Mushraf, who thinks he is twelve but he is not sure, is a tiny boy with an ironic grin who sniffs six tubes of glue a day.
For the last five years he has been living in the back alleys around New Delhi’s railway station with a small gang of street children.
The station and surroundings are their small world, although not one of them was born on the streets. They are mostly runaways, barely in their teens; some are orphans, some have been abandoned, but most of them have fled home because of poverty, violence or abuse. There are thought to be more than 50,000 such street kids in Delhi alone and about a million in all of India, although these are only estimates.
They catch the first train to big cities, hidden in the toilet, as they see in the movies, loaded with hope and illusions, in search of a better life. But they mostly end up on the streets, living a life of addiction and marginalization at the edges of society.
Many of these children are addicted to toluene-based glue and solvents, a volatile toxic substance that intoxicates them. It costs just a few rupees and helps them overcome cold and hunger, muffling them from the tough reality they live in.
Their days are all about huffing glue and watching movies in the cheapest cinemas in town. Outside the movie theater, their life is made up of odd jobs, fights, friendship, fears, dreams and an extreme freedom.
Almost all of the “glue kids” work to meet the costs of their addiction. Like Mushraf, many work as ragpickers: Dragging a plastic bag on their back, they rummage in the garbage to collect recyclable aluminum and plastic bottles to sell by weight.
They never sleep by themselves; the gang becomes their family, their only reference, a small community with its own rules and hierarchies. Many die before their time due to diseases and drug abuse.
You can spot them hanging around the city, with lost and bleary eyes. They mingle with the crowd, but often no one notices them. They seem to be invisible.
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Andrea de Franciscis, doctor by education and photographer by choice, currently lives and works in New Delhi.
Maria Tavernini is an Italian writer, freelance journalist and sailor currently working in India and Italy.