Next morning, on my request Tilak went to find the whereabouts of Tulsi. Nagbaba had already given the address where a few families from his area lived and worked. They were attached to a labor contractor who got them daily wage construction work. They shifted where work took them. In case of large building projects, they were given a small space near the building area. They could build their shanties, and stay till the work was over.
Tilak did not have much trouble in finding the details. He had his network - friends who kept an eye on vacant lands to inhabit the slum dwellers. Tilak was in a recession proof business, as he called it. It was just a matter of time before the genuine plot owner would realize about the illegal occupation on his land. Then he would come to them through some politician or police guy. And if the illegally occupied plot could have some commercial opportunity, then it was an icing on the cake.
In addition, the labors on a construction project were good targets for Government’s licensed liquor shops, bringing additional percentage on collections from these shop operators.
Tilak used to tell me there was no industry like his in creating wealth. And he used the term industry with pride. I had told him that there were many things wrong with it. To clear this image, he said, “Even movie stars did ads for tobacco which was very harmful, and then did socially good works with that money. I don’t make so much but donate it to the needy ones.”
So he had the image of a clean person in a murky industry. I could see why his friends were ready to do anything if he called.
By afternoon, he returned with exact details. He said, “Bhaiya, they are very near –just about two kilometers from this house. They are working on a large mall construction work, and live on a vacant hill next to it.”
We decided to go in the evening after sunset – to make sure that the workers had returned to their shanties. I told my parents before going. My mother gave some old clothes, bed sheets and some money for the child.
Since Tilak knew the person who collected from the liquor shop and was responsible for the maintenance and removal of the shanties, he suggested we take that person along. That way, the other men and women in the cluster would not be too curious. Else a stranger going to the shanty of a single young woman could face many queries.
It was a cluster of some thirty independent but closely held shanties. They were just behind the mall site. We had to drive around the muddy road around the mall. Some of the shanties had mud walls and decent tin roofs, while many on the sides or behind were made of anything the inmate could manage –from cloth to wood to rusted sheets. The shanties had many bulbs as they had taken an electrical line from the building under construction. There was a small path running through the cluster. The shanty cluster area was fenced with loose wires– more to earmark the area than to protect it.
Tilak’s friend showed us the way as he knew where Tulsi lived. As I followed them, I asked him, “Where do these folks get water from?”
He replied, “The builder has arranged for a daily tanker. It comes at 7 am. Each family can get four five buckets which is sufficient for a day.” I did not ask for the lavatories - the hill behind us was made for that purpose by God.
After many turns, we reached Tulsi’s shanty. It was at the end. Beyond it, but outside the fence, there was the liquor shop. By this hour, most of the men were languishing there while women folk cooked in their shanties. The men sitting there were just a few meters away and their conversations could be heard. Unlike what I would have predicted, they were pretty decent in their words, even though drunk.
The shanty was barely standing. It was a temporary structure made of rusted tin sheets on all sides and the roof was made of old tarpaulin. Most of these folks had no money when they migrated from villages, and hence made their shelter out of anything they got. But using her tribal woodwork skills, she had made a much decent one than others. She also had made a firm door of wood. It was closed.
I asked Tilak’s friend, “Why can’t you give her a more secure place in the cluster – in the center rather than at the end next to the Liquor shop. She is a single woman with a child.”
He replied, a bit hesitatingly, “Bhaiya, all others have families; so the women folks don’t want her near their men. But I agree with you. This is not a good spot. Late night, some of the drunken men sit close to the fence and create nuisance.” It was no wonder that her door was closed tight so early in the evening while all other shanties were scenes of activity.
Just before I knocked, my heart could not ignore the change of fortunes the two of them have had due to Tulsi’s death. I told Tilak, “This is what poverty does – one event breaks your back forever.”
Tilak said, “Bhaiya that is why I kept Shafiq with me since he was small.” These were the little facts about Tilak that had made me ignore his background. Beyond all his collection work and his aggression, there was a human who could not ignore another one’s distress. I realized that is why he was with me even though I had long ago broken the promise of regular payments to him.
