When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
- Ernest Hemingway
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She floated across the wet street, as the sky threatened to pour forth whatever it had in store. The thunder seemed to have been challenged by the crackers which were being burst despite the rain, and one couldn't be sure which was louder. The buildings were alit with fairy lights and traditional lamps, and there was not a bland spot to be seen. Yet, her eyes did not reflect that shine, and her face did not register any interest in either the festival of lights or the festivities above. She walked listlessly in between the vehicles, knocking on the car windows, and stretching out her little ragged hand with a monotonous plea.
I rested my head against the window screen, and thought of how worthless my life was. While everyone else was wearing their new clothes which they had spent their leisure hours in diligently choosing and buying, and were subsequently spending valuable time with their family and friends, enjoying homemade sweets, bursting crackers, making rangoli, and decorating their houses with candles and lamps on the auspicious occasion of Diwali, here was I, rushing back to my messy room after a hectic day of monitoring patients, collecting their samples, filling out their investigation forms, collecting their reports, being reprimanded by my seniors, and oh no, the day wasn't over yet - I was to go back to the hospital ward after I'd changed out of the morning dress, to have a repeat cycle of all the above. So much for a happy Diwali.
Tap, tap. I started out of my reverie, and looked out of the window. A little girl of not more than five, was already stretching out her hand. I checked the traffic signal and rolled down the window. “Didi, I haven't eaten in a long time. Please give me something. God will bless you.”
What was it about the child that struck me? I had heard countless such pleas on the road each day of my life, so what was different about this child? Maybe it was the day, and she, too, like me, was not wearing new clothes, she, too, was not getting to enjoy Diwali… Or maybe it was the nonchalance in her voice, as if she was merely rattling out a poem she did not understand.
“What's your name?”
“Ruhi. Please help me.” Was it only me, or was the nonchalance momentarily lost?
I glanced again at the traffic lights. The indicator below showed 15 seconds before the light would change. I hurriedly opened the back door without thinking. “Get in.”
I could see her eyes widen in fear, her hands leave the window screen, and her feet backing off. 9 seconds. “The cars are about to start moving, Ruhi. You're hungry, remember? Get in the car.”
She looked around her, there were tears starting to flow from her eyes, and then, just like that, the light turned green. There were a blaring of horns from all directions, and she rushed into my back seat, and I shut the door, and hit the gears.
And she broke down.
I had driven a block or two when it finally hit me. What was I doing? Why on earth was I kidnapping a little girl? Why, why, why? What in heaven’s name was I doing?
I parked at the side of the road, and looked back at her. She had stopped crying by now. Her hair, brown and dusty and matted, lay unkempt on both sides of her face. She was wearing a patched frock, the original colour of which was probably purple, with yellow flowers on it, but due to the dust which had gathered on it for days, there was no way of being certain. There were multiple scratches and cuts on her arms and legs, and a linear scar over her left cheek.
“So since when have you not eaten?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well, how else will we decide how much food to get you?”
“Oh, that's a lot of time. Don't worry, sweetheart. We'll get you lots of food.”
“Do you have a family? Are they hungry, too?”
“What is a family?”
“Um, like, well, do you have a mother and a father, and maybe a few brothers and sisters at home?”
“No. I don't.”
“So where do you stay? Who do you live with?”
“I couldn't tell you. They'll beat me up if I did.”
“Who ‘they’? Come on, nobody can hear you, tell me…”
“I'll tell you later. Now I don't feel like telling.”
“Okay.” Fair enough, I ruminated. If someone had randomly kidnapped me and started asking me questions, even I wouldn't have answered them in the first go. I restarted my car. I would have to earn the child’s trust first.
I was driving through Market Road, and stopped near a children's garment store.
“Kid, what's your favourite colour?”
“What is ‘favourite’?”
“Well, I mean, which colour do you like the most?”
“Blue, I suppose.”
“Right. Stay in the car.”
Just to be doubly sure, I locked the doors as I left. It didn't take me long to find what I needed. A sky blue laced gown, with netted sleeves, it was something that was straight out of a Disney princess’s wardrobe. The price wasn't too unreasonable, either. The lady at the counter packed it beautifully, we wished each other a happy Diwali, and I was back in the car, driving once again towards my usual destination.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To my room.”
