WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE: As we transition our order fulfillment and warehousing to W. W. Norton select titles may temporarily appear as out-of-stock. Please check your local bookstores or other online booksellers.

Anxious and Upset Railway Youth Gather After Pētū’s death. Photo by Jonah Steinberg

An Ending: India’s Railway Children

Jonah Steinberg—

Nobody was tending to the body, which was arrayed on the tracks in at least three recently-separated pieces, its vessels, sinews, and bones protruding, trailing everywhere. The legs were torn off—the severed femurs sticking jaggedly out—and with them, the garments, so that the victim lay naked and exposed.

When the police at last arrived—astonishingly long after the call—they were nonplussed, defensive, and curt, and began anxious attempts to prevent things getting publicized. Not a hint of concern or sympathy. The emphasis was on nuisance, annoyance.  

I return right now, as I write this, to the recording I made that day; for some reason, I wish to hear how I sounded, to try to reconstruct the terrible feeling of the moment. About twenty minutes into the hours-long track, I can hear my phone ring—a call from my family to ask when I’d be back home.

I’m seeing something terrible, I say tremulously, on the phone—and then, inexplicably, I decline to explain what it was. I’ll have to tell you later. Perhaps I felt like I couldn’t capture its gravity in a passing mention, or shouldn’t try to.

Later, a train rumbles along the track alongside the body; in the recording, I hear myself mutter—now to no one in particular—No, come on, you have to move faster than this. As the thought of the corpse itself getting further ravaged by train wheels took shape in my head, I felt increasingly sick.

The body, you see, belonged to a child of some eleven years of age, and possibly less. He was a “railway child,” one of the many “urchins” that call the station home. This boy went by a nickname, a “lovename,” as such children dub it, that amounted only to a diminutive form of the word “belly,” Pēṭū—“Bellyboy”: probably, I divined, a reference to a scar that I could discern on his taut abdomen (from a prior injury, one supposes). And, like so many of the other children resident there, he was a runaway.

We would eventually learn that this Pētū had come from a distant and poor village of a distant and poor district of a distant and poor state, Bihar. He’d been registered at a local charity with the given name “Rohit,” though there was no telling then whether that was his real name. For the time being, nobody knew exactly where he’d left from; nobody knew his real name; and nobody knew why he’d run. To this day, I do not know if his parents were located, nor if news of his death ever reached them. And though one supposes that at some point they must have divined it, assuming they were not informed or located they might well also have thought or hoped otherwise; many runaways live never to return home, nor to bring their parents news of their luck to have kept on living. Many village parents whose children have left know that’s a possibility, and, certain they’d never find their sons and daughters if they tried, have no choice but simply to hope that one day that child, even if transformed to adulthood, might walk again up that village path.

Jonah Steinberg is associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Vermont and author of Isma’ili Modern: Globalization and Identity in a Muslim Community.

Further Reading:

Recent Posts

All Blogs