She notices my obvious discomfiture and approaches me. I try to look away. But before I’m able to put up a solid act, she’s extended her scrawny palm before my face. So close that I can smell the dust and urine from it. Or so I think. In a daze, I fumble for my purse, dig in it for small change, finger a few coins and as I’m about to hand it over – it’s too late. The auto-rickshaw jolts and races ahead even as I feel her clammy fingers on mine.
The sights and sounds around magnify and beat on my senses as I gather my shawl around myself . The road is a blur of light and dust. There is not much breathing space as bikes and rickshaws screech to a halt all around, filling up the nooks. Trapped as in a vicious nightmare, I try desperately to focus on something nice.
I used to meet a flower-girl at this place. She’d had her tawny hair tied back in several plaits – making her cheeks look fuller than they were. She was a charmer, the little one – and she’d jump inside the rickshaw – arms laden with flowers. I haven’t been seeing her lately.
The rickshaw races ahead – like everyday. I’ve been up and down this road for more than a year now, and the sizzling blue Mercedes gliding along doesn’t appeal to my senses. Not today. A part of my brain wills the driver to stop or take a U-turn. Another part tries to reason. Caught between reason and impulse, I sit back and philosophize.
She had a man on her back. Half a man, to be correct, which made her progress slow and painful in between the labyrinths of stalled vehicles. But she was perfectly calm. She worked her way in accustomed silence – with the knowledge that the very sight of her will loosen the purse-strings.
Besides, aren’t there labour cartels – of the flea market variety – that force poor folks into begging and prostitution? Giving alms to the poor, in a way, perpetuates the problem, without bringing any positive change to their lives.
So I think for the umpteenth time, what WOULD bring positive change to their lives? Would it help if I contributed to some charity? Would it ensure that the money reached her? And even if it did, what would she do with it? I doubt if she’ll buy soap to clean her hands. Probably she’d spend it on food. Or worse, on a drunkard husband.
I think about my charming flower-girl. I might never see her again. And if she lives on the streets, she will soon wither away under the hard gaze of leering men. Or harden into a smouldering, swearing young girl spitting tobacco in your face with abandon. My soul breaks at this grim inevitability.
They are lost to us. These words that I employ to describe them are, at best, an apology and a misnomer. Because my words are light-years away from their world. And because I cannot face them full on. I cannot justify my privileges in the face of their pain. Because, for all my well intentioned rhetoric, I am paralyzed between impulse and reason. And for every woman begging on the streets and smelling of urine, I fail as a human being.