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.

When the bus arrives at Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s palace, the President has yet to arrive, and 18 different officials and policeman squabble about our passes. ‘The President is just like us,’ says Sheikh Abdul, aged 12. ‘He doesn’t keep good time.’

Raju turns to him. ‘Hey, Abdul. What do we call him?’

‘Your Excellency,’ says Deepak.

‘No, no. Just Doctor,’ says Abdul.

The boys are led through the extraterrestrial whiteness of the palace, passing giant vases of flowers and busts of the Roman emperors, before climbing a wide and elaborate staircase to the Brown Room. Off to one side of the room there is a balcony, and daylight creeps in from the open doors. Three chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

‘The President’s hair is cool,’ says Tapan Das, aged 11. Tapan is the only one of the four not wearing a white shirt; earlier that morning he had taken a sweatshirt out of a box of donated clothes in Rowland Road. Across the front it says ‘Caesar’s Palace’.

‘What if he asks you a question?’ says Raju.

‘Just answer him,’ says Tapan.

‘What if it’s a science question?’ asks Abdul.

‘Yes,’ I say, butting in. ‘What about that? What if he asks you to tell him the formula for photosynthesis?’

Deepak rolls his eyes. ‘That’s easy.’

‘So easy,’ says Tapan.

There are a few dozen other children here to see the President. Like the Rowland Road boys, they are asked to remove their shoes and socks when they enter the Brown Room. ‘Don’t sneeze!’ shouts the headmistress of the Nav Jyoti School. And then: ‘Please. If you want the toilet then you must go now.’ The walls are covered in old tapestries of dragons.

‘How do you know the difference between a Tibetan and a Chinese dragon?’ says Abdul.

‘A Tibetan has four fingers on its claw,’ says Deepak, ‘and a Chinese has five.’

Abdul grew up about three miles north of Calcutta. His mother and he were left destitute when his father fell out of a coconut tree and died, and when his mother got a new husband there was no place for Abdul. He says he was beaten and put out. When he was living at Howra Station he had scabies and worms; he was anaemic and very thin. The hair on his head stopped growing because he was living on chewing-gum. It was the other boys in the station who took him to the home. ‘Uncle, please take him,’ they said. ‘He will not survive much longer if he stays at Howra Station.’

The children are now in single file, ready to go to the ballroom. ‘I think the stories of Tagore are very nice,’ says Abdul. ‘The one called “The Postmaster", you know? The man has to leave his servant and she begs him to take her with him. He says, “here is some money,” and she goes on her knees again and begs him not to offer her money.’

The other three play a subtle game of kicking one another’s heels and giggling as they wait to move forward. ‘Remember to be pleasant and answer the President nicely,’ says a teacher from the Loreto School, speaking to all the children as they leave the room. At the top of the stairs hangs a portrait of Queen Alexandra. ‘An English queen,’ says one of the boys.

‘Danish, actually,’ says Tapan.

Tapan Das’s mother lived in the weaving village of Shantipur. She became pregnant when very young, and when Tapan was two, he was denounced as illegitimate and abandoned outside the village. An old woman took pity on him and took him home, but her own family could not bear the scandal and she too was banished. She brought him up in a shed by the road, but one day, when he was eight, he ran away and got on a train and ended up at Howra Station. People say he was never liked there; he was a loner who would go down to the Hoogly River each morning to wash.

Tapan takes his eyes from the portrait and tells me he can still remember the old woman. ‘I went back to find her not long ago,’ he says, ‘and she had become a sadhu, a female holy person, and now she lives by begging. It is very bad. She said to me: “I gave you my life and you have killed me, Tapan.”’

Music is played, and the President, Dr Abdul Kalam, comes into the ballroom and sits on a gold throne. The Governor of West Bengal is on his right, the Governor’s wife on his left, and further along is Sister Cyril, who runs the Loreto School and is thought by many to be the new Mother Teresa. ‘Since I came in I have only seen smiles on your faces,’ the President says, ‘and I thought I must find out how you can smile, so I ask Sister Cyril: how are these children smiling?’

