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Street dreams

By Neeta Lal

Vicky Roy, an insider who has lived on the streets, been a dhaba-boy and a coolie, captures the daily battle for survival of Delhi's streetkids. This is his story, a story of how the right intervention can transform lives

Kitted out in denim jeans and a tee, a Nikon camera slung across his five-foot-six-inch frame, Vicky Roy, 20, hardly cuts the figure of a prototypical Indian streetchild. But scratch the surface and he recounts an engrossing tale of a penurious past and a marginalised existence as a street kid in Delhi.

But before he does that, Roy proudly points to a swathe of some 25-odd photographs shot by him that were part of his well-received exhibition titled ‘Street Dreams’ at the Experimental Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi recently. The exhibition, presented by the Salaam Balak Trust (SBT), was co-sponsored by the British High Commission and the UK’s Department For International Development (DFID).

A riveting collage of black-and-white images, Roy’s photographs focus on the issue of child rights, offering an engaging retrospective on the life of Delhi’s streetchildren. The kids’ daily battle for survival, their trials and tribulations, moments of joy, their pain and pathos, camaraderie… all are captured with the depth and dexterity of an insider.

“I’ve lived this existence, so I knew about the nuances of such a life,” elaborates Roy, occasionally breaking into chaste Bengali to speak into his frequently-beeping mobile phone. “I chose the theme because I’ve lived it. But I also wanted the world to know about streetchildren and how they can be helped. There’s a message in it for streetchildren too -- that education and the will to excel can transform their lives forever, just like it has mine.”

That it has. Born to abysmally poor parents in Purulia (West Bengal) -- a tailor father and a housekeeping mother -- Roy was disenchanted with his humdrum existence. “All the family talk revolved around the next square meal for me and my six siblings,” he says. “There was no freedom, no creativity in my existence then.”  So, all of 11 years, Roy stole money from his father and caught the next train to Delhi.

He arrived at the New Delhi railway station penniless and friendless, but full of dreams to “make something out of my life”. He was soon taken under the wing of the station dadas (henchmen) who helped Roy eke out a living, playing ‘coolie’ by day and dhaba ‘mundu’ at night.       

After a while, Roy was spotted by volunteers of the Salaam Balak Trust (SBT), a pan-India NGO that works for the welfare of street children, and taken to a shelter in Delhi. “The Trust gave me clothes, food, and enrolled me in school (Nutan Marathi Mandir). There were many other boys of my age there, each with a dream of his own,” he says.

Roy’s own ‘dream’ was realised only in 2004 when he was chosen by SBT to assist a British photographer documenting the lives of Delhi’s streetchildren. While helping the photographer for three months -- fixing the tripod for him, loading camera rolls, marshalling unruly streetkids together for a good ‘photo op’, travelling through the streets of old Delhi -- Roy picked up the nuances of the profession. And that triggered an interest in photography.

In the meantime, Roy cleared his Class X board exams and, aided by SBT, began looking around for employment as the shelter caters only to children below 18 years. Fortunately, with his experience, Roy was chosen by Delhi-based fashion photographer Anay Mann to help him in his studio.

For the past two years, Roy has been working as a studio assistant for Rs 4,000 a month even as he pursues his studies by correspondence for the Class XII boards. He has moved out of the SBT shelter and rents a flat along with three other youths. He enjoys living the life of a ‘jetsetter’ -- travelling by air on assignments to Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, even Kashmir and Nagaland. “Once I used to dream of seeing the interiors of a plane,” smiles Roy, “now I’ve managed to collect over a hundred boarding passes!” 

The budding photographer has also bought himself a digital camera from the seven photos he sold at his exhibition, each for Rs 10,000. This was after he donated 20% to SBT. “I’m now looking for sponsors for my next exhibition, ‘The Widows of India’, for which I’ve just begun work,” says Roy. The ambitious lensman’s future plans include “setting up a state-of-the-art photo studio, and becoming one of India’s top 10 photographers.”    

It’s been over an hour now… and Roy is keen to excuse himself. He has a flight to catch in the evening, another scribe waiting for him, and a beeping mobile phone to attend to. He says ‘bye’ and is off in a trice, his slender frame melting in with a hundred others on Delhi’s crowded streets that Roy once called home.  


Vicky gets ready for a bath at the railway station

Nandu enjoys the newspaper before he sells it

Children at a shelter run by the Salaam Balak Trust

Deepak rests after sustaining an injury to his right cheek

Ankashi, Rahul and Lala decorate their deities before they start their begging routine

Sunita reads a book at the New Delhi railway station

A girl carrying her sibling

Enjoying a 'ride' at the Sadar Bazaar railway station

Lachhi sells balloons at Delhi's Connaught Place

(Neeta Lal is an independent journalist based in Delhi )

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007