath brings you down prematurely from your high.

To try to understand why Alamgir loses himself in drugs like this, we headed 60km north of Kolkata, to his home village of Tyantra. His parents are now estranged. Alamgir and his seven brothers and two sisters spent their childhood watching their alcoholic father regularly beat their mother in rage and frustration at his lot. Today, the father survives on casual work helping carpenters or stonemasons. His wife, who left him five years ago, works in a factory packaging prawns.

It is only when he meets his mother that Alamgir’s mask slips and he shows some emotion. She lives with his grandmother a few kilometres away, and has remarried, though Alamgir does not seem to hold this against her. Nor does he worry that his mother appears to be neglecting her youngest son, seven-year-old Abdullah.

Abdullah cried bitterly and clung to his brother as Alamgir began to prepare to leave the place he is no longer able to call home. Alamgir looked discomfited and fidgety at this outburst, and as soon as they reached the car, he and his friend Abhijit pulled out rags smeared with Dendrite and started puffing on them vigorously, as if to obliterate the temporary intrusion of unfamiliar feelings. By the time we reached

Sealdah, however, Alamgir seemed to have gained his equilibrium. It was dark already, and he and Abhijit disappeared into the night.

Nights here are dangerous. Because of his puny frame, Alamgir is roughed up more regularly than most, though his unprepossessing physique works to his advantage when the police descend upon the station and round up a number of boys, charging them with petty crimes. Most of his friends, especially the older ones, have been beaten up in police custody, though much of the physical harm suffered in Sealdah is self-inflicted. Many of the children here have the horrors of life in the station carved on their forearms, self-harm being common among the addicts.

After returning from Tyantra, Alamgir announced that he would leave Sealdah and go back to help his mother, running her fried snack stall while she went off to work at the prawn factory. The very next day, however, he was back at the carrom board at the drop-in centre, having just made a couple of hundred rupees by picking the pocket of a commuter.

In 1994, the Indian government developed a master plan for combating substance abuse. That plan focused on the establishment of treatment and rehabilitation centres, training in substance abuse for primary care doctors and other medical personnel, education programmes and collaboration with NGOs. There are more than 300 counselling centres for drug-abuse prevention across the country.

Yet the cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in places such as Sealdah has proved stubbornly resistant to government intervention. More than drop-in centres and counselling, what children in Alamgir’s situation need is to be persuaded that another kind of life is possible. And that will be difficult: they have seen and suffered too much to believe that adults will ever be serious about delivering them from what they have come to accept as their fate.

Photographs by Arindam Mukherjee

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
Show Hide image

How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle