VADA PAO

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
answer.

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!

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THE REFLECTION

“Careful!  please don’t knock the sides” Jayashree said anxiously as the three men   moved it up the stairs and into her flat. “Here- place it against this wall” she said  opening the door to her bedroom wide.  After some heaving the dressing table was deposited at the spot indicated.

Closing the door after tipping the  men she made her way to the bedroom to admire her  new acquisition in privacy. A beautiful chest of drawers in mahogany with a wide top and a mirror set against an ornately carved frame.- she had spotted it at Mani’s Auction Yard last week. It was dumped in a corner carelessly but somehow, it seemed to beckon her and finally after some haggling Mr. Mani ( or his representative) agreed to sell it to her for Rs 10000 inclusive of the restoration and transportation fee.  After a week long wait it was finally home!

Jayashree spent the next couple of hours arranging her clothes and trinkets on the dressing table before collapsing on the bed. The dressing table seemed to become the focus of her vision. She continued staring at it until her eyes finally closed in sleep

The next day was a hard one.- meetings and then reports and then more meetings!  “I wish I didn’t have to work so hard” she grumbled to herself as she shifted around at her desk. Just out of habit she glanced at the cabin opposite her expectantly. No luck! He was sitting with his head down looking at some reports.. Ah now he had looked up..! Was he looking at her? No! He was looking at his computer screen.

“ I just have to make another attempt” thought Jayashree as she made up an excuse to enter his cabin.

“Hello Sandeep- do you want to see the new layout for the annual report? “ she asked

“No. I am busy with the audit report” he said without looking at her.

Disappointed she went back to her desk. This man was too much! He did not talk to anyone outside of what was absolutely necessary. A chartered accountant, he had recently joined the company where Jayashree worked as a communication manager.  Somehow, right from day one he had aroused her interest but he was oblivious to her. Today and every day.

“I need to do something to make him notice me” thought Jayashree determinedly as she rose up to leave for the day.

After two hours of honking and manoeuvring the scooter she managed to reach her flat. Her mobile was ringing – Amma again!!!  “Must be about some marriage proposal  ” she thought as she let it ring. Flinging her bag on the bed she made her way to bathroom for a shower.

Wiping her face with a towel, Jayashree stood in front of the dressing table and  looked at the mirror. The reflection  that stared back was not very inspiring –  a mop of unruly hair, indentions where her specs sat on her nose, medium sized eyes close set, her father’s stubborn chin and a wide mouth. “No wonder he does not notice me” she said to herself loudly as she turned away from the mirror with tears in her eyes.

“Hey you.. turn back” said some one.  Jayashree started! Who could it be? “Here look here “ it said again.

Jayashree turned back in the direction of the voice and found herself looking at the mirror . Only,  it was not Jayashree that the mirror reflected. It showed the image of a girl about as old as herself, in a green Kanjeevaram saree wearing antique jewellery and flowers in her hair. A big bindi adorned her forehead.

“ Hello. I am Lalita” said the reflection smiling at Jayashree. “ My god, I am hallucinating! ” thought Jayashree  convinced that all the heavy traffic had affected her psychologically in some way. She continued to stare at the mirror.

“ This used to be my dressing table. My father had it specially made for me as a part of my dowry. I am glad you have it now because I see that you love it as much as I do” said Lalita.

“But who are you , besides being the previous owner?” asked Jayashree. “I am Lalitha from Thanjavur. My father was a leading advocate and I was his only child. He was very sad when I died”  she said.

“You died? You mean… you are a ghost?”  asked Jayashree open mouthed.

“Yes. I died in childbirth and so did the baby.” said Lalita. “I am sorry! But why are you inside this mirror?” asked Jayashree

“ Well, I spent a long time in front of it and so, now I am locked within in”  sighed Lalita.  “ You must have been very vain” Jayashree could not resist saying.

“ No my dear. I spent hours in front of this mirror wondering how to make myself beautiful enough to get him interested ” she replied.

“ But you are so beautiful! How could anyone not be interested in someone like you?” asked Jayashree.

“ Beauty, is not physical. It is a combination of many things and the physical is only one of them. I was those days what you would call a dumb doll, I  did not know how to converse in an interesting way. Besides, at nineteen I had no talents to boast of. I just hung around my husband hoping he would one day notice me” said Lalita sadly

“ And did he” asked Jayashree waiting with bated breath for the answer

“ Yes but that was not until a year later. A year during which I learnt how to arouse  my husband’s  interest. He was an intellectual. So I learnt to read books that he read and discuss them with him” said Lalita with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh no..! I hope I don’t have to now learn to do double entry book keeping or Tally” said Jayashree in disgust

Lalita raised her eyebrows questioningly. And then it all came out- about that “awful” Sandeep, his lack of interest in Jayashree and her frustration on her inability to get him interested!

“But why are you trying to seek his attention like this? Ignore him!” said Lalita.

“ I can’t! You see he sits opposite my work station” said Jayashree. “No, I did not mean that you really ignore him. You just pretend to do  so. And while you are at it, you can also take some efforts to look as good as nature intended you to be. I saw you leave for work today. Oh!! Crumpled shirt and trousers and hair bunched back as though you wanted to hide it ! Tell me why do you need a dressing table? To look into the mirror and feel sorry for yourself ?”  asked Lalita

“ My iron was not working and besides I was late” mumbled Jayashree.

“ Now listen to me- you are not going to work looking like that tomorrow! You will wear something nice. What about that yellow kurta in the lower drawer? And  some make up?”

