Santoshi was ten. Perhaps twelve. She had a habit of delaying everything she did before five in the evening, because that was when Kritika didi came for her mathematics class. All of this was new to her anyway: the idea of scribbling numbers on a notebook, and “solving problems” as her didi would call it. Her only encounter with numbers had been the notes she once counted. Although she hated math now, there was a time when she was good with numbers. Was that very long ago? A time when she couldn’t “read” but had carried out transactions by recognizing the imprint on each note: different colorsand sizes for different purposes;the old man’s smiling face on all of them—Gandhiji, Kritika didi had told her recently.
The class happened in her mother’s office, two lanes away from their home. It was a short walk (or run, in her case) and she would jump across puddles that came with the rains, and forgot to leave. The houses in the locality were built in such a way that it took some effort to tell where one ended and the other began. One terrace would lead to another and one television set would entertain at least three houses. Santoshi’s house was a little farther from the rest. One could tell that this one didn’t fit in with the other brightly painted ones. The green, blue and pink buildings stood high, while her rusty off- white painted house sat right next to the stinky pond. Or kachra kua, as the children referred to it. This was also where the pig-catching happened every Sunday morning—men on motorcycles raced behind pigs, to catch, butcher and sell. Santoshi was never allowed to see how they did it. Or maybe she chose not to. The pig- catching caught her attention only when the dogs would start barking in protest every time they heard the vehicles. She would lock the door and yell at them: ‘Chup! Nahi bacha sakte tum unhe.’ Even if the dogs could save the pigs, would she let them?
It was almost five o’clock. Santoshi’s mother was cutting watermelon slices, sitting cross-legged in front of the old television. She yelled for Santoshi to get dressed. Inside, Santoshi was holding a faded yellow frock against her body. It seemed as though the frock had shrunken from what she remembered.The hem came till above her knees now. She put it on suspiciously. Standing in front of the long mirror on the almirah, she brushed her hair, and looked at the person staring back at her. The left eyeball was a little to the side. She had a dusky complexion, enhancing her already sharp features. Her arms had always been lean. Her hair was now shoulder length: dark brown, fuzzy, and let loose. The chest was where her gaze always lingered. She thought it was growing rather fast. As if faster than the other parts of her body. She remembered it being flat. And now it was changing. Her mother had told her that soon she will have to wear bras, and she hated the idea. Bras were those weird looking pieces of cloth that strapped your chest tightly. She’d seen it. Why should a part of her body have to go through that? What if she didn’t want to wear bras? Shouldn’t people get to choose? She made a mental note to ask her mother.
‘Santoshi, beta hurry up. Here, take a slice and rush.’Roopali said, walking into the bedroom and handing her a watermelon slice. Santoshi took her school bag from behind the bedroom door, dropped a pencil in it and wore it on her shoulders as she dragged her feet to the gate. Outside, Bhuru Rani was wagging her tail waiting to drop Santoshi. The canine family were her only friends in the locality. Santoshi’s mother had rescued Radha Rani, Bhuru’s mother, from the streets. Radha was a beautiful golden- brown dog, with a furry tail and eyes filled with warmth. She was one of those dogs that let everyone caress her, and wouldn’t bark even at strangers. After raising her for three years, the owners had declared that they couldn’t look after her anymore. She was left to the streets. Roopali rescued her, or so she believed. She never had the time to take care of her either, but if giving shelter to the homeless is rescuing, then maybe she did.
Radha Rani grew up eating two dry rotis and dal every day, and sometimes kaju biscuits that Roopali would stack up from daada’s little shop at the chowraya. The dog wandered around the locality while Roopali worked. She never worried about the dog very much, because Radha would make its way back home, every night. Eventually Bhuru Rani and Sappo Rani: brown and white respectively, entered their family. Neither of them got their mother’s charm. The street dogs had played their part well, Roopali would tell the neighbours.
