Parveen Khatoon has the power of invisibility.
Inside the 1.30 pm Krishnanagar local from Sealdah, in a train full of dozing college students, domestic helps and suburban housewives out on shopping trips, no one has time for a 12-year-old gaunt girl begging for alms. Her pink panda t-shirt, her tight braid, her flower-printed harem pants, everything blends with the background. All that remains is a voice. Loud, high-pitched and melancholic: “Garibon ki suno, woh tumhari sunega, tum ek paisa doge, woh dus lakh dega (If you listen to the pleas of the poor, God will listen to your prayers, you give us one paisa, He will give you 10 lakh rupees).” The begging anthem of the country is Parveen’s fallback song. People look up, coins change hands. “It always works,” says Parveen, adjusting a sound box around her neck. The box is her only paraphernalia, a radio-like contraption with a speaker. “It has about 30 songs in it. I play it for added effect while I sing,” says Parveen.
Last week, a 13-year-old girl fell off a Dhanbad-Jhargram passenger train in Jamshedpur district, sustaining injuries on her face and hand. While some reports said the girl, who begged for alms by singing in trains, had been thrown off by men who were teasing her, others said she fell while trying to get off the moving train.
That girl could have been Parveen. But she dismisses any hint of concern by flexing her non-existent, little-girl muscles. “Nothing like this would ever happen to me. I am strong,” she says.
Her mother, Neelam Begum, 37, however, fears the worst. “Everyday, I am worried that I might hear bad news — that she has fallen off a train or that someone did something bad to her. But what can I do? I can’t accompany her since I have to go out for work,” she says.
She is also afraid of Parveen falling into “bad company”. “A lot of these children get into the habit of sniffing Dendrite (an adhesive),” says Neelam, who works as a domestic help and earns about Rs 3,000 a month.
The family of six — Neelam, her four daughters and a granddaughter — lives in Moulali, a slum in central Kolkata. Her husband deserted them years ago, says Neelam.
Platform No. 4 of Dum Dum station is Parveen’s base for the day. Dum Dum is an arterial station in the city’s rail network, connecting Kolkata’s suburban trains with its underground rail network.
Sprawled on the floor at one end of the platform are Parveen’s aunt Khaleda, 35, sister Shama, 14, and niece Noor, 7. They are eating their lunch — rice and potato curry — straight out of a tiffin carrier.
“I wake up at 5.30 in the morning and help my sister cook lunch before I leave for school at 6.30,” says Parveen. Her school is a special one run by the Missionaries of Charity at Joragirja, a five-minute walk from her house. “We have classes till 10.30, after which I run home to collect my music box and then head to Sealdah station,” says Parveen. Her sister, niece and aunt join her soon after.
“There are about 20 beggar-singers at Dum Dum station alone,” says Khaleda, Parveen’s aunt. They start their day at about noon. “We usually don’t board trains during the peak office-hour rush. No one has time for beggars then,” says Parveen.
It’s 3 pm now and Dum Dum station wears a deserted look. Parveen is waiting for the 15.05 Habra-Sealdah train. This time, little Noor, all of seven, will accompany her. “I started this business when I was seven too. There are six people at home and we all contribute,” says Parveen, clutching Noor’s hand tightly as she starts moving towards the approaching train. “During this time of the day, there are mainly college students. They like romantic numbers,” she adds, pointing to a young couple engaged in an animated conversation at one end of the train.
Parveen announces her presence by breaking into the 1992 Nadeem-Shravan melody from Dil Ka Kya Kasoor: “Milne ki tum koshish karna, waada kabhi na karna (Make an effort to meet me, but never make a promise).” The young woman looks up and blushes. The man hands Noor a Rs 10 note. Mission accomplished.
“On good days, we make about Rs 150, on normal days, Rs 100,” says Parveen, counting her coins at Sealdah station. It’s 3.30 pm and even the ever-buzzing Sealdah station is relatively quiet.
Parveen has about 100 songs in her repertoire, from Hindi film classics to Bengali devotional songs. Most of the Bollywood hits are from the 1950s-’60s and Nadeem- Shravan melodies from the 1990s.
“I love the song Tu meri zindagi hai from Aashiqui and also songs from Dil Ka Kya Kasoor,” says Parveen. She strategically keeps patriotic numbers such as Ae mere watan ke logon for special occasions such as Republic Day, Independence Day, Gandhi Jayanti and Netaji’s birthday. “We also sing patriotic songs when there is an important cricket match,” smiles Parveen.
At the station, Parveen points to a group of teenagers engaged in an animated discussion. “They are Sealdah beggars, we try not to encroach into their territory. We have one route, they have another. But things do get ugly at times,” she says, pointing to a scar on her arm.
Parveen takes the Sealdah-Dum Dum route about eight times a day. The journey of about 20 minutes each way never really wears her off, she says. What does tire her is the regular harassment by the hawkers’ association and the occasional threats of the Railway Protection Force.
“Ticket-checkers never bother us. Even the police just come and shoo us away a few times a year, but hawkers shower us with abuses ever time we walk past them. They say we shouldn’t be begging here, that we are creating a nuisance, that we will be run over by a train someday…,” says Parveen.
Sukumar Das, working president of the Dum Dum Station Hawkers Union, says, “These children have no idea of the danger they are in. They rush from one platform to the other. They run on tracks. They get into crowded trains. An accident is waiting to happen. They are chased away by the RPF every few months, but they return after a few days,” says Das.
“What else are we supposed to do?” asks Parveen as she walks up to another Dum Dum-bound train — for the third time in the day.
It’s 6 pm and Dum Dum station is abuzz with “office crowd”. “They are the stingiest. Even if they ever give you something, it’s not more than a rupee,” says Parveen.
Little Noor and Parveen are about to make the last trip of the day. Back home, there is dinner to be made, tuitions to be attended, homework to be finished and and episode of Sath Nibahana Sathiya to be caught. The 18.07 Bongaon local enters the platform. A surge of humanity rushes towards the train. Parveen grabs Noor’s hand and disappears into the crowd.
Parveen Khatoon is invisible.