I had met Phulo for the first time few years back when I had just started working in the Churchgate area of Mumbai. Everyday, during lunch breaks me and my colleagues would come down from our office building to take an after-lunch stroll in the adjacent Marine Drive area. Being new to the city, this c-shaped long and wide road with its perfectly lined palm trees enthralled me completely and its wonderful walkway became the regular escapade that allowed me the much needed mental comfort to beat the monotony of office work. It was here that I saw her for the first time.
She would always be around that area begging to the fellow by-walkers. Yes, she was a beggar. While we often see beggars around us, (despite several Yojanas and social welfare programs since time immemorial, nothing changes), I can say without a doubt that she hardly looked like one. This young girl was strikingly different. With the salty breeze from the Arabian Sea washing away her face, her curly hair let lose in the air, she would listlessly go about begging irrespective of everything else around her.
While others did the same old discussions around the recent office politics, my eyes would be held at her. I watched how she ran with her team of two-three other kids duty-bound after men and women alike. They had a few tactics though, sometimes, it would work, sometimes, it won’t. Young couples in their happiness of newly found love would give them few coins, this they knew. More often than not, this logic worked. While other two kids were still very young, Phulo probably a teenager then was the oldest among them. With an old salwar kurta clad around her, disheveled curly thick hair and red and green bangles in her slender arms, Phulo had that glint in her eyes that made me look for her every day during our lunch breaks. Her features were sharp, she was dark, but her large eyes, they had it all.
After few months, one day when she was passing by me in search of a prospective benevolent soul, I called out to her. She stared back at me. I saw her up and close, who would say that this girl is a beggar?
I pulled out my wallet from my trousers, I was aware that she was anticipating as to how many coins I would give her, I placed a 10 rupee note on her raised palms. She was delighted.
“Thank you Saab”, she smiled at me and ran away.
I asked her raising my voice, “what’s your name?”
“Phuloooo”, she shouted back, running away in gay abandon, with the 10 rupee note in her hand and a big smile on her lips.
I felt a real happiness that day. This girl, whom I didn’t know made me feel happy strangely, I was unable to understand why and how. I regularly kept seeing her on the Marine Drive walkway running after people for money.
I called out to her again another day, she came running and raised her right palm in anticipation of the money, her eyes fixated at my wallet. I said, “Phulo, if you speak to me, I will give you the money. Will you?”
“Are you from police Saab?”
“Police? No I am not, why?”
“Arre saab, my uncle died the other day and police came to our basti (slum) and kept asking so many questions, that policeman also told me that if I know anything I should tell him, and he will give me money.”
“So, what did you say?”
“I wanted money, I told him that I had seen my uncle walk and a man with a knife together walking towards a bush outside our basti. May be that person had killed him.”
“Did you see that man?”
“kya saab, ghanta maine dekha ( I didn’t see at all), I have not seen my uncle for so many days now, leave alone another man with him.”
“Then why did you lie?”
“Saab, we are garib log, we don’t get into motor gaadi or eat biryani everyday like you. We don’t have money that is why begging na, how does it matter, if money is coming through truth or lie?”
I was both surprised and amused at this girl’s honest confession. She wasn’t that naive as I thought her to be. These street children, they grow up so soon, much before their ages actually. Life teaches them survival tactics quite early on.
I gave her the 10 rupees which I was holding in my hand. I also told her that we don’t eat biryani everyday to which she exclaimed, “kya saab, so much money you have, you should eat na. If I had money I would eat chicken, mutton, paya, kabab everyday.” She collected her money and left.
These are the children who might have gone without food for days on end, who knows. That way their life was quite straight and simple, it was all about mere survival, it was all about Food. Someone has rightly said that when we do not have food, we have one problem, the lack of it, but when we have enough food, we have thousand other problems running in our heads.
I kept meeting her for few more days, slowly it became a routine, whenever she saw me, she would come and we would have a good chat of sorts. She would talk about her mother who died last monsoon and her younger brother Dhaniya also begs like her. On days when she earns more, I asked her, what does she do with the money? “Biryani saab. I eat biryani. Its mine and Dhaniya’s favourite. We get it from Rahim chacha’s hotel. One plate each. He takes less from us. My mother used to wash dishes in that hotel na, that’s why.” The very thought of her favourite brought a wide smile on her face.
Days became weeks, weeks became months.
I asked her one day, “Phulo, what is the meaning of your name?”
“My name is not Phulo saab”, she said. “My name is Phulbanti, my amma called me phulo, short of phulbanti, then everybody started calling me so.”
After saying this she looked at me expectantly. There was some question in her eyes, which she was unable to ask.
“Do you want to say something Phulo?”
“No saab, I mean, saab, please don’t mind, what is your name?” she said it all in one breath. Her expression was such that she would drown in some ditch for the fear of facing the consequences of having asked the question running in her mind, finally.
I gave a hearty smile, “why should I mind? My name is Vinod. Vinod Parashar.”
“Saab, Vinod Saab, you are very nice.”
“accha, how come?”
“You give me 10 rupees every day, kabhi kabhi (sometime) you give me 50 rupees also, no one gives saab.” She smiled.
“What do you do with this money? Eat Biryani everyday or what?”
“No no Saab, I am saving the money. I don’t use anything. I go back to our room, cook khichri for me and Dhaniya and keep all the rest of the money safely in a place.”
“Chal Phulo, I will leave now. Take care and don’t spend too much money in Biryani ok?”
The next day, as soon as I got down my office building stairs, I saw her standing at the