A Fragrance That Could Have Been
I stood outside the houses next to the temple, wondering which one was hers.
Mehak? I said tentatively. To my left, on a metal balcony, a woman came out of a doorway. By her side was a black and white mongrel barking furiously, peering down the steps, threatening me. The woman wore a crumpled nightie, her tobacco-stained teeth rivalling its faded orange-brown design.
Chai? She asked.
No, I shook my head.
A large drop fell on my forehead. A leaking pipe covered with grime made its way down from the balcony. I wiped my forehead with my hand, shuddered involuntarily, took a deep breath and continued.
‘Where is Mehak?’
‘Downstairs,’ she said, gesturing with her hand towards the ground floor.
I removed my sandals, squeezed past two large plastic tanks, their water supply, and pushed open the dirty curtain hanging at the doorway.
I’d met Mehak for the first time at her school; a programme identified students who needed special care either because they came from challenging backgrounds or because of poor academic performance. At the introductory session fifty children interacted with the teachers, interns and volunteers. It was my first week as an intern and her first day on the programme.
I stepped inside the room, about five feet by five feet with little furniture. The television was on at full blast, stuck on a cartoon channel. Mehak sat to one side on a haphazard pile of bed sheets, leaning on pillows piled against the wall. She turned towards me, briefly, then looked back at the television. I settled down on the floor.
‘Hello Mehak. How are you?’
She increased the volume. I opened the sketchbook and started drawing. A few minutes later she was next to me, peering into my page.
‘I can draw that better.’ She grabbed the book and began re-drawing the bunch of bananas. She chewed the back of the pencil as she worked her way through the bends and curves of what would become a dozen of bananas. Our one-hour session was spent drawing in separate books. We didn’t speak.
Go slow, the counsellor had told us. Get to know them and their families first before pushing our agenda. We want to change their lives, want them to dream big and let them know they can, with our help.
I met her twice a week after school and we walked to her house together. The walk made my heart beat doubly fast as she darted away, refusing to hold my hand at a busy crossing. After a few weeks, I met her only at home, avoiding the perilous walk.
One day, a month into our sessions, I taught her a line. I would say, see you later, alligator. She would reply, after a while, crocodile. The words stumbled from her twelve-year-old tongue, she stopped halfway, shook her head. I made her say it again with me. She smirked. I waved goodbye, a smile on my face, and made my way home in a rattling auto-rickshaw. At a large junction, the light red, the auto-driver increased his speed, I clutched the bar in front of me as we jolted across between vehicles.
Why did you break the signal?
And that makes it right?
Today it had taken me one and a half hours to reach her house. The traffic had been insane. I sat in that small room, Mehak refusing to make eye contact. Do you want to play? What do you want to do?
Then a sudden, why are you here?
I pulled out books filled with bright pictures of fruits, vegetables, dogs, monuments and people.
I walked down the lanes out of the slum. The houses were squeezed together, even air seemed scarce. Outside on the road, the traffic had piled up. Autos, cars, even a large van, sped down the wrong side of the road, intent on beating the jam.
Don’t do that, I told my auto-driver. Stay in this lane.
Madam … we will be here forever. Seeing the traffic?
That’s fine. Why break rules? The system is designed to make our lives smoother, otherwise we would collapse into chaos and anarchy.
He looked at me in the mirror, his eyebrows scrunched on his forehead, shaking his head.
Tears chased down my cheeks blurring the red tail-lights that whizzed past.
I’m not able to do much with her, I told the counsellor in my review meeting after three months. The sessions are a study of silence.
She is a difficult child, the counsellor pacified, tough family background.
Mehak’s parents had fallen in love – he a Muslim, she a Hindu. They eloped, so her family disowned her. They came to Bombay from the village to build their paradise. It could have been a beautiful story. The father drank every night, rumour had it that he slept with women in the slum.
What about the mother?
He doesn’t let her out of the house. Suspects her. He doesn’t think Mehak and her brother are his. Outside the window a group of parakeets were shrieking, tumbling in the air, weaving through branches. I looked back into the counsellor’s eyes, they weren’t cold but lacked emotion. Life had failed Mehak so the system attempted to intervene. She craved something else.
A group session was organised that weekend. All the other volunteers and interns showed progress. Mehak sat away from me. I wanted to reach out, but knew she needed to come to me.
How’s your kid?
Mine just cannot stop talking. We worked on her dreams’ chart.
Already? Thought that was the goal after six months.
The volunteer shrugged her shoulders, tilted her head and gave me a crooked smile.
I went to look for Mehak. She’d gone downstairs to play during the break and refused to come back.
Hey, I’ve brought a lantern. Do you want to learn to make it?
Her father was lounging to one side of the room in a thin baniyan and badly tied lungi, the bottle of local liquor hardly hidden from my view. His right hand curled around a glass.
