Howra Station is on the quiet side at 7.38 a.m. A sheet of dust lies on the surface of Platform 13, and there, just under a sign for Horlicks (‘the Great Family Nourisher’), a pair of yellow birds peck and bounce in yesterday’s stomped chewing-gum. The people will come in a minute: the thousands of clerks on trains from the Calcutta suburbs, and dust will cover their shoes and the birds will scatter. But at 7.38 the station is quiet. Three small boys are sitting in the space between the tracks, their dirty limbs gathered round a fire of loose coals and plastic bottles. Together they are eating something. This is where they eat; this is where they live.
An hour later, in Rowland Road, on the other side of the river, a second group of boys are tucking in their white shirts. They too used to live in Howra Station, before being taken away and washed and given a bed and a place in the charity school on Rowland Road. Raju Bose, aged ten, has his hair in a neat side-parting; he can remember Howra Station, but nowadays he likes cricket and trigonometry and he doesn’t have any reason to cross the bridge. ‘OK,’ says a woman in a green sari. ‘Protocol says you must be standing up for the national anthem at the beginning and at the end.’
‘He came from a poor background and he built the nuclear rockets,’ says Raju.
‘Good,’ says the headmaster. ‘When you meet the President don’t be too afraid. Tell him your hopes for India.’
The driver of the school bus keeps his hand on the horn while he drives. The air is hot and it smells of diesel. Everyone on the road is fond of his horn and wreathed in diesel-heat just the same. At Maidan, when the traffic comes to a halt, our driver just switches off the engine and the boys laugh out the windows and wave to some soapy men who are washing themselves by the side of the road.
Deepak Sen is 16. His face is scarred down one side. I ask him if he is excited to be meeting the President of India. ‘It is a very great day,’ he says. Deepak leans in and tells me his story. When he was five, he was living with his mother near the Himalayas, and one night, while they slept under a mosquito net, someone kicked over a burning lamp and the net caught fire. His mother was wearing a flammable sari and the fire killed her. Deepak was burned down his left side. He says that no one ever came to collect him from the hospital. One day, months later, he wandered out of the hospital and got on a train. That’s how he ended up at Howra Station. A doctor tells me later that Deepak was wild when he lived in the space between the platforms. He sometimes walked on all fours; he would cry out and bite people. At first, when the man from the charity school talked him out of the station, he would only sit in a corner of the home at Rowland Road, eating what he was given, and even after months and years he would want to sleep on the floor, and would shout in the night, with no mosquito net to cover him.