The door opened slowly. Tulsi knew that her husband had last gone with me on Nagbaba’s instructions.
A thin dark woman, who looked like a twenty five year old, stood in front. Next to her, holding her saree, was a five or six year old girl. The girl had worn a frock just hanging by a strip, and without buttons.
I bowed my head, in a gesture to greet. I realized they had moved on from what happened. They didn’t want any explanation, nor recall the event. I said, “I have just returned from your village. Nagbaba gave your address as I asked for it.”
She remained silent. I asked, “Is there anyone else from your village or tribe here?”
She replied, “Yes Sahab. There are five other tribal families around.”
That opened up a conversation. I asked, “Can you call someone mature who takes care of your group?”
She told the girl, “Go bring Sona’s father and mother. Tell Nagbaba has sent one Saheb.”
Within a few minutes, a man came running, and tried to touch my feet. I somehow stopped him from that. I could see her relax now.
I told him, “I live only two kilometers away from here with my old parents. Her husband Tulsi and Nagbaba had saved my life. Nagbaba trusts me so he told me she was here.
“My family and friends feel grateful to her family. They have suffered a lot in a short period. I came here to let you know that if you need any help, we are there. We live just ten minutes away. This man in your shanty knows us and this paper has my address and number.” I gave her a sheet of paper.
Then I took out the packet that my mother had given. I asked the child, “What is your name?’
She said, “Muniya.” “Muniya, this is for you,” I said as I gave some money and the packet.
The mother protested, “Sahab, no need for all this.” I said, “Let her keep it.”
Then I addressed the man and Tulsi, “It is possible that someone from police or even a stranger may come to trouble you regarding the accident we had. Do not get scared or run away – you can come to my house or inform me or anyone on those numbers. Or you can consult Nagbaba and he will advise you.”
Now the man realized he was better off elsewhere. He had been in the city for far too long and lost the free spirit of the jungles. I asked him to show where his shanty was when we return. That was enough for him. He immediately made up an excuse that his gas stove was on and that he would be back in a minute. But he didn’t show up after that.
I told her, “See this is your neighborhood. They are not as strong as people in your village – here they have no safety of their roots. If you get scared or need help, immediately come to my house. There are more women folk in our colony than here – so do not worry.”
“Also you ran from village, but the little girl has no future here, and no safety. What does she do when you go to work all day?” I asked.
Tulsi answered, “She plays all day with other children in the slums.”
I asked her ‘How much do you earn?’
She replied, “They give 150 rupees per day. Out of that I have to give 30 to the contractor and 20 to the supervisor for providing shanty, water and electricity. We take 50 rupees home.”
I asked again, “Contractor and Supervisor add up to only 50. What about remaining 50. and what do you do with 50 you get.”
She smiled and said, “Saheb, we need 40 rupees for food – we have two stomachs to feed. I keep 10 rupees to buy something for Muniya. And 50 rupees I save with the lekhpal (accountant). He will give it when we leave.”
Then I turned to leave but again said to her, “You are grown up to see that there is no future here. It is a good start but your girl needs education, and has to keep away from bad company. Unlike your village, you are aliens here with no roots. Let me also think how I can help. Meanwhile, you can come home on free days – it might be good for both of you to know that you have relatives. And these drunken men also will keep away once they know you have.”
We took leave and walked back to the car. On our way back Tilak said, “Lekhpal will leave before they leave – these folks will make a hue and cry but then move accepting that it is their fault. But Bhaiya, they don’t have any accounts or place to keep money. So Lekhpal keeps it for them. And if they don’t follow the practice, then they won’t get the work.”
I gestured to Tilak to keep quiet. I told him, “There is nothing we can do about it. At least she has work and a place to live.”
On Sunday morning, I started tuning my violin. It had been lying idle for very long. Suddenly we were all disturbed by Sweety’s barking. She was not angry but happy – she was always happy to see a child. Standing at our gate were Muniya and her mother Tulsi, waiting for someone to come out and control Sweety.
