[Reader-list] "Dabbu kaavaala?": Interview notes from Vijayawada Railway Station

Meera Pillai mpillai65 at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 15 15:16:16 IST 2005

Rayanna says he's ten years old, but size-wise, he
looks barely seven.  Thin, he has a small face like an
upside-down drop, with bright eyes and a brighter
smile.  He sits beside me on one of the shiny
hexagonal black granite seats on Platform 1, sketching
the station from his perspective.  The seats are built
around several of the iron pillars that prop up the
silver-painted corrugated iron and clear fibreglass
roof of the platform.  When he's done, he stands in
front of me and hops from one foot to another as I ask
him questions - not impatiently, but barely containing
the energy in his little body.

Originally from Eluru, he has been at Vijayawada
railway station for about two months now.  Why did yu
leave?  "My father died, and my mother married again. 
My stepfather used to beat me.  So I left."  How come
you decided to get off at Vijayawada, rather than any
of the other stations?  "I was travelling on the train
from Eluru.  I met another boy on the train.  He told
me to get off at Vijayawada.  He said there was a
hostel there that helped boys like us.  So I got off,
and one of the "akkas" who works on the platform took
me to the hostel."  You can stay at the hostel, and
they'll look after you and you can go to school and so
on, how come you came back to the station?  "The
people at the hostel are really nice, but you can't
get money there.  So I came back to the station.  I
still go back to the hostel to sleep, and eat there

What do you do at the station?  "I sweep the trains." 
He gestures with his little palm-leaf broom.  "I only
come to the station in the morning.  I come after
breakfast at the hostel, stay till about 11:30 - 12. 
I only pay attention to two trains - the Cochin and
the Howrah.  I only work on them."  He tosses his head
cockily, dismissing the other trains as unworthy of
his notice.  Why is that?  "There are lots of rich
people on those trains.  They give me money and food. 
I go back to the hostel after that, eat, play carroms
and watch TV in the evening, eat dinner and sleep."

How much money do you make?  "Thirty, forty, fifty." 
That's a lot of money.  Will you give me some?"  He
invokes the parental authority that he has left
behind, saying firmly,"My mother has told me I
shouldn't give money to anyone."  He reaches into his
pocket and brings out a neat stash of one-rupee coins,
clinking them backwards and forwards on his litttle
palm.  That's a lot of money, I say again.  Surely you
can give me some?  His face softens.  With a
questioning upward intonation to his voice, he asks me
gently, "Dabbu kaavaala?"  There's something
exceedingly poignant in the seriousness in his voice
as he checks whether this woman, twice his size,
thrice his weight and four times his age really needs
financial support from him.  I shake my head, laying
my palm against his cheek.

Rayanna is wearing a pair of long trousers in dark
suiting material that are a perfect fit, though grimy
and missing the critical top button or hook - he has
tucked in the ends of the waistband at his twelve inch
waist like one would a dhoti.  His upper body is bare,
in deference to the 40 degree plus Vijayawada summer
heat.  Didnt the folks at the hostel give you other
clothes?  "As soon as I got there, I got a set, but
after that I didn't bother.  There's no point.  They
get dirty when I clean the trains."

There are so many people around in the station - how
do they deal with you?  Rayanna's friend, Surya Raja
Rao, twelve years old, who has also been chatting with
me, answers, "They beat you.  The police especially,
but almost any adult."  "They don't beat me.  Nobody
beats me," Rayanna says proudly.  He is so slight, so
bright, it would be difficult to dredge up sufficient
animosity against this little chap to carry it through
to a corporal conclusion, but that is likely to change
as he grows older and bigger, if he continues here. 
He holds his body in mock-respectful stiffness, a foot
held forward at a ridiculous angle to rob the posture
of any possibility of seriousness.  He raises his hand
to his forehead in a seeming salute - "I just salute
them and get on my way."  And just in case I didn't
get the full dramatic effect, he repeats the gesture,
and then actually gets on his way, breaking into a
skip and a run. 

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