Friday, May 11, 2012

Howrah Train Station

Train platforms crowded with people quickly come into sight as the local train begins to screech to a stop. Without thinking, I cup my hands around my ears to minimize the screeching that is ringing within my ear drums. Women stand up abruptly to gather their purses and children before shoving one another out the small door onto the train platform. The yelling begins as I try to keep my balance despite the constant pushing and shoving. Finally, I am able to squeeze my body out the little door of the train onto the platform. Immediately, I am engulfed in a sea of people as I try to manuever my way through the millions of people making up the mass crowd. I anxiously glance behind me to make sure my friend, Laura and our translator, Mithu is right behind me. Before I am able to grab Laura’s hand, an Indian man shoves me forward as he is rushing to catch another local train. His briefcase and handbag knock me into another older Indian man dressed in traditional attire. An angry woman behind me yells something in Hindi as she violently grabs her young son who is screaming profusely. Gripping a hold of my over the shoulder purse, I secure my hand on the zipper to make sure no child tries to pickpocket me. I brace myself for the excursion through the massive mob.   Men balancing huge bags (full of bottles and supplies) on their heads brush past me as they hurry to their destination. It looks like their necks are about to snap because of the weight they are balancing with their hands. Business men, dozens of school children, and anxious families surround me on all sides as everyone is rushing. I strain to hear the programmed train arrival and departure times as they are announced over loud speakers.  The havoc at Howrah Train station has definitely began. We hurriedly make our way through the train station bombarded with people. Mithu motions to me to make a quick dash through the opposing people traffic. As I do so, I count to three as Laura and I take a deep breath and push our way through. As we reach the other side, we let out a sigh of relief and step out onto the busy street. Taxis are honking constantly as taxi drivers are yelling trying to sell rides to exhausted passengers. We quickly look both ways to make sure there is no immediate traffic and then make a dash across the hectic street. Finally, we step foot into another train platform that is a little less hectic then the first one. Immediately, a stench of rotting garbage, human and animal feces, urine and rotting fish fill my nose. Garbage and feces cover the train tracks which are considered the universal bathroom in India. There is no such thing as garbage bins so trash is thrown and left wherever. Urine trickles through the cracks of the concrete platforms making its way to the railway tracks. Peering to the right I see a mother stripping off the pants of her young son as she squats him over the barrier of the train tracks to help him go to the bathroom.  As I glance around the train platform, hundreds of men, women and children are scattered on the concrete floor. Some are lying on straw mats but others are sprawled out on the filthy concrete. Families are gathered in circles on their mats scarfing down snacks and chugging water.  I look beside me to see an older mother sitting on the ground as her daughter stands behind her, discreetly picking lice from her matted, unwashed hair.  Both of their bodies are clothed in tattered, soiled outfits. The moment we exited the local train is when we started the 2 hour prayer walk through the station. Men and boys from ages five to their fifties are passed out along the platforms. Some have only a little bit of clothing on as they are passed out on the concrete. To my right I see a boy probably nine years old sprawled out-his hands clenched a rag reeking of glue to his mouth. As I step closer to ensure he was still breathing, I immediately notice deep razor cuts on his arms and legs. His arms and legs were gaunt revealing only a bony structure. Nothing could hide the depression and traumatizing life this boy had been living.   As we continued to walk through the station, my eyes caught a woman strewn out on a dirty, straw mat while her half naked baby was lying by her side. The baby almost lay motionless as it lay next to her-nursing at her chest. The dad sat cross legged next to her while smoking a cigarette. Their few belongings were scattered around them. I extended my hand towards them and muttered a quiet prayer over them. About an hour later, our team walked by this family again and this time both the mother and father were fast asleep on the mat.  I noticed that the baby was not in between them. In fact, six feet away, I saw the baby girl sitting with her bare bottom on the contaminated concrete. Her short course hair stuck up in all directions and her body was splattered with dirt. The only article of clothing that covered her body was a soiled, tattered shirt. Unlit matches were scattered around her fragile body. With her delicate but dirty hand, she tried picking up a match that was lying next to her.  Silently, she lifted her head to see if her mother was watching. Examining the matches circling her body, she turned herself onto her tummy to crawl on all fours.  With the little strength she had left, she crawled over to where her mother was sleeping on the mat. Her tiny fingers began to caress her mother’s face in a motion to wake her up. Even with the touch of the baby’s hands, the mother didn’t move. Again, the anxious child began to bang her little head on her mother’s head in order to wake her. At that moment, Mithu called out to me and broke my concentration on this child’s desire to be shown affection. Mithu then motioned for me and Laura to follow her to another part of the station. My heart broke at what I had just witnessed. This is just one of the many pictures I can paint for you with words but even words cannot describe the events that I witness every time we do our prayer walk at Howrah Train Station.