The “Vada Pao” is often called the Indian Burger. It has between two slices of “ Pao” buns a vada or a potato cutlet. A quick and handy snack, it can be found in most places in Mumbai. My favorite snack –it kept hunger at bay until I reached home. “Home” in Mumbai was a distant suburb and I reached there usually around 7.30PM. I made the journey twice daily from this distant suburb to Church Gate by train every day- five days a week.
It was on one of those journeys that I first met him-a young boy about fourteen years old with dancing eyes and a lovely smile. He was alone as most street children are. He carried a bag with him and was whistling a tune.
“ Where are you going? ” I asked him. “ I don’t know.. maybe, I will get off at Mahim station and go to the Dargah. They serve free food there on Friday evenings” he told me.
“ Are you hungry? “ I could not resist asking. “Umm ….a little bit” he said. I moved to the Vada Pao stall on the platform ordering two vada paos . “I like mine spicy” he told the vendor who glared at me for encouraging “riff raff” like this boy to come close to his precious wares! I paid the vendor and passed on one plate to the boy.
“ So… tell me what is your name” I asked him. “You tell me yours first” he challenged me.
“My name is Anupama. Now tell me yours” I said. “Mine also begins with A –
Ashraf” he told me.
“Where are you from Ashraf? “ I asked once again. “I don’t have a home. I live wherever I can find shelter and where the police do not disturb me” he said with a laugh. “ But where are you originally from?” He seemed reluctant to
Meanwhile, I spotted my train and got ready to push my way in through the sea of commuters.
I saw him again the next week and the week after that. He introduced me
the second time to some of his friends –other children living on the streets. A
completely crazy lot –they seemed to find me very strange! The way, I drank my tea without slurping from the cup and the way I wiped my face with
a tissue. “ You really do not know how to enjoy your tea” said Ashraf.
Ashraf and I became good friends over the next three months. Meeting him would always be a surprise as his appearances were so unpredictable. But his cheerful voice calling out “ Anu Didi” was a welcome sound to the ear after a hard day’s work. I slowly got from him pieces of information about his life and put them together to form the complete picture.
He was from a village in Bihar and a school drop out. His mother had died when he was about ten years old. He left home at the age of twelve after his father remarried. He got on a train from the railway station adjacent to his village and went on to a bigger station from where he switched trains going on to another station and yet another until he arrived at the Mumbai VT station.
Once in Mumbai he joined a group of other street children involving himself in petty crimes and small trades like shoe polishing, selling small trinkets etc. He had been here for a nearly two years and behaved like a veteran street dweller. “What do you do when it rains” I asked him. “We go to the Mahim church. Father allows us to sleep in
one of the buildings in the compound”.
“But why don’t you join their program for street children ?” I asked him
The Mahim Church had a parish priest Father Brian Pereira who ran a program “ Vathsalya” for street children where they were taught to read and write, some trades and often sought to be re integrated into their families. I knew Father Pereira from my college days when he had come to give a talk to the students about the problems of street children seeking volunteers to help him in his endeavor. I had always meant to sign up but never actually did. Today, working as I did for a leading ad agency, I felt guilty that I had not taken up this opportunity when I could have.
“Oh he is a pain! He does not like our smoking and swearing” said Ashraf. “ He also
wants us to have a bath regularly and he lectures” he complained.
Typical adolescent behavior! We talked about other less controversial things- the movies and the stars! Ashraf was a movie freak and spent almost everything he earned in paying for the movietickets! I often asked him if he would come with me for a movie. Like all adolescents the question embarrassed him- being seen around with a woman twice his age in a cinema hall was not something he wanted. It was okay to chat me up at the railway station I guess. I continued to tease him about this giving him one day my visiting card asking him to call me if he changed his mind! He pocketed it and grinned saying “ Let me see!!!” running on to to catch
a train going in the direction opposite to mine. It always worried me –the way
he got on and off moving trains. He obviously did not buy any tickets either.
It was about 4.00PM when I received that call. It was an unidentified number. “Hello” I said cautiously,hoping it was not someone trying to sell me something. “Hello, is that Ms. Anupama Deshmukh?” enquired the person at the other end. “ Yes. Who is
speaking? “ I asked.
“ I am Inspector Pradhan from the Sion Police station” said the voice.
“ We got your visiting card from the pocket of a boy called Ashraf. Do you know him?” he asked me
“Yes. But what has been up to ?“ I asked cautiously
“He has met with an accident and has been taken to the trauma care unit at the Sion Hospital” said the Inspector. “ I am coming there” I said as I started packing up my things from the desk.
The Sion Hospital is one of the most chaotic places in Mumbai. A government hospital, in one of the CentralSuburbs, it was constantly busy. After about ten minutes of running from one enquiry counter to the next I was directed to the trauma care unit.
As I approached it I saw the huge crowd outside and wondered how on earth was I going to find out about Ashraf! I stood around the waiting area along with fifty others like me when I suddenly spotted Father Pereira! Running to him I asked him if he knew whether a street child called Ashraf was anywhere inside. “ I have come to see him too. Apparently he has been shifted to an intensive care ward. Come with me” said Father Pereira as he led me out from there.
After some more enquiries we finally got to the “intensive care unit” where Ashraf was supposed to be. “ Intensive care” was a misnomer as I found people running in and out and nurses shouting at each other for equipment that were probably very scarce.
And then we found him- lying on a bed with his head bound in a bandage and with tubes running up and down his arms hooked to bottles of liquid.
“ Ashraf” whispered Father Pereira gently touching him. Ashraf groaned with his eyes closed. A doctor made his way to the bed wanting to know who we were – “ I am his sister” I told him. “ Then please go to the pharmacy and get these medicines. We need to give him pain killers. He has had a head injury” I ran down and came back with the medicines.
Father Pereira and I sat there with Ashraf for the whole night. The pain killers did not seem to be working as my happy little friend tossed around screaming with pain. Toward 9.00PM we saw some other children – Ashraf’s friends come by. All of us sat holding our hands together as Father Pereira prayed.
Suddenly his eyes opened. “Water.. !“ I poured out the water and helped him
sip it as Father Pereira raised his injured head. “ Didi.. Father!” he said with what looked like a smile. “Lie down. Don’t strain yourself” I said. He closed his eyes and we went back to praying. Then again they fluttered open as he said weakly “ I want to eat”. I looked at Father Pereira questioningly as I was not sure what the diet instructions were. I was under the impression that they were giving him some sort of
intravenous drips. “ Please didi.. I want a Vada Pao” he said “ You can’t have all that now “ I said.
“ Please…..!!” he said focusing his eyes on me until got up and went out to the hospital canteen. I paid the cashier and collected the parcel making my way back to the ward. Was I at the wrong place? Why were there so many nurses and doctors
around that bed? Wasn’t that where Ashraf’s was?
My hands squeezed the Vada Pao into a paste as I soon found out why. I ran out into the corridor beyond the ward and stood there panting. My eyes refused to fill with tears as I threw the now mangled pieces of bread on to the ground and stamped on them with all my might! Suddenly my body started shaking and I slumped into a bench nearby.
I did not have the courage to go back into that ward to see the mortal remains of my dear friend. I stood against that wall until dawn when they wheeled out the body. Father Pereira came up to me and asked gently “ Are you alright child ?” I nodded numbly and continued standing there!
I received a call from Father Pereira the next day informing me about Ashraf’s funeral. Needless to say I did not attend the funeral.
I started going by bus to anotherrailway station and boarding my train from there. I cannot bring myself to enter Church Gate railway station. I don’t eat Vada Pao and I do not look at any street child any more! I just can’t deal with the pain!