Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Flowers

It always seemed so inadequate, this giving of a coin or two, as a bribe to the conscience, at the crossing. And so, in desperate hate at one’s impotence, Shyama would increase the amount every once in a while. She was one of the first to switch to five rupee coins while most people just handed out 50p or Re. 1. She was also the first to convert to ten rupee notes while the rest of the city was still catching up with her fiver generosity. To some extent, Shyama pretty much was a large contributor to the phenomenon of the Rising Market Rate of the Delhi Crossing Beggar.

Then Shyama read a very thought provoking article in a leading daily. And she was amazed at how the secret guilt of being financially secure, was not a secret at all. The writer had been through the same pangs, and had attempted to assuage the same guilt with the same rising currency denomination. It was not a unique trait at all; on the contrary, it was an urban malaise.

Shyama had been both fascinated and upset by the article. There was something respectable about a secretly harboured emotion, however crippling it was. The ‘deferred’ quality of newsprint, as Vikram Seth would’ve put it, suddenly took away her sense of identity. She didn’t want to share in a malaise. She had to reinvent this act of ‘giving at the crossings’ till she could rightfully reclaim it as uniquely her own.

The idea actually came to her by accident. One of the beggar kids once spied Shyama’s lunch box, lovingly packed by her mother, on the seat next to her. Still prattling his whining litany as if by rote, and shaking his palm desultorily at the window, the kid had given himself away by his eyes. Riveted, gleaming, hungry, hopeful, hopeless, charmed, imagining, fascinated, hypnotized eyes; glued to the lunch box. Shyama knew then that not one morsel from that would go down her throat too well. So she opened the lunch box and emptied out its contents into the suddenly alive palms. And another set that materialized next to it, as they are often wont to do at India’s big and small crossings.

This episode, blossoming into a regular occurrence at random crossings across the city, and kept fiercely secret from mom who continued to pack the food lovingly, not knowing that it never reached the tummy it was meant for, gradually burgeoned into a solution in Shyama’s head. The head, that was still searching for some unique identity in that 30 second act at the crossing, to brand it with some personal stamp, slowly woke to a theme. The theme was: kids and candy.

Another small incident helped cement the idea. This happened at a busy Mumbai crossing, somewhere in Andheri west. Because Shyama was in an auto rickshaw, and there were several cars around her, the beggars were giving her less than optimum attention. A few half hearted arms and palms, whines and whispers had materialized by the rickshaw grills, and had disappeared as rapidly. Those who traveled in auto rickshaws did not pay. They were chasing the racing meter in their minds, and the small change had already been swallowed up in their imagination. The beggars knew that.

Left in relative peace, Shyama had been able to observe the phenomenon she normally went through herself, from a slight distance, (if, what exists between any two vehicles on any Mumbai road can be termed ‘distance’). Apart from the regular array of women with babies, men with no arms, and kids in rags, there was this little girl trying to sell off a bunch of red balloons. While Shyama watched, the little girl went from window to car window, knocking, scraping, begging, pointing at her balloons, and Shyama suddenly realized with a little jolt, that the girl did not really want to achieve a sale. As the lights changed, the little kid seemed visibly relieved and skipped off to the sidewalk, to make way for the surge of traffic. As her auto zipped ahead, Shyama craned her neck for a last glimpse. The little beggar girl was looking like a real little girl now, scampering with her balloons, her eyes softly alight as they followed the bobbing of her temporary friends, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips. All little girl, till the light changed again.

How many needs were there, to cater to? Shyama wondered. And were we doomed to always take something away, while giving another?

One can never serve all the beggars in India. Nor can one fulfill all the needs of one beggar. You try and save them from cold and they die in the summer heat. You try and send them to school and they die of starvation for lack of income. You try and find them employment and they die of overwork and underpay. You find them a home and they die of misplaced gratitude that makes them steal your stuff and run away. You clothe them, they die hungry. You feed them, they die of exposure. You love them, and they die of embarrassment.

Shyama had already realized that this act of giving at the crossings had far less to do with the beggars, and far more, with herself. The arc that her hand made from her lap to the bag, from the bag to the window, drew a pattern between some undefined points in her life, and at the same time, erased something else – something that ought to be erased but never could be – as transiently and as ephemerally as a wave on sand.

