I knew she had never been to the streets of my country before.
“Neha,” she grumbled as we walked down the colourful lane, the autorickshaws honking past us, bikes making their way through hordes of irritated people, forgotten pavements, hawkers and busy street shops. “So many homeless children, and passers-by don’t even look twice?”
I looked at her and smiled. So naive. “It’s a city. It will be crowded.”
“They are playing over there.” She observed, amazed. “Laughing. Not giving a damn to anything. Completely….unfazed.”
“Like children, obviously.”
I didn’t smile. The children she was looking at played every day during this time. Maybe she was only used to the children who played in fenced, lawn edged parks, after coming home from school and completing homework. Maybe she wasn’t used to the children who played in streets and highways among speeding cars, after finishing picking rags and helping with their parents’ work. One of them scampered to us and held out a grimy hand.
“No,” I tried to stop her. A ten-rupee note would have had all of them following us to our garages. She looked at me sharply.
Go be charitable somewhere where you have less people climbing over you for 10 rupees.
The way she looked at me, I felt almost bad to have blurted out ‘no’.
Relax, you know your country better, don’t you?
She ignored me anyway and held out the money with a smile and a smile was returned, but so were many hungry stares from those behind that smiling little one. I dragged her away, trying to bring her attention to the prettier things like the cozily lighted hotels, walled gardens or an occasional Audi driving past, but she was glum.
“Stay here,” I told her, aware that I had to do my chores quick. I had a sort of nervousness. It was dusk, and we weren’t in a well-lit area. “I’ll be back in five minutes.” She didn’t come with me inside the shop. “Take your time,” she said exactly what I feared and stayed loitering outside. What attraction did she have with the dark anyway?
When I came back, she was holding out a palm to the man without a leg right next to the shop.
“We are late,” I hissed and tried to pull her back. I knew the man. He was another driven by madness who lived on what the strays gathered. And on what the shopkeepers fed him, mostly leftovers from kindness.
She marched over to me, a bit loftily. “He looks like he’s been there his whole life,” she said, gesturing at the uncovered garbage dump, as if I was contradicting her, or as if she was expecting me to. “Are people so cruel?”
“I know that man. Don’t go near. Just listen to me, okay?”
“What do you mean, you know that man?”
“Well I see him there everyday….now come on.”
I just felt extremely stupid saying that for some reason. Like, ‘know’ that man. Exactly. I see him everyday shaking his head to the ground, smoking stamped cigarettes, talking inaudibly to himself, running his hands over his almost bald head, sometimes patting his good leg and shrinking into a corner when people walk by too near….so I ‘know’ him.
He was looking very curiously up at me with bloodshot eyes, from that familiar smelly corner, at the same time murmuring something incomprehensible. It made me shiver. How many people on the street did he actually look at, directly, eye-to-eye, like that? He was old. Old enough to be my father, or a grandfather. I felt a rush of heat, and a pain so absurd I wanted to cry. What kind of a granddaughter, or a daughter, could bear to see her father abandoned, in the street, dying? And those piercing, strange, much too unwelcome eyes….I hope he didn’t have a daughter.
Did she notice my voice breaking? Or did she just look away from the man, hold out her hand to me and lead me out of the alley? As if I was new here. As if I was the broken one, as if I needed consoling.
The next time, we were just out of a food stall. “Hold this,” I said, giving her my share to keep, smiling at her fascination with the style of our cuisine. “We’ll eat when it is a little cooler.” And I went inside. Without her.
When I came outside, she was at the same, familiar corner. And now the man was eating, ravenously. Like a successful predator. I just stopped there for a second because I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. Not like the previous time.
“Don’t worry.” She laughed at me. “I gave him my share, not yours.”
I held the share she passed to me, expressionless, and feeling a substantial loss of appetite. “Come on,” she pulled my hand. “We’re late.”
My line. But I was frozen in place. The old man was looking at me again, prompting me to decide whether he had a daughter or not.
“Hmm, okay.” It puzzled me that she was an outsider even to me, but an insider to the hungry, insane man.
That’s why feeding him became a routine.
Harmless, one-legged, poor, man. He deserves it.
And for some reason I didn’t mind the money going into the extra food.
And every day, his eyes followed sometimes me, sometimes her.
“A few more,” I explained. “So less beads won’t do.”
“I guess we’ll have to search a few more then. Would you mind waiting, m’am?”
I stood. He went back in the stockroom.
I glanced out the door. I remember I did.
But she was there. And the shopkeeper made me wait for nearly an hour, for what could have been twenty minutes.
Did it happen in the remaining forty minutes?
“Here, m’am, you are all done.”
“Thank you.” Were you counting beads or organizing a wedding? I took my stuff and I walked out.
To silence. To dark. To a crowded, honking, busy, main road hidden behind a lonely side alley. I was unsure at first. So I took her name tentatively.
I decided three times tentatively was enough, and I had already cross-checked both sides of the road.
I know my country better.
So then I shouted.
Now people from the shops came out, abandoning their lighted rooms and solace. Into the cracked pathways they don’t see. People from the main road. People calling police. People asking me to calm down and explain. People explaining to other people. People searching with me. People spreading the details of my companion to people.
Someone was saying something, “I tried to tell you before but it didn’t cross my head…that he could be capable of so much….”
I nearly lunged at him. “Who did what? What did you fail to tell me? Where is she?”
“That lunatic without the leg, he earns money pretending he doesn’t have a leg,” He stuttered.
A crowd pounced on him. “Which lunatic?” “What no leg?” “What did he do?” “Why are you telling this now?”
Why are you telling this now?
They polish their glass doors so much, they don’t even see the alley their businesses belong to. They see their own reflection, shining, glorious, counting their beads, counting their customers, their money, their lives.
And if that girl went away, I don’t think they walked peacefully hand in hand down to whichever lion’s mouth he led her to. And if he really dragged her along, upright, proud, on both legs, I don’t think she’d have given up without a fight.
What matters is that they didn’t see her. And I was one of them.
I thought I knew my country better.