“Lalita, I don’t want to be all dressed up. I will feel like a fool” said Jayashree.

“ Jayashree, nature bestows each woman with a unique beauty. Yours is in your hair and your skin. You have the talent that I lacked as also the education that I did not have. What you don’t have is  confidence. Beauty is all about making the best of what you have and wearing it with confidence. And the rest is about a bit of strategy” said Lalita calmy “Think about it. Good Night” and she was gone!

Jayashree stared at the mirror. It now reflected back an angry and grouchy face- hers! She switched off the light in anger and burrowed in under the covers of her bed.

9.30AM the next day

 Sandeep looked up from his desk at the girl who had just walked in. She wore a beautiful yellow kurta and had long silver earrings dangling down the side of her face. Her bangles clinked as she waved at Suresh, the accountant in the work station next to hers calling out “Hi”. He waited for her to call out the same greeting to him. But she moved on to her desk and started her computer.  She appeared to be engrossed in her work. He noticed the way her hair swung around when she transferred the phone receiver from one ear to the other.

Two hours passed and then  three and now it was lunch time! Jayashree made her way to the canteen. Just as she picked up her tray and sat down she heard a voice behind her “Excuse me. Can I sit here at this table with you?” Jayashree stared at Sandeep for a full minute before she  said “ YES”

“Some water?” asked Sandeep as he poured out  water from a Bisleri bottle into a glass for her. “Thank you” she said as she looked into her glass of water – Was it her imagination or did she see in it a girl in a green kanjeevaram saree wink at her and nod her head in approval?

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

It has been over a month now and there is no sign of her. I  go to all those places where I had encountered her – the bus stop, the library,  the canteen, the tea stall outside the university entrance… just about every  possible place I could reach on my own! I ask people  I meet in those places  if they have seen Sujata.

Sujata – a fairly common name immortalized in literature by  none other than Tagore!

“ Which Sujata?  I  have ten listed here. Do you at least know the department ?” asks the clerk at  the library.

My friend Ravi is of no help either.  He was not there when I was with her.

I try calling the university hostel and draw a blank again. “  Can you atleast describe her? “ asks the girl at the other end.

Describe her….!  How  do I describe something that I have never seen?

Yes, I am blind. I was born blind so I do not even have a  reference point from which to start describing something.

Born into a well to do family I have been given the best education  that this country offers for a blind student. Driven by a determination to  overcome my visual impairment I used all my other senses and faculties to the  maximum. A brilliant student , I am a research scholar in the economics  department of the university. Generally, very self sufficient, I can navigate  my way around any known territory.  I use  the services of volunteers to help me read books and write my exams.  I rarely speak to them  outside of their task. To me they are often  nothing more than instruments- like a pen or an audio source!  I don’t want their pity disguised as “kindness”
Ravi .my childhood friend is the only social interaction  that I have outside of my family.  Ravi  knows my hang ups about life.  He is  often critical about the way I am but I let it be…!  I sometimes think that he is like my eyes but  I feel he thinks he is also my conscience!  A loyal friend he was the centre of my dark  world- that is,  until I met her.

The new academic year had just begun and I was sitting in  the library.  There was a paper due for  submission sometime next month and I was waiting for my usual “ reader” to show  up.  I fingered my Braille watch and  found that it was almost an hour past the time he was due.

It was then that I heard her, or may be experienced her  presence.  A faint smell of  ponds powder, a rustle of some cloth , a  faint clinking of bangles across the table and then that voice which asked “ Can I help you?”

I started! “ No.. it is ok. I am waiting for someone” I said  in my usual gruff voice.  “ Yes I can see  that but can I help you with something in the meanwhile?”  she asked again.

I had never heard a voice like that before. Absolutely  divine!  Sounded as sweet as honey and as  soft as velvet.. I wanted to continue hearing it ring in my ears. And ring it  did – continuously for a month as she became my official reader of books for
that paper preparation.

We used to meet regularly. There was a pattern to it. I  would wait for her at my usual table in the library. She would then walk me  around the shelves reading out the names of the books and I would indicate whether  or not we needed it. Then we would issue those book and move out into the  garden outside where she would read from the chapters I wanted and I would take  notes in Braille. A few hours of this and we would then go to the canteen for  tea and snacks following which I would drop her off at the bus stop.

I usually knew she was there even before she announced  herself. It never failed to amaze her!   For  such a talkative girl, I am surprised now when I think back, how little she  actually told me about  herself. Most of  her conversations would be about others- particularly me.  Other than Ravi, I can say that she was the  only person who actually came close to scaling those walls I had built around  myself.

Sujata……a presence that slowly became a voice then a touch. It  was raining that afternoon when  she  pulled me close into the umbrella that we were sharing. Her touch was as soft  as her voice could be when she asked me some very sensitive questions. Was it silk or her skin I wondered as we made it to the shade of a tree.  I wanted to take her in my arms and kiss  her..

“ You are the most beautiful woman in this world”  I said pulling her towards me.

“ No I am not. I am a  dark , fat and ugly girl” she laughed

The rain stopped and we parted. I remember the musky smell of her body –sweat and ponds powder. Felt her lips on mine and the smoothness of  her hair ..  Her breath on mine and her  soft hands against my face

That was one month ago.  I haven’t met her again after that.  I don’t know if I ever will ! The world of darkness and the world of  light do not often intersect. If they do then the rules of this intersection  are determined only by the people who live in the world of light!