My mother went out and though she had not seen them before, she knew who they were. Still she asked, “Whom do you have to meet?” Tulsi replied, “Bhaiya had come to our hut few days back. We are from Nagbaba’s village. I am Tulsi.”
My mother called them both in. My father, I and Sooraj were sitting in the drawing room.
I greeted them and asked them to sit. My father asked her about her work. Then he said, “You were better off in the village.” Tulsi did not say anything.
I informed him, “They have been given a hut behind the liquor shop. All kinds of men sit till late at night there.”
Slowly they became comfortable in our home. They had come here as it was an off day for Tulsi and she had been worried over what I had told her.
Muniya had started playing with Sweety. Sweety was a very playful dog and could draw any kid to her games. I asked Tulsi to go to the kitchen and make some tea for herself. My mother gave her some more work.
I retreated to my room, and started clearing my mails. Sweety rushed in quietly and hid under my bed. I knew it was her game. Muniya asked my father about Sweety. We all knew her hiding places; so he brought her in.
Muniya hesitated to come inside, yet the Laptop was an attraction. She stood behind my chair and watched in wonder. I explained to her what it was but it was too much for her. By now Sweety was jealous and came out and stood next to us.
Then I asked her what she did all day. She named her friends. Her day was spent playing with them and then fighting with other boys and girls. In evening she stayed inside the hut as mother did not allow her to play outside.
I asked her why, and she replied, “I can’t see well at night.”
“Another case of malnutrition,” I told my father. All his working life, he had never heard of tribals having weak eye sights. I told him of many cases being there.
Even during day, her vision was hazy beyond a few feet. After lunch, my father, Sooraj and Tulsi took her to an eye doctor. She had the night blindness and also needed glasses.
When they were preparing to leave, I asked my father, “Can’t we give them some place to live next to garage? She can help mother after and before work – they are hard working people.”
My father agreed, though my mother was more apprehensive. Yet in such matters, his say was final. But he told me, “See all this is fine; but they have to find a way of surviving in village. How long will they go on like this?”
I told him, “They will. Right now they are passing through a bad time but will find their way.”
I told Tulsi, “You can live here and go to work from here. You can make arrangement to stay inside the garage. It will be better for the girl.” We had many unused bathrooms and rest rooms meant for tenants but not given out.
She was very reluctant. But her daughter’s night blindness would have become worse without care and then the unpleasant noises of men shouting at night were also bothering her. I told her, “Your husband did a bigger favor to us. This is nothing.”
I called Tilak. He had taken Sunday off to meet his friends. Tilak and Sooraj went with Tulsi and brought all her belongings – a few clothes, a few utensils and a few wooden toys. That was all the material belongings they had in this world.
I was happy they had moved to our house. It was fortunate that my weekend Mumbai trip was cancelled.
It brought more life to our house as Sweety and Muniya started playing without any break. That night, they made their bed in the garage and Sweety too shifted there, not willing to be separated.
I told Tulsi to see if she can find work in the colony as a maid – lots of old couples needed maids to do household work. She would earn more with less physical effort.
At home, things became bright and cheerful, with a playful child around. Muniya was a handful. It did not take her long to assume her ownership of everything. Her round face with big eyes and endless energy won over everyone.
There were many children in the colony, and children have a very effective nose in sensing if a new one has arrived nearby. They quickly tried to befriend her but she was less interested till my mother pushed her.
Next afternoon, once the children were back from school, some of them came to my house to play. They made a lot of fun of her, making her cry. She was a talking point for them – she did not know numbers and alphabets and many elementary things. I had to intervene.
I must tell that I was much respected and feared amongst the children – especially those less than ten years. The reason was Sweety. Though the dog was harmless and only wanted to play, yet she was large and upon seeing a kid she ran with all her energy. Then only I could control her emotions. My voice would make her stop.
She also had a habit of running away with their balls or their books. Taking that thing back was impossible for anyone. Only I could retrieve the item from her. She was a terror to small kids.
