There was always a high flow of foot traffic on that bridge in Mumbai for it was the link from the suburb of East Dadar to West. Lost in her thoughts, Vaishali almost passed him without a glance. She was thinking about Sandeep. She sensed something had gone out of their relationship and, on the one hand, it was a blow to her ego but on the other, she couldn't help but acknowledge the sense of relief and light hearted freedom that had begun to suffuse her heart. I'll survive, she thought, knowing she shouldn't feel so ridiculously happy and toning down her thoughts to match that knowledge. For someone who had lost her boyfriend and who should look heartbroken, her face looked strangely at peace. If only I didn't have to face those looks of pity and concern from my friends and family. I know, she thought, I won't tell them. Not just yet. Or perhaps... Vaishali jumped, coming back to the present with a fright. Was that a creepy crawly that had brushed against her leg? Perhaps it was a cockroach. She shuddered. She hated cockroaches. They were ugly. With a strangled voice she bent down to flick wildly at her leg, stopping herself just in time as she saw a tiny hand, the tiniest she'd ever seen, withdrawn in fright. It belonged to a child beggar and he'd barely brushed it against her leg to catch her attention.
For a second, reacting to the fright he'd given her she had this urge to yell at the little boy. Then, sanity restored she looked at him again. He was a boy of about four. Exhaling on a shaky breath she would’ve continued on her way - such things happened on Mumbai roads all the time - but he had such a quality of vulnerability that without realising what she was doing, she stopped.
She looked at the child beggar not knowing what she should do. This was a gut reaction and not the face she'd trained herself to present to beggars. However much they kept invading her space, however much they touched her with their dirty, grubby hands she normally just kept walking, never looking at them, her face carefully trained not to show she'd noticed them, with her pace neither quickening nor slowing down. After about five minutes of this - their persistent touching as they tried to force her to look at them, and her determination not to give in - they ran off to harass another likely victim and left her alone. They never realised how close they came to being yelled at. Often her palm itched to hit out hard where ever she felt their hands on her person but she grimly held on to her lost-in-thought demeanour and measured walk.
Today was different. After that one touch, the little child did not touch her again. He kept sitting in the same spot she'd passed moments before. He looked at her with big eyes, not beseeching - the look these beggars normally assumed - but slightly fearful, slightly curious and very hopeful - a look that somehow pulled at her heartstrings. As she went for her purse, she realised there was probably a gang of other kids watching out for suckers just like her. They had a code - they wouldn't approach someone they instinctively knew was in two minds about giving a coin. Vaishali knew so many reasons why she ought not to shell out to this beautiful, dirt streaked baby and yet, she wanted to help. She wanted to wipe the sadness and fear off the little upturned face, the obvious hunger. He still hadn't acquired the streetwise cunning which she knew would mar his face before long - a beseeching face for people like her and quite the opposite for his beggar friends. She was aware the other pedestrians had started noticing her. Some looked at her with interest but most had cynicism writ large on their faces. What a foolish young woman, those faces seemed to say. Perhaps she thinks she can change the world.
She suddenly knew what she must do. She clamped shut her bag and marched across to one of the street vendors standing not too far away. She bought a batata wada. She cautioned the vendor not to put any chutney in the bread. After her tiff with Sandeep, the two hadn't ended up at the canteen for a coffee and she still had a little cash in her pocket. She picked out the visible chillies from the vada with her fingers, went back to the child and handed it to him. He accepted it with excited eyes and a joyful face. She stood there watching over him while he ate – quick, tiny little bites - so that other hungry beggars wouldn't dare approach the child to snatch away its unexpected treat.
Vaishali reached home on a high. She was happier than she'd been in a long time. Not only was she rid of Sandeep, she had watched a young child finish half a vada and put away the other half for later. For the first time in a long time, he would've been too full to finish what was on his plate.
Jeevan, for that was the young child's name, felt full and happy. He slept. Waking up at 6 pm, he finished the other half of his vada. He knew his minder would come around the time it got dark to take him away and he didn't want to have to share even a crumb with anyone. So that's how batata vadas tasted. He had always smelt them but this was the first time he'd had one. It was delicious. His minders only gave him watery daal. He normally went to bed hungry. But not tonight. In fact, he couldn't have eaten even a morsel of the daal, so full was he.
The pretty young lady came every day after that. She always brought him a slice of bread or roti with a dry sabzi in it. It was packed in newspaper. It was half her lunch. She liked to think he looked forward to their little tryst as much as she did. Within a couple of days she thought she saw a change in him. His pallid face now looked like it had a bit of colour and his eyes were definitely brighter. Whenever he saw her he now had the strength to get up in anticipation and pleasure. They exchanged a smile. Then, with tenderness in her eyes she gave him the packet she'd lovingly prepared for him. It was never much but always enough. He sat down with it excitedly and as he made to open it eagerly, she bent down, patted his head and went on her way. She knew she wanted to do much more for this child but she didn't know what else. She didn't know anyone she could talk to who would empathise and give her sensible advice. Her wish remained locked away in her heart.
Over the weekend she forgot the child. Her routine was different and lost in it, she didn't remember the little boy until the weekend was gone. She was meeting her best friend on Monday and she knew she couldn't keep her break up with Sandeep a secret much longer. She would have to tell. She wasn't really looking forward to doing that.
As she started out for the short walk to the bridge she knew she'd forgotten something. With a sinking heart she remembered what it was. She hurried back home, picked a sheet of newspaper and hurried out again. Out of sight of her house but still within the boundary of her housing colony, she opened her lunch box with fingers that shook and rolled some of the sabzi into one roti for the little child. Her heart was hammering. How could she have forgotten the child over the weekend? He would've felt so let down. Perhaps he didn't beg over the weekend and didn't miss me at all, she thought without hope. Thoughts of Sandeep had all but flown. To have given someone so young hope and a kind of dependence on her and then to let him down so badly made her realise her own cruel human frailty. Almost of their own volition, her feet hurriedly propelled her towards the bridge. With an anxious heart she hurried to the spot where he normally sat. He wasn't there. She thought she might have mistaken the spot - that she might've passed it earlier and somehow missed seeing him. She went back to have another look. He was tiny and perhaps she'd missed him both times. She crossed the bridge again. She went up and down on the other side. He wasn't there.
She reached her college on feet that felt like lead. Her friend, who'd heard of her break up with Sandeep - his version – saw her pain ravaged face and knew with a sinking heart that every word Sandeep had uttered was true.
The child sat on the new road his minder told him was much better than the old bridge. His stomach hurt with hunger. He knew he would get his daal only if he earned his keep. With desperate and beseeching eyes he touched the feet of a passerby. The woman expertly twisted her legs to avoid his grubby little fingers and having succeeded, triumphantly walked on.
|Microsoft free clipart|
I would like to acknowledge and thank a blogger on Indiblogger whose post about a child beggar, entered for the Stayfree, Time To Change competition., triggered the idea for this story. I doubt if I can find his post again with 300 plus posts, including this one, entered for the competition. I found his story moving and disturbing. It was about wading through the dirty waters flooding Kurla and having a tiny little 3 year old chase after him with a newborn babe in her arms, begging for a coin.