My work took me to Mumbai many months ago. Few years in the industry had made me agile enough to bargain for an unofficial Friday leave. My boss’ nod had made it a 3-day cheap getaway of some sorts. At any rate, it was a welcome break from familiar work and faces. After negotiating the job to satisfaction, I loitered happily an entire August afternoon. I was to meet some friends in the evening at Band Stand. I said “Bandra” to one autowallah and hopped in. On the way, I found myself peeping outside this cheap auto, smiling at a magnificent yellow Porsche Carrera that had stopped beside us at a traffic signal. Cars catch my fancy and my initial reaction was one of sheer wow, luck and happiness. The Porsche was gorgeous but it wasn’t stupendous until one of the windows rolled down. One of the occupants was so beautiful that I immediately accepted that both of us were in our respective places. Her co-occupant was, well, an overly, overtly muscled, tattooed, damn-lucky idiot in his early-20s, who decided not to work hard and instead binge on his dad’s money (lucky chap was sensible too, for no way with his hard work he would have managed those two muses at one time at that age!). The atmosphere inside the car was nothing short of the extraordinary and I won’t describe how. Small-town blokes don’t get to see anything like a Porsche often and to have seen the two ladies – the magnificent marque and that pretty somebody – I immediately developed mild associations with Karl Marx. At least I wanted to argue with those who are rightly called ‘right- minded’ that the Germans shouldn’t be allowed to make so opulent cars and then put just two seats inside instead of 4; it would drive the Capitalists’ society to doom at double the incumbent rate.
A child’s voice from the other side of the road broke the silly trajectory of my thoughts. I saw a little girl walk up to me, her face half-covered below bunches of red roses which were neatly tied in small bundles. She walked a few steps closer up to me with unsure, measured steps, but having that infant-like audacity to maintain a prolonged eye contact with the subject. She stood before me with a sullen smile on her face – a street child, 7 yrs old or so, downtrodden, shabby like them street kids, who all look the same. I smiled back at her, and she promptly held out a bunch of red roses to me. It was then that I realized that my affection could cost me. One art that comes handy when you have to stop at long traffic signals (which is often) is looking away in the other direction when someone is choking you with some request. I guess I must be bad at this for I sometimes find myself actually trying to talk my way out of such situations and end up spending money more often than I intend to. I wanted to tell her how the colour of the roses made it practically meaningless for me to help her. As is my wont, I reached out for my camera and clicked her picture while trying to steer clear of the common-place situation. I saw her eying my camera with a fearless curiosity. I held the camera out to her. She was instantly overjoyed to see herself in the picture. The grim curves on her cheeks had stretched into an innocent, conveying smile, and her eyes were a sparkle.
I thought it reasonable to spend 10 rupees on roses themselves; after all, they were beautiful and I decided to buy, even if it meant that I would have to leave them behind in the auto. (I couldn’t have carried it to my friend’s surely) I handed over a 20 rupee note, gesturing to her with a subtle, casual wave of hands that she may keep the change. She promptly and neatly tucked the note inside a large front pocket of her t-shirt and took out a crumpled ten-rupee note and held it out towards me. I quietly kept the change, deciding not to vandalize by use of language a fragile moment that was made precious by her intent, if not her sentiment.
As if she was not too little herself to be spending a painfully-deprived childhood in having to fend for herself, I saw a lean kid, all of 3 years or thereabouts, hiding behind her frock. She picked him up in a manner of quick habit, hinging his bare, soiled buttocks on her waist and tucking him close. She rushed to a chai shop on the road side. I saw the child rolling itself behind the folds of her arms, trying to reach out to something across the counter with outstretched, tiny hands. Seeing her struggle in the middle of unknown faces left me agitated. I heard the engines crank up and rev again; the signal had opened. The Porsche made the most distinctive rev of pride. The only rev that was compelling enough to reach my heart was that caused by the story that played out right before my eyes. I bent over to look for the girl. As the auto negotiated the corner, I saw this girl feeding milk and bun to her infant belonging. Suddenly, something gave way inside my heart, like a stretched cord of emotions snapping under load. Uninhibited by shame and moved by guilt, I cried briefly. When the tide of emotion subsided, it had forged a bed of anguish inside the heart. The auto had hit the main road and was cutting past other vehicles in a manner that announced urgency when there was none. The Mumbai streets were attractive again: wide roads, big cars, happy families, pretty faces and the chance to while away a cosy evening. Just that all of it did not convey anything greater than themselves. My vision had gotten blurred and I found my eyes staring at my thoughts. My anguish reduced to sorrow, as it always does, as it always must. I wondered about our desires to get “rich” to buy hordes of happinesses for ourselves and our people and how it amounted to little more than social-mania unless nurtured the right way.
Funny that a 90-second traffic stop was all it took to unhinge my composure completely that day. I wish I could explain how helplessly grim it feels to be inhuman. Many more questions crashed on the silent shores of my mind, many dreams became smaller and a few prayers got added to what is a long list of heartfelt wishes.
I looked down at the roses lying in my lap. I plucked the soft petals carefully in a small pile. Separating my vision free of the landscape, I looked up at the sky and after a prolonged consideration at the meaning of my action, I flung them towards the evening sky. The breeze whipped the little petals into furious motion. I saw the petals whirling behind me gladly. They looked more beautiful in their individual flights, and somewhere inside I too felt liberated.