It’s 10am. Tabrez, wearing blue jeans and a dark blue T-shirt, is ready to take a group of foreigners on a walk through the dark, narrow alleys around the New Delhi railway station and in the Paharganj area. The tour, called City Walk, which starts at the railway reservation centre on Chelmsford Road, aims to give glimpses into the lives of street children in the Capital.
“The tour gives an insight into how these children came to be on the streets and how they survive against all odds,” says Tabrez in English. Ask the 20-year-old what qualifies him to lead a walk of this kind and he says, “I have lived this life myself and make it a point to share my personal history with the tourists.”
As a child in Bihar’s Sitamarhi, Tabrez would often ask his mother about his father but never get an answer. Once, his mother travelled to Delhi, wedded and returned to her village with her new husband. Tabrez took an instant dislike to the man, and fled his home.
With that began his life as a runaway child. He came to the New Delhi railway station and began work as a rag picker. He would rummage through heaps of garbage looking for things to sell to a recycling shop in Paharganj. He would eat at a gurdwara and a Hanuman temple at Connaught Place and spend the nights on railway station platforms, road dividers and pavements. It was not always easy to keep his money safe as the station was in the territory of “gang leaders”, often older rag pickers who would lord over new arrivals and even sexually abuse some. “Thankfully, I never had to suffer at their hands,” he says.
Six months on, he came across a Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) “contact point”, from where a social worker took him to the NGO’s main shelter in Paharganj. “Initially, I did not like the place and wanted to run away because I missed the freedom I enjoyed on the streets. But the promise of education and a better future held me back,” says Tabrez, who use only one name.
The SBT, which works for street children, got him admitted in a government school near the shelter. He started loving his new life and school and topped Classes 1, 2 and 3. He was then promoted to Class 6 after a test. He passed Class 12 in 2010 and is now working for a BCom degree through correspondence from Delhi University.
Last year, he shifted out of the SBT’s shelter, where he had spent 13 years, and moved into a rented house in Paharganj. He also started working part-time as a guide for City Walk, a tour organised by the SBT that has found mention in Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Recently, he joined a course in travel and tourism at a private institute in Connaught Place, thanks to a scholarship from the Central Queensland University, Australia.
“My classmates at the institute are good friends. They, however, are not aware of my background,” says Tabrez, who is yet to get in touch with his parents. “I am trying to find my mother, though I am not interested in my father,” he says.
Little about Tabrez suggests he ever lived on the streets: he seems shy, is well groomed and speaks softly, interspersing conversations with sentences in English.
Tabrez loves music and movies. His favourite songs? “I like John Lennon’s Oh My Love, and Jagjit Singh’s Hoton Se Chulo Tum. I love soft, sentimental music.”
Tabrez likes reading Chetan Bhagat. “I have just finished reading Revolution 2020, though it did not interest me much. The Panchatantra are all-time favourites,” he says.
Once a week, Tabrez indulges himself at the McDonalds in Connaught Place and watches movies at Sheila. He wants to buy a house in Delhi and is saving what he can from the R5,500 he gets as a City Walk guide. On girlfriends and marriage plans, Tabrez blushes and says: “No, I do not have a girlfriend. I am not sure if any girl would ever want to marry me because of my background. As of now, marriage is not on my mind,” he says.
A trip to the US for higher studies in tourism and hospitality, however, is definitely on his mind. This is something he got interested in after working as a City Walk guide.
“I hope to get a scholarship. Some of the boys whom I grew up with at the shelter have been to the US and are doing well. This gives me hope. I have chosen the hospitality industry as I love interacting with people from various countries. Besides, I want to see the world. I want to fly,” says Tabrez.