Funny she should ask that, since I was asking myself the same question, without finding an answer. I chose to remain silent.
I locked the door of my apartment from inside. Fortunately, nobody had seen us arrive. I held her hand and took her to the bathroom.
“We need to get you cleaned up. You can use this, this is called soap, you rub it on your body after putting water, it'll form a white layer of foam, that'll have to be washed off with more water. Then this here is what you call a shampoo, you put it on your hair, it's the same process, but you'll have to rub it harder, okay? Okay, do this much, shout out to me if you need help, don't lock the door, or I won't be able to help you, right? Start off, I'll just get you a new towel from my cupboard.”
I found the towel, and I waited. I was sure she would have to call me for help, so I didn't intrude into her privacy before she did. While I waited, I ordered a large cheese-burst pizza over the phone.
After some time, she opened the door a crack and extended her hand, the way she had back on the road.
“Didi, I need the towel. I'm all wet.”
“Yes, dear. But is everything else okay? You don't need any other help, do you?”
“No, no, just the towel.”
I handed it to her, and waited again. Soon she came out, body wrapped in the pink towel, clean black hair, dripping, plastered on both sides of her face. If I hadn't seen the change, I wouldn't have realized the effect of the dust on her.
“Didi, my frock had got wet. Is it okay if I wear the towel for the time being?”
“Sweetheart, you needn’t ever wear that frock again. Here you go, happy Diwali. Go on, open it.”
She tore it open, and her eyes lit up progressively at each step. She held up the gown, and then drew it close to her heart. “Is this for me?” Her voice was barely a whisper. I couldn't help smiling. I nodded. She threw off the towel despite my presence, and swift as lightning, put on the gown, observing extra care at the delicate parts. Then she threw her arms around me, and started kissing me.
“Come, let's look at you in the mirror.”
If she was happy before, seeing her reflection made her overjoyed. She jumped up and down, and kept saying how much she loved me.
Tring tring. I looked into the eye hole. It was the pizza delivery guy. I thanked him, and laid out the pizza on the table.
“Come, Ruhi, let’s eat. Do you like pizza?”
She ate ravenously, and somehow watching her gave me a sense of joy and satisfaction which had been lacking in my life in the recent past.
Soon, both of us were full, and only one slice of pizza was left. Ruhi insisted that we should share it.
After our meal, I sat and braided Ruhi’s hair. She had lovely hair. I searched amongst my accessories and found the perfect blue bow to go with it.
“So tell me now, Ruhi, where do you stay? I'll have to take you back as well, right? So how will I know where to take you?”
“Please don't take me back, Didi.”
“What do you mean? Why?”
“I live with this man, but he doesn't love me, and he always beats me up for everything. He is the one who taught me to ask for money from cars, but I don't get to use any of that money, either. Every morning, he tells me the amount of money I must bring back that day, in return, he'll give me something to eat, but if he is displeased with anything at all, he beats me, sometimes with his hands, sometimes with his belt, sometimes with the stones on the road. And when I lay down to sleep, he comes very near and puts his hand inside my frock and runs his hand all over, but mostly here, and here, and here. Like this, and this.”
She was weeping and trembling, and I pulled her close towards me. “Hush, hush, sweetie, everything's alright now.”
“But you're nice, Didi, you took me in, gave me food, clothes, got me cleaned up, now I look different, I feel different, just don't take me back there. I'll do whatever you tell me to do.”
Diwali night at home has a charm of its own. Not to mention the love with which you're showered when your folks meet you after such a long time.
After all the mushiness was out of the way, I took my mother to a corner, and told her the real purpose of my visit. I had expected her to shout at me, tell me I was crazy, bring the whole world down, but she quietly asked, “So where is the child?”
“In my car. I'll just get her.”
“Right. In the meantime, I'll tell everyone that you have brought the child I was planning to adopt, from the orphanage.”
“Adopt? But if you tell everyone that, and then don't adopt Ruhi…”
“Who told you that I won't adopt her? How else will it be legal for her to stay? But all that later. First, get the child. She must be afraid all alone in the car.”
“Where were you last evening? Do you realize that you were shirking your duty? Did you forget that you have a responsibility towards your patients? Who told you that you could absent yourself?”
“Sorry Sir, I wasn't shirking my duty. I was fulfilling it.”