A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
- Chinese Proverb
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For the longest period of time, I thought that black and white films were made during an era when the world itself was in black and white. Of course, I now know how cameras and the film in them worked back then. It might sound silly, but close your eyes and try to imagine Charlie Chaplin in a bright red suit or any of your favourite classic films with sunny blue skies and fresh green grass. The picture just does not come to mind.
There’s a reason behind telling this story other than giving off the impression that I am not the sharpest tool in the shed. When films were in black and white no one was dissatisfied with them. Instead, everyone was enthralled by the existence of technology advanced enough to make them in the first place. But once colour films were introduced how could anyone go back to the times of grey skies? Every avid movie-goer was glad to see the actress wear a sari which was not black or white or even a morose grey.
Something very similar to this happened when Milli came into my life. Until that point, I had been completely content with my life. No complaints and no regrets. I had a job that, unlike most people, I enjoyed. I earned comfortably enough to have an apartment of my own in the city. I had a loving family and quite a few friends. I had a privileged life, so how could I complain about anything?
It was a bright, sunny morning, which would have looked amazing in a movie- coloured obviously- when I saw Milli for the first time. I was on my way from the Metro station to my office when in the midst of the entire rush hour crowd I saw one spot of brightness. Something- or should I say someone- that caught my eye immediately. In the crowd was a toddler, waddling on her chubby legs. Tight black curls framed her dusty yet angelic face. She clutched a few pink flowers in one hand and the pallu of her mother’s faded green sari in the other as she followed her around.
Her mother had a cane basket filled with bunches of similar flowers in her hand. She tried to sell them to the people milling about her, but to no avail. The smartly dressed men and women on their way to work would hardly know what to do with a bunch of bright pink flowers even if they did buy some. They tried their best not to brush past her, avoiding eye contact so they did not feel guilty about their own privileges, as they continued on their way. I, on the other hand, was drawn in by the toddler’s smile and walked directly to them.
I reached the mother and in my broken Marathi I said, “How much for one bunch?”
She just looked at me for a few minutes, stunned at finally having a customer. She shifted the weight of the basket with one hand and pulled out one bunch of flowers before saying, “10 rupees, Memsaab.”
I nodded and dug into my purse for my wallet, “Give me two, please.”
Twenty rupees hardly made any difference to me, but the smile on her face clearly stated that it would make her day. Giving her the note and taking the flowers, I looked at the toddler again. She was studying the bunch in her hand, seemingly mesmerised by them.
“What’s her name?” I asked the flower-seller.
“Milli,” she replied.
I crouched till I was as close to Milli as it was possible to be and said, “Hi Milli.”
All it took was a smile which showed her four baby teeth and a surprisingly deep dimple in one chubby cheek for her to make a place for herself in my heart. The smile I returned may not have been as cute, but it was just as genuine. After that day, I started taking some time to meet Milli and her mother Padma, every day while walking to and from work.
Some days I brought her something to eat or a colouring book and on other days I just reached there a little early to play with her and spend time with them. It was always nice to see the child laugh and enjoy life to the fullest. Slowly but surely, Milli and Padma became integral parts of my life over the course of a few months.
On the days that I went early, Padma would tell me about their life. They lived in a chawl nearby with her husband who wiled away his meagre earnings in alcohol. There were a few days when Padma sported bruises on her arms and cuts on her lips, but when asked about them she refused to tell me anything. The only time she acknowledged her husband’s abuse was the time she told me that she was scared to leave Milli alone with him.
In spite of everything, Milli was the happiest child, I had ever come across. The dire conditions she lived in seemed to have no effect on her sunny personality. As the months went by she started anticipating our meetings almost as much as I did.
The shift from black and white films to coloured ones was not an abrupt phenomenon. It happened gradually over a period of years. But when the phenomenon was indeed complete it became difficult to even imagine going back. In the same manner, it seemed that the life I had been absolutely content with had been in black and white and Milli filled the colours in.
I so desperately wanted to help Padma get out of the miserable life she was leading. I wanted Milli to have the bright future, she deserved, but Padma had her pride. She refused to take any money from me that she had not fully earned.
Padma and Milli were there on the streets every morning, rain or shine. Until one day I walked to our usual meeting place with a pack of colours for Milli nestled in my purse to see that they were not there. Worried to see that they were missing, I waited there for a long time. I stood there till I absolutely needed to leave if I wanted to reach work on time. I had a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I spent the whole day with my mind on them instead of my work.
The next morning when the flower-seller and her toddler were absent from the street again, I knew that I had to do something. All I could think of was one of them lying sick in their little house without the medical help they required. I took the day off work and made my way to the chawl they lived in. My expensive clothes made the inhabitants suspicious, but most of them were helpful, albeit hesitantly when I asked them where Padma and Milli lived.
I was directed to a small hut with a roof made up of aluminium. The closed-door told me that there was no one inside. Helplessly standing there I barely knew what to do next. That’s when I suddenly heard Milli call my name with her slight lisp. I turned around to see the face I had grown to love peeking out at me from the window of the house next door.
I sighed with relief when the owner of the house opened the door and Milli, safe and healthy, ran into my arms. It was the neighbour who told me about the incidents from two nights ago. My heart broke as I clutched Milli to myself and heard her relay the story.
Padma’s husband had come home that night more drunk than usual. From the house next door the lady had heard him ask Padma for more money to buy alcohol. When Padma told him that she did not have any money to spare and refused to give him the cash she had saved to buy rice the next day, he started yelling and abusing. In a fit of drunken rage, he had pushed her and the lady had heard a stack of steel utensils fall to the floor. Before she could make her way to their house, she had heard a loud scream. When she finally reached their one-room house, Padma had been lying on the floor, bleeding profusely from a head wound.
Her husband had gone missing ever since, afraid of the consequences he would have to face for killing his own wife. I hugged Milli tightly. The poor child was clueless about all that had happened. It was only after I had composed myself a little that the neighbour lady started speaking again.
“Padma used to tell me all about you. She liked you very much.” she handed me a steel glass of tea, “Milli has been living with us for the last two nights. But, Memsaab, I have four children of my own. With the little money I get, I can barely take care of them properly. Milli…”
I saw three pairs of eyes looking at me from behind the door to the only other room. As soon as I turned to them, they scattered away in a fit of giggles. The other child was barely one and sleeping on the mattress scarily close to the stove on which the lady had just made tea.
“I understand,” I told her. Milli would only be an added burden to her. At the back of my mind, I had already started forming a plan. One look at Milli, the colour in my otherwise colourless life and I knew what I had to do.
The procedures were long and tedious. It took a lot of money and time but finally six months after the day I had found her in the neighbour’s house I finally adopted Milli. She lives with me in my apartment now and has started calling me mamma. She misses her Ma sometimes, but she is young and has the blessing of the ability to forget. I missed Padma too; she had become a great friend of mine over the little time I had got to know her. There will come a time when I will tell her about Padma her mother who had done everything she possibly could to give her a good life. But for now, I wanted to raise Milli as my own.
I wanted to give her a life Padma would have liked.
We watch movies together every Sunday. Black and white to remind us of the lives we left behind and coloured to celebrate the lives stretched out in front of us.