‘But Neeta, this is not an innocent girl we’re talking about. She’s grown up differently. If she can say things like that, imagine what else she can do. I cannot afford to put my career at stake for her. These are not just people we’re talking about. They are votes.’Roopali sounded concerned on the phone call. On the other end was her classmate from college and now a Human Rights lawyer, Neeta Chandani.
‘But didn’t you say that things were getting better between you two?’ Neeta asked, trying to sound calm.
‘Yes, I thought so. But you never know with this girl. One day she’s happy..and the very next, she’s troubled.’
‘Hm.’ Neeta responded in a low tone.
‘It’s not like people don’t know.But it’s hard on me too yaar. I can’t even tell if they empathize. Sometimes I wonder why I had to come here. Delhi was at least familiar, you know?This place…its people… everything still amuses me. Do they really accept my daughter? Do they tell their children to stay away from her? I will never know!’
There was a short pause on the line.
‘I can’t deal with this anymore, Neetu. Is there no way for us to know if she’s over eighteen?’Roopali asked.
‘Calm down Roopali. I’ve been in conversation with organisations. I’m trying to understand. It’s complicated. Listen to me. You need to stop beating yourself up like this, okay? You’re doing good work, and you should be proud of it. Yes, you had everything in Delhi, but you chose this right? This place, its people…’
‘I did, but…’
‘But what? Trust that things will be fine, and they will be. I have to get the child’s statement on this. Can I send someone tomorrow evening?’
‘I’ll be at the office but they can go anytime before five. She should be there.’Roopa said, sounding tired from the conversation.
‘Okay. And oh, about the completion of eighteen years, do you think you can find her parents somehow?’ Neeta asked.
‘Huh, if there was anyone close to being that in her life, they wouldn’t have let this happen to her. And to me, now.’ Saying so, she hung up.
Roopali closed her eyes with the palm of her hands and leaned on the wall next to her. The day she was coming back from Jabalpur played in her mind. It was past midnight. Her car had broken down, so she had to stop at a shed on the highway. That was where she first saw the girl: clearly bruised, probably beaten, and…raped?
She named her Santoshi.
‘My mother say that she come in when I take bath. Because I take bath long time.’
‘Beta, has she ever touched you in uncomfortable ways?’
‘Umm..did she ever touch you there, and there?’
‘Does she force you to do things you don’t want to?’
‘Has she beaten you?’
‘Do you like living with your mother?’
‘But she beats you na? Still?’
‘Yes. Still live with mummy.’
‘That child is a liar!’ a flustered Roopali shouted into the phone.
‘Calm down, Roopa. I’m just telling you the statement we got from Santoshi’, Neeta responded from the other side.
‘But… she lied. How dare she tell them that I treat her badly? Molest? You have to be kidding me. You don’t get it, Neeta. You just don’t. She doesn’t know what she’s saying…and you? How can you believe in what a child says, a child of her kind that too?’
‘I’m trying to help, Roopa. I’m only saying that her statement has messed things further. Honestly, I don’t know how much the child understands all of this. What does she even want?’ Neeta asked in a discomforted tone.
‘Oh, I wish I knew! I thought I was helping her. Trying to give her a normal childhood, for god’s sake. But maybe she never even asked for it. Do child sex workers ask for it? Do they know they can? I think they’re never told they can… Her parents… I’m sure they measured her in terms of the notes she added to their income. Maybe she learnt her worth in those notes too, who knows. Maybe she thinks I have stopped her from getting the money she used to…maybe she thinks this is a game…maybe she hates me for trying to be with her. I don’t know. I really don’t know what’s going on.I am the villain, I think. Because I tell her that she’s a child—meant for other things, better things. So I am the villain..’Roopali had a lump in her throat.
It was either anger, or sadness, or both.
At the chowraya, Santoshi sat with Radhika, Kritika’s younger sister. Kritika had been teaching Mathematics and English to Santoshi for three months now, and Radhika would sometimes accompany her. Radhika was seemingly younger to Santoshi. Though they lived in the same neighbourhood, they had never really talked. Almost as if there was an unsaid understanding among the kids—about who belonged with them and who didn’t.