Having come to terms with the superfluity of the entire purpose, Shyama was now quite comfortable introducing frivolity to the act itself. If it served no higher purpose than to make invisible arcs through the empty slates of her mind, than how seriously could she take the entire thing? Might as well have some fun and colour, circus and mirth, while she was at it.

And so Shyama stocked her car with bagfuls of candies. Candies and glucose biscuits all tumble-piled onto each other; glittering through the transparent plastic bag with unpredictable promise. The kids, beggar though they were, had an aesthetic instinct. They knew that tears and frowns and whines did not quite go with this booty. Sad stories and orange lozenges at the end of them? You didn’t need a public school education to figure out that that didn’t work.

And so it came about, that Shyama discovered a whole new side benefit to the Kids and Candy theme. Apart from making her crossings experience delightfully uniquely her own, she now had the added bonus of being greeted by a riotous, grinning, laughing bunch of kids, who behaved like kids. Since there was no money to be made here, the watchful grown ups and beggar pimps at the traffic light indulgently let the kids be during these one minute romps. No harm done, even to business – the same kids could return to other car windows and reapply the miserable teary expressions, and the car owners wouldn’t even notice the change. India’s sensitivities and sensibilities both, could be quite awe inspiring at times.

Over a period of time, the kids came to recognize her, and her weaknesses. They expanded their business with ‘didi’. Although she had totally stopped giving money, newspapers, they realized, she’d buy at times, in spite of lecturing them on how one paper was not very good and she much preferred another. The other thing Shyama found difficult to refuse, were flowers. The kids would sometimes crowd around her window, clutching drooping bunches of yesterday’s roses, bought, stolen or begged off the corner florist, maybe while he was shutting shop late at night. The florist perhaps gave the flowers away for free, knowing they were of scant use to him now. The roses would be well past their prime, sad in their marginalized beauty, not very unlike the kids who clutched them hopefully. Although their petals were already falling off with every slight movement of the hand, the roses would be packed quite cleverly, with bright cellophane, and sometimes with extra twigs to hold the stems up, hidden well behind and under extra green foliage.

Shyama noticed all this. And she could not resist buying them. When she put the flowers in a glass on her office table, they’d be nothing more than stems in just a few hours, the petals adorning the polished surface like a bridal bed. She often bought the flowers as much for their own sake, as the children’s. To give them a warm home in their last few hours, and a decent burial in the office dustbin. Ten rupees for a bunch of five seemed quite worth it. Sometimes on impulse, or for lack of change, she’d buy five or ten such bunches, and pass them around in office in an impromptu carnival. It was fun, and the roses smiled wanly, she felt.

The kids developed their own group dynamics with her over the years. The ones that grew up slowly drifted to the fringes, while the younger, cuter ones took centre stage. The more confident ones talked more, asking her to get clothes, get blankets, even get jewellery. Sometimes Shyama would remember these requests, and while emptying out her cupboard, pack some of her old wardrobe into the car. At others, she’d buy sweaters and t shirts from the handcart man, thereby perpetuating and supporting this fringe economy. It fascinated her in its secret working; second hand clothes bought by the cart man by weight, from the Lal Qila area, carted back to south Delhi and sold per piece, and then bought by the affluent to distribute amongst servants and beggars, who’d sell them off again in Old Delhi and the cycle would resume. Shyama liked the self sustaining economy of this cyclical process, and liked contributing to the futile churning of it.

At times, wistfully, after a manic day of debating irrelevances at work, Shyama would wonder why she did not make this fringe life of hers her entire life. There were people like that out there: working with street children, spending time teaching, releasing reports, visit-lecturing at international forums, chronicling pain, demanding release.

But Shyama never could take that significant leap. She liked her comfort zones too much. She enjoyed her extravagances; she was addicted to her superfluities. She had another secret reason, but she never articulated that, because it smacked too much of smug self-justification. But one reason also why she never managed to change her calling, was because she seemed to hardly ever met any of the NGO types who looked happy and fulfilled. Maybe it came from being face to face with suffering all the time, maybe it was the side effect of having to fight and yell for every last bit of grant, every tiny bit of concession, every blackboard, every chalk, every wooly blanket, but the fact remained, whenever Shyama met anybody who’d made the leap, they failed to inspire her. When she read about them in magazines in newspapers, her heart stirred, something swelled in her soul and she’d almost make up her mind. But then she’d meet the person in flesh and blood. Or, someone like the person written about. And her resolve would melt. A friend would call her for a night out at the pub and she’d quickly agree to meet, for a lager and a laugh, relieved that she didn’t have to save the world quite yet.

