Bilal acts as my guide as I drive through the jam-packed streets of Saddar. When we reach Daudpota Road he asks me to head towards ‘Laal Farsh’ (Red Floor).
I must have looked confused, because he stops, laughs, and then corrects himself: “I meant Hong Kong Shopping Plaza”.
Bilal has spent eight years on the street, and has spent this entire time fighting for his survival: food, shelter and societal predators are just some of the things that he has to look out for on a daily basis. He is 18 years old now, and works for an NGO that helps street children. But, he says “old habits die hard”.
The street children are completely alienated from mainstream society, as the mainstream society has alienated itself from them. They have their own form of communication, their own process of identification, their own culture.
City landmarks are given names based on their personal interactions and understanding of the place—their reality is largely defined by the social and personal context through which they interact with the external world.
For them Zainab Market is ‘Thanda Garam’ (hot and cold), as there are shops with generators and shops with out them. As they walk around the corridors of the market, they can feel a significant change in temperature as they flit from one shop to another, hence the name Hot and Cold.
They call Bolton Market ‘Daal Chawal’, because the place is known for its ‘langar’, free food distributed among the poor.
Then there is Kala Pul, where they get Biryani for just seven rupees. They call it ‘7 ki biryani’.
The older lot, who have been introduced to mainstream society, often laugh when they look back in retrospect. Tanveer, an 18-year-old who has lived on the street since he was six, chuckles: “For a very long time our little gang had no idea that clothes could be washed. When our clothes got dirty we would just throw them away and steal fresh clothes.”
Drugs are a norm for them—they do it for recreation, but maintain that “a little bit does no harm”. But when they are caught red-handed using such substances, they seem unable to hide the fact that it makes them lose their senses. “I just woke up from a deep sleep,” says a six-year-old child, whose head bobs like a helium balloon tied to a string. His friends tell me that he just sniffed a large amount of Samad Bond.
But with awareness campaigns by the civil society, glue has become hard to access for these street children.
They stick together for survival and fend for each other, often forming groups of four or more. They give these groups names like ‘Chota Group’ and ‘Cheeta Group’, and assign each member with a job.
Tanveer, who once headed the Chota Group, shares how they would all care for each other like a family. “Each of us had a task, I would clean cars, and every day we would gather our money together and decide what to do with it. Those were good times, Rs250 were all we needed for a day,” he says with a smile. He harkens back to when he was fourteen, when political workers from the area captured and lashed him. “When I came back I was bleeding profusely from the cuts. My friends lit a fire from tree branches and used the fire to keep my back warm overnight. They took turns, and fed me for five days, till I had the strength to stand up.” He pauses, and then adds: “They cared for me, like a mother for her child.”