Kritika had left them both at the chowraya, and had gone to get some photocopies for her college assignment. The two young girls sat on the staircase leading to daada’s shop.
‘Arey, she not my mother. She mummy. My ammi not here’.
‘So she is your step-mother?’
‘Step- mother means?’
‘Don’t you know Cinderella? She has a step mother. Step mother is not real mother. Step mother is bad.’
‘My mummy not bad. She save me from my real ammi and abbu.’
‘You have two mothers then? I only have one’
‘My ammi not mother. She never love me. She never hold me when I sleep. But Roopa mummy always touch my hair slowly and put me sleep. First I don’t like. Because no one did like that na. But now I only sleep when she do that. And I turn to right and hold her. And I sleep.’
‘I also sleep next to my mother. And sometimes didi. But why do you always run away from home? All children say you are not like us, and that is why you run away.’
‘No one talk to me. So what should I do? I no have friends. So I go to construction site. Cross the road from here, behind paan shop. Once daada saw me and told mummy. Mummy came and she beat me when she see me with Bablu. So now I not go there also.’
‘You went to the construction site?My parents also don’t let me go to construction site. They say it is dangerous. Your mother is right Santoshi. You should listen to her.’
Just as she said that she saw her sister crossing the road and approaching them with a pile of sheets in one hand, motioning towards the vehicles to stop with the other.
‘Didi is here. Let’s go’, Radhika said, dusting her skirt as she stood up. Santoshi looked up at her.
I run. But I go back home na. Santoshi’s words didn’t come out of her mouth. No one was listening anyway.
‘I thought I could handle this. But I can’t. I have one life, Neeta. Not marrying, not having children, coming here to work, what was all this for? Wasn’t it bad enough already?’
‘Roopa, relax. You’re bringing up things that are not even relevant right now.’
‘Not relevant? How is my happiness not relevant to all this, ha? All I ever wanted was to get justice for these people. They needed me to fight for them. And now, all the files are just there…piling up…in the office, while I’m dealing with one girl. Now that I think of it,I feel I shouldn’t have gotten into this mess at all. I think I’m done. I did all that I could. If she can’t live in peace with me, then what’s the point? I guess it’s different from takingRadhaRani in. That poor soul just moved from one home to another. This one? She always belonged to the streets. I shouldn’t have tried to change that.’
‘Roopa…you need to listen…’
‘Close the case Neeta. I’ll put her in an orphanage.’ A tear rolled down her cheek, as Roopali composed her voice, pressing the phone to her ear.
‘You. Listen to me now. If that’s what you want, I’ll close the case. Roopa, it has been hard for me too…seeing you like this. I’ll visit in the last week of May, okay? Don’t worry about anything now. If you’ve made up your mind, I’ll send the papers to your office. Just sign them and you can get back to your life like nothing happened.’
She cut the call.
Roopali stood staring at the pond. Radha Rani was running behind her two children, licking them while they tried to get away. They would run a little distance, and wait for their mother to come closer. And then run away again.
Like nothing happened… Like nothing happened…
It was one of those nights when nature turns callous, as though wanting to say something. Everything was black. It didn’t matter anymore if the buildings were brightly colored or not. Darkness evened it all. Lightning and thunder were playing hide and seek in the sky. Rain threatened to break the weak rooftops, peeling them layer by layer. Roopali had dozed off in her office, while waiting for the power supply to come back. It was past midnight. Bhuru, Sappo and Radha, all lay beside her, their legs tangled in a mess. The dogs silently fought for space in the suffocating room. Only the rain could silence these playful creatures.
The huge unkempt files in the racks showered papers from time to time, which carefully fell to the damp floor. Whatever these documents carried, it was all being ruined by the unsympathetic rain. Suddenly, there was a loud sound—a thud. Something fell, something broke. Maybe a door, maybe a cloud, maybe a promise.
‘Santoshi!’ Roopali woke up with a jolt, frantically looking to her left.
That was where Santoshi would lay.