There was another reason for children fancying me. My room was full of curious stuff many dreamt of. There was blackboard with colored chalks, there were fancy pen from all over the world, and then there were a huge box full of glass marbles – it was given to me by my uncle when I was small. And then I had a huge collection of tiny Chinese cars.
How did children know about it? It was kept inside a glass cabinet. While I was working abroad, my parents would sometimes show it to any child who visited.
With Muniya’s presence inside the house, the neighboring children had new hopes of getting a share of my treasure. In many ways, Muniya was exactly like Sweety. Muniya didn’t have much bookish knowledge; she was also playful and claimed her ownership on everything in the house. And, if someone insulted her or took away her belonging, she would remain heartbroken till it was amended. Making up again just required a new game. But to those she didn’t know, she was a silent girl and seldom made loud noises or cried.
I discovered two more things –she was a collector of sorts. Any discarded pen or pencil or small items of plastic quickly went to her corner in the garage. And she was larger hearted than other children. With love, one could ask for everything she had. Once in a giving mood, she never held back anything.
Within three days of coming home, Muniya had captured everyone’s imagination. My father planned to send her to the nearby government school. I was worried about her diet and eyes and had brought her soda glasses with the required power. But my mother had different worries.
She told my father, “Don’t send her to school – else they won’t leave. Tulsi is too young; she has to get married and go off to her village soon.”
I overheard her but did not say anything. There was a lot of good air inside the house, and I believed it will soon overcome all negative thoughts she had been having for some time.
I went to the balcony on the second floor and sat there with my cup of tea, and violin. I must have been there for an hour or so. Finding an opportunity, Sweety and Muniya had slipped into my room. Unable to open the locks of the glass cabinet, they had done a search operation on the table, the file cabinet and my clothes. The only thing they found worthwhile were the colored chalks.
When I returned quietly, Muniya was busy testing the color of the chalks on the board and Sweety had one in her mouth. Seeing me back, both froze. I looked around and realized they had touched everything. Before I could say anything, Sweety surrendered on the floor and Muniya started sobbing. They were in a state of shock and I was not going to forgive them right away. I gently asked both of them to go out and got to down to reorganizing.
After a couple of hours, my mother came knocking at the door. She said, “Both of them are lying heartbroken and half dead in the garage. We have tried cheering them up. But you will have to make up else they are not eating anything.”
I went to the garage. They became more aware and circumspect. Sweety was an easy one – I just had to caress her head, and she was up wagging her tail. Muniya was more depressed. I gave her an old toy car and said sorry. That opened the gates –she started crying and held my trousers but she had made up. I told her to come to my room and I had one more toy to give.
But she demanded, “You lift and carry me.”
I told her, “I cannot lift. My hand has a rod inside. You come.”
I walked out of the garage but did not see her come out. I went back to realize she was struggling with dark. I held her hand and brought her out.
After dinner they were back in my room, in anticipation. I was surfing on the net. Muniya asked, “The police broke your hand?”
I replied, “I hit something and it broke. But why do you think police broke my hand?”
She replied, “You know police killed my father. One day I will shoot them with a gun.”
I was surprised to hear this talk from her and asked her, “Who told you so?”
She said, “Children in my village.”
Then I gave her a chair and told her, “The police never kill a good man. Police are trying to find who killed your father. Do not let anyone tell you false stories.”
Then I asked her, “Do you want to be bigger than police?”
Instantaneously, she said, “Yes.”
I said, “Then you have to become a lawyer or a judge.” I knew she did not understand what it meant, just like she did not understand what police meant. But such words go to the permanent memory.
I continued, “You will need to go to school and study a lot. But before that you will need to eat properly so that you can see at night.” I think a lot of unexplained pressure in her young mind was relaxed that day.
Meanwhile, Tilak and Shafiq had a new respect for my family. He had gone around telling his collection of friends about this deed of giving Tulsi a shelter at home. This had earned their goodwill too.