And so the fringe life continued. As the country progressed and Shyama read about 8% GDP growth, she’d be wryly amused to see that the beggars were better dressed in Delhi now. They genuinely were, compared to a few years back. Almost none of them were in tatters, there was nobody half naked, at least not in South Delhi, and even the whining expressions were gradually getting replaced by more self confident, poised aspects. The faces at the window had changed their story. They seemed no longer to say “I am pathetic, therefore pay”. Rather, the submission was more direct, more forthright, more honest, “you can afford it. Therefore, pay”. They put the onus back on you and that made it more difficult to refuse. And they wished you well, at the end of it, with a nod and a smile, and somehow, the transaction was an equal one.

“Didi”, an impish and utterly cute girl with wild mop of hair, had grinned at her through the window, on Rakhi day some years back, “2 rupaya de de, rakhi lena hai chote bhaiyya ke liye”. The ‘chotta bhaiyya’ in question was playing in the dirt near the pavement. The request was so endearing, Shyama had felt a bit guilty about putting it to the test. But she did, anyway. Smiling back at the girl, she’d said “I have an extra Rakhi in my bag, will you take that?” The girl’s grin had widened. Sure, she’d replied. But could she get some money too? For sweets? Shyama had promptly produced the sweets as well. And the girl, grinning wider still at being caught out, had happily accepted both the sequined thread, and the sweets, and scampered off to another window for the money she still sought. Shyama had never been able to figure out if the girl had been honest with her or dishonest.

Beyond the fringes of life at the crossings, the rest of Shyama’s life played out pretty much like life does for most young, 21st century women in Delhi. Work, and friends, and independence and longing; relationships and break ups and the perennial whirligig of time space and substance. When love arrived it came in a guise she had not imagined. When Shyama married it was in a way she had never anticipated. But it was a happy fulfilled place nonetheless, breaking through imagination and fantasies, and arrived at, in spite of them.

The night of her wedding reception, Shyama’s car stopped at the same dear familiar crossing, on the way to the reception venue. Her husband and some of her friends were already waiting for her there. Shyama had no wallet and no money on her, the sweets too had run out in the car. Dressed in bridal finery, Shyama felt the shock of the unfamiliar most acutely when one of the older beggar girls came to her window. This juxtaposition of the totally familiar with the new sense of unfamiliar she was waking to, made Shyama’s heart skid a bit. Who she was, and where she was, became a momentary blur in her head. The beggar girl was looking at her in wonder; she’d never seen Shyama like this before. About to proffer her bunch of wilted roses, the girl’s eyes widened and her smile deepened. Shyama smiled at her a bit sheepishly. “I can’t take anything from you today, I have nothing on me.” “Going somewhere special?” the girl asked. “I got married yesterday”, Shyama confessed, feeling embarrassed and awkward, as though meeting an acquaintance she had forgotten to invite. It struck her then that she did not know any of these children’s names. The girl lit up, “take some flowers then, you’ll look good carrying them.” Helpless Shyama shrugged “But I have no money today, I’ll get all of you sweets tomorrow…”

Shyama’s driver turned around. Unsure whether he should reach for his wallet and help his mistress out, or shoo the girl away so that Shyama was not hassled unduly, the driver waited for his cue.

It was at this point that the beggar girl took charge of the moment that had slipped out of Shyama’s control and comprehension. She thrust a bunch of roses in at the window. “Take them” she commanded. “You can pay me tomorrow. Or not. It doesn’t matter. ‘Koi baat nahin’.”

When Shyama walked into the resplendent reception lawns, the lights twinkling in the trees and Chopin playing softly over the sound system – her husband and her father in law’s choice - she clutched a bunch of red roses close to her. The old sad flowers seemed to seep a confidence into her, a rock solid identity while she dealt with new fragile ones. Every time the evening threatened to overwhelm her, Shyama referred herself to the flowers for a sense of rooting. She carried them around the entire evening and then late at night, when she came home tired and flushed, content and flustered, the roses found place in a glass on the table in the bridal room: the best gift she’d received that evening.

1 comment:

anurita said...

just re read this piece. the first time I read it, I felt general happiness and admiration for your writing skills. This time around, it just left me with a brilliant sense of satisfaction..that the flowers r safe, and no matter how wilted they might be, they do a lot for Shyama. love it!!