Sister Cyril speaks in a broad Irish accent. ‘All our children are brought up in sincerity, freedom and love,’ she says. The President pushes back his long grey hair, raises his white eyebrows and smiles. ‘We believe that our job is not to show the world the state of the present but the possibilities of the future,’ he says. Then he beckons the four boys from Rowland Road and indicates that one should stand up. ‘What do you want to do after 12th class?’ he says.

‘I want to be an artist,’ says Raju.

‘Very beautiful,’ says the President. ‘And you?’ Abdul stands up.

‘I want to be an engineer,’ he says.

‘Whatever character is there,’ says the President, ‘whatever condition, the waterlily emerges from the water. You want to become an engineer, a pilot, a governor, a president? If you dream, you defeat the problem. What do you defeat?’

‘The problem!’ shouts Abdul.

‘Say after me: “Dream!”’

‘Dream,’ says Abdul.

‘Dream! All of you,’ says the President.

‘Dream,’ say Abdul, Tapan, Raju and Deepak.

‘What is the message today?’ the President asks. Raju stands up again and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘Sir, unless we dream we cannot succeed in life.’

‘That is right,’ says the President.

A girl stands up and says that she would like to have enough money to open a shop. ‘Then I think my future would go quite nicely,’ she says.

‘That is right.’

A musical group begin a slow rendition of three songs by Tagore. They all wear white nylon shirts, and the boy standing in front of me, holding up a violin, is wearing a T-shirt underneath. The two words printed on the back of the T-shirt are showing faintly through the nylon: ‘Security Police’. The President leans on the arm of his chair, rests his chin on his hand and looks a little impatiently into the amateur bustle of the Tagore songs.

The boys are great fans of the President’s autobiography, Wings of Fire, where he writes of his own great dream:

If we did not have the technological might of the Western countries, we knew we had to attain that might, and this determination was our driving force, to draw up a clear and well-defined missile development programme . . . I expected nothing from abroad . . . The emergence of India as a self-reliant country in the field of guided missiles upset all the developed nations of the world, but innovation cannot be suppressed by international restrictions . . . On the night of 15 January 1991, the Gulf War broke out between Iraq and the Allied Forces led by the USA. In one stroke, thanks to satellite television invading Indian skies by that time, rockets and missiles captured the imagination of the entire nation. People started discussing Scuds and Patriots in coffee houses and tea shops. Children began flying paper kites shaped like missiles . . . Let the latent fire in the heart of every Indian acquire wings, and the glory of this great country light up the sky.

When the music is finished the President stands up, claps his hands together and bows to the children. They all smile back. When the President leaves the ballroom, Raju Bose shuffles behind his friends. ‘There shouldn’t have been so much music,’ he says. ‘I caught the President’s eye and he wasn’t enjoying it very much.’

‘It’s not that,’ says one of the teachers. ‘He just likes to spend as much time as possible talking to all of you, the children.’

Raju is approached by a reporter from the Statesman. She asks him to repeat what he said to the President and say how he felt when the President spoke to him. ‘I’m shaking,’ says Raju. ‘I can’t remember what I said.’

Raju leaves the reporter and goes to stand at a long window. He looks down on the palace lawns and says he admires the turning arcs of water shooting up from the sprinklers. When I ask him his story, Raju says he remembers his uncle who drove a lorry. Every night, when Raju was about four, the uncle had to drive out to the suburbs of Calcutta to deliver goods, and he would leave Raju at the station until the work was done. ‘He used to come back and get me in the morning and then one day he just never came back. You just had to get used to life in Howra Station.’

Beside the stairs there’s a table carrying a pile of orange boxes: Ganguram’s Eggless Cakes & Pastry. Each child takes a box and begins to eat the sweets as he moves up the stairs. ‘He looked wise, the President,’ Deepak Sen says. ‘He knows everything about rockets.’

‘He used to live in a small house,’ Sheikh Abdul says. ‘Now he lives in the biggest house in the country.’

‘His hair is cool,’ Tapan Das says.

The Brown Room is white now with daylight coming from the balcony. The doors are open still wider than before, and you can hear the bedlam of horns coming up from Dalhousie Square. ‘Our shoes,’ says Raju Bose, and the children sprint off in their bare feet to find their shoes at the far end of the room. When they shake out their socks and bang their shoes together, you can see miniature clouds of dust rising to the chandeliers.

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