It is a mere 10 minute walk from my home behind Yari Road to Bank of India and I cherish the cool morning walk to it every time I have to go there. The dogs have tired from scavenging heaps of dumped garbage last night and their bellies are full; they now nap. The walk gives me a change to see urban India wake up; the sweeping from roads its muck: filthy pieces of dog poop, discarded sachets of Paan Paraag and her sisters concoctions, plastic bags, etc. Unfortunately, stain patterns from paan and tobacco spit, on the street and the boundary walls cannot be swept away, even with sharp, strong brittle brooms of the street cleaners; a curse that will stay on during my lifetime, for sure. Cute kids in smart uniforms being dragged to bus stops by harassed mothers, vegetable and fruit vendors sprucing up their wares or shopkeepers flicking dust and grime off old merchandise with a sharp jerk of cloth duster.
I see her again, this girl child, busy sorting out trash with her bare hands as I pass the little corner where garbage from the neighborhood is discarded. She is quick and efficient; newspapers, plastic, cans, clothes and others go into a semi-neat pile around her. A hooked, pointed iron prod gripped on her left hand loosens the trash while the right hand moves to do the sorting. I am intrigued; she can be no more than 9 or 10 perhaps, a little older than my Zainab. Why is she not in school? Poor, of course. But to do this every day? I can smell the putrefied stink from the heap from where I stand observing her about 20 feet away; what about her? I have encountered her every morning at least twice, thrice a week and have always been captivated by her presence.
Today, instead of walking by and away, I pause by her. She senses before she sees me and tenses, at once afraid. She turns and is on her feet at once, the iron prod raised, as if in self defense and startles me; I step back hastily and hold my arms up wide and smile, indicating I mean no harm. She still does not let her guard down, and has her weapon up, ready to strike.
Namaste, I say in Hindi, and fold my palms in an Indian greeting. Do not be afraid, I will not harm you. I jut want to ask you a few questions.
She regards me warily as a bead of sweat starts to descend down her furrow to her chin; she wipes it off impatiently. She is strikingly pretty but grimy; her face is dark with grime, her fingernails a mess, her hair under a duppatta filthy and clothes grubby. The odor of rot and decay is strong and hard to take and I try hard not to let my disgust show on my face. But her eyes, they are piercing and intense as she looks me up and down; assessing, calculating risk, my danger possibility.
What do you want, she demands, I do not do dhandha (I am not a prostitute). I am shocked and stunned by her response; not only is her voice of a much older person, she is not a child in knowledge of the streets. Perhaps it is the shock on my face and the sheer embarrassment I feel at her assumption that she relaxes and lowers her weapon, squats back to her work and starts attacking the pile of trash again. I am unsure what to do and ponder my next move for a moment. There is a pile of discarded concrete blocks towards an open field very near where she squats and I head there, pulling my attar laden handkerchief out, keeping it close by, just in case. I sit on the blocks and watch her work for a while, breathing in from the handkerchief; she tightens her duppatta around her and ignores me, attacking the pile in front of her with determination.
What is your name? I ask. She does not answer; I assume she has not heard me. Just as I am about to repeat my question, she answers, in the same adult voice, so softly, I can barely hear her.
To be continued….soon.