As we snaked along, our guide, Tabrez, stopped beside an egg merchant who was precariously cooking in the path on a portable gas ring — a triumph of balance and spatial ingenuity.
I was on a walking tour of the backstreets near Delhi's main railway station, an offbeat excursion arranged by a charity for street children. I had visited the city's greatest sights on other trips — the remarkable Humayun's Tomb (precursor to the Taj Mahal); the majestic 17th-century Red Fort; lovely Lodhi Gardens and more. Partly through fear of getting lost, mainly through apprehension about what I would encounter, I had shied away from exploring the other-world of India's capital. But now, with a small group shepherded by Tabrez, I had turned off a leafy New Delhi avenue and plunged into a densely populated web where extraordinary enterprise helps to alleviate extreme poverty.
It was undoubtedly vibrant, but the scenes in the Paharganj lanes were rendered a sideshow as we became absorbed in finding out about the world of the street children. Twenty years before Slumdog Millionaire moved global audiences, another director, Mira Nair, brought the plight of India's homeless children to the world's attention with Salaam Bombay, a compelling film about street kids, acted by street kids.
It was nominated for an Oscar and won three awards at the 1989 Montreal Film Festival. As we set out, Tabrez, a former street child himself, explained that with proceeds from the film, Nair and her mother, Praveen, set up the Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-profit organisation that supports street children through residential care, drop-in centres, healthcare and education. Since then, it has supported more than 50,000 children. In Delhi it operates five residential shelters and 11 day centres — and since 2005 it has organised city walks. Tabrez, now 20, trained as a guide just months before.
Tours start at Delhi's Rail Reservation Centre on Chelmsford Road. Every morning, workers bring children found newly arriving in the city to the charity's station office. The children get health checks and, if possible, are taken back home or to a shelter.
From here, the tour went to a backstreet refuge, via tiny bazaars, a potters' market, temples and video shops. Along the way, Tabrez paused to add intriguing insights. Around the corner from the egg man he pointed to a series of tiles along a wall, each painted with a religious symbol. "They've been put there to create greater sanitation," he told me. We were non-plussed.
We entered the stairwell of a corner building and climbed to the fourth floor where a large apartment is now one of the trust's refuges for boys. Some had been painting; others were in a school room that doubles as a dormitory. They clustered around us, showing off and fooling around. Noticeboards outlined the achievements of recent leavers such as Nitish, who works for Delhi's metro, while Faizal pursues dreams of Bollywood and has acted in a movie.
Tabrez acknowledged, as he escorted us through the tangle of alleys back to the main road, that the trust helps only a tiny number. But it's been the saving of many — like him. We said our goodbyes; it had been a profoundly inspiring tour. And with that he disappeared back into the passageways, past a pop-up barber shaving his client in the open air.
(Harriet O'Brien/The Independent)