She was a real lady. Soft spoken and gentle, with a constant half-smile on her face. Never would she complain or show any distress at the hard work she had to do all day. She accepted this as her fate. She was born into the grinding poverty and could see no way out of it.
From dawn to dusk she would toil, her day beginning at the crack of dawn. There were times when she could barely drag her thin body up from her ragged bedding, but there was no way she could fall back in bed. Who else would fetch the water from the water-pump? Who else would cook breakfast? It was slow and painful work, but she did it without a tear, ignoring her growling stomach and the nausea that rose up to her throat. She couldn’t eat, because the men had to be fed first. So once the water was brought, she would quickly light the choola, make hot sweet chai and then start to make the bajra rotis. They finished as fast as she could make them, wolfed down by the men with onions and pickles. It was only when everyone had eaten that she would sit down to to eat. Today there was only half a roti left, and though she wanted more, she had no energy left to make it. So she made do with half, grateful for it.
It was time to wash and clean and she always did it with a song on her lips. Today, she sang the dhoom machalo dhoom song she had heard last night from the raucous television next door. She was happy. She felt she was lucky because she didn’t have to work at a construction site, a fate which her friend next-door had to suffer. She had to stay at home, to look after the baby.
She heard him cry, and rushed to his side. In a jiffy she changed the rags he lay on and filled a freshly rinsed bottle with diluted milk. Then, with the baby on her lap, she leaned her skeletal frame on the door of their hut, and watched the colourful cars flash by. Sometimes if some of the chai was left over, she would sip it slowly, trying to imitate the gurgling sounds of the baby.
This was the best part of her day. She could rest, and look at the people on the streets. She looked with simple curiosity, not resentment. They were all well-dressed and fat to her eyes, but she felt she was lucky too. She had a family, a roof over her head, and one good meal a day. And the baby to play with. She couldn’t ask for more.
That was where I first caught a glimpse of her – her frail body almost invisible against the door. The powerful camera brought her up really close and as I focused on the tired, undernourished face, I felt as if I were intruding on her private space. But I could not drag the camera away from the beauty of that face, a beauty that only innocence can beget. I also could not help approaching her.
Ignoring the stares of the neighbours, I started to speak to her. Her name was Chanda she said, her face lighting up. She touched the silkiness of my sari, and the leather of my purse, and when I asked her, she willingly told me her story. As she spoke about the baby, the tiredness seemed to lift from her eyes. I was glad that she couldn’t fathom the pity in mine.
I gave her a chocolate and she laughed as she ate it. For her, it was the little joys that mattered. The taste of chocolate. The touch of silk. The smile of the baby, or just half a roti. After all, she was just seven years old, having been elevated to being the lady of the house when her mother passed away a few months ago, in childbirth.
Note: This story was inspired by a real incident, while I was out on the streets of Mumbai. The latter part is purely my imagination. I never did speak to the girl but I imagined I did. The “middle” has been very slightly edited since it was first published.
(This story was first published in the Times of India as a middle. After this, the Educational Department of H. Aschehoug & Co publishing house in Oslo, bought this story to publish in a textbook and related digital components called GLOBAL VISIONS for use in the foreign language subject International English in upper secondary school in Norway.)