Mehak agreed. She was chirpy, engaged but looked at him every few seconds. He stared straight at the television. Bed sheets lay crumpled on the floor, pillows strewn everywhere. I wondered if he’d had someone over the previous night. Had Mehak ever chanced upon him with one of his women? How did they explain it to her?
Don’t venture into a conversation on values, the counsellor warned, it gets murky. Talk about how she can make her life better. Period.
Once there was a man sitting in the room with Mehak and her mother. He was young, dressed in tight pants and a shiny black shirt with a sly smile on his face. Mehak calls him Mama.
She takes a thick sketch-pen and writes on a piece of paper, decorating carefully, then shows it to him. He laughs looking at her mother who raises her eyebrows. It read ‘I love you’. Mehak smiles and says Mama, I love you Mama.
I’m going cycling she shouted, six months after our first meeting, just as I reached her home.
Do you know how to cycle?
Of course, she said. Come. Her eyes were lit, mischief rippling through her thin frail body.
I tried to keep up, my big bag full of books thumping against my side. I now carried storybooks, drawing books and a range of crayons and sketch-pens to entice her. I was still the Little Prince waiting patiently for the fox to come closer, but unlike in the book, she only ran further.
I lost her quickly in the labyrinth. Mehakkkkk…. A little girl at a corner said, pointing to the right, go towards the ground, behind the Police Station.
There was a large clearing between a few government-built apartments in a compound adjacent to the slum.
The ground was as crumbly as the buildings themselves; dust rose and hovered like a low cloud. Sewage pipes leaked, streaking the walls with black grime, as they made their way down into the ground where garbage hurled out of windows lay in piles. In the distance, Mehak was running. Her pink and black kurta fluttered, her dupatta trailing in the wind. In one session, she’d announced with a smile, my favourite colour is pink. She was wearing a pink kurta and had showed me her pink pencil box with Dora on it.
The dupatta dropped to her side as she reached a boy on a cycle. After a brief conversation, she took the cycle from him, jumped on and went off pedalling.
She went down a slope then came back up, cycling with great speed toward me, jumped off and gave me her dupatta.
I held on. She went down the slope but lost control and fell. I ran towards her, reaching just as the boy who owned the cycle yelled, it had better not be scratched.
You ok? I asked.
She got up, dusted herself and nodded dismissively.
I looked at the boy. Before I could intervene she turned and said, on my birthday, when my dad gives me my new cycle, I’ll give you a ride. She jumped on and sped away.
Mehak, my father will get angry … Be careful … he yelled after her.
After an hour spent watching her, I gave the dupatta back and said bye.
Should I come back next week?
No. Never. She yelled as she ran home.
It had been a long day that faded into a smog-filled night with no moon or visible stars. I sat on those metal steps, the dog barking somewhere behind me, watching the slum wind down. I had reached at five pm for the regular Wednesday session only to find Mehak missing. Since when? Her mum shrugged as she continued to make some chai.
How can you sit still?
What do you want me to do? I’ve looked. Police will register the case for a missing person only after twenty-four hours.
Mehak’s brother had gone missing before. They found him after months, with a group of teenagers in a desolate place nearby, living in abandoned furniture and autos. Addicted to cheap drugs, he refused rehab, refused to come back.
I want you to do something. She’s a girl. She’s thirteen!
Her mother shrugged.
I looked everywhere, sweeping the tiny lanes with matchbox houses that sunlight bypassed, knocking on random doors, that girl who came to the doorway, the boy with the cycle, outside on the streets and that dusty ground.
It had been ten days since her birthday. My father is getting me a new pink cycle she’d said for weeks leading to it. I came by on her birthday with a strawberry cake, large balloons and a twenty-four crayons colouring set. There was no cycle. Not on that day or for days after.
When it was ten pm, too late for me to stay, I walked to my car. The streetlights were blazing, headlights bright, everyone headed home. As I neared the signal, it turned orange and then red, the car beside me accelerated while I braked. The countdown on my signal had reached twenty seconds when a car behind honked, two rickshaws to my right inched forward blocking moving traffic, a group of two-wheelers darted across, one narrowly missing a BEST bus. The signal said ten seconds. Honks reverberated down the line. An auto went past my right, the driver yelled, gesturing at me. The junction was busy with people and vehicles converging from all directions, the law abandoned, the common man deeming his method better, faster.
I closed my eyes. I’d tried. The system had tried. We’d reached out but she squirmed, thrashed, refusing to be held and slipped deeper into the pit. That large cavernous one which opened up and sucked everything in.
See you later, alligator.
bhavani is an independent fiction and non-fiction writer. Her fiction has won contests at Women’s Web and made it to the 2015 Out of Print-DNA shortlist. She has over 70 non-fiction articles published in leading national and international magazines, newspapers and netzines. In a dedicated relationship with her husband, chocolate, her puppy and lower case, though not necessarily in that order, bhavani lives in Mumbai and loves working from home though she misses a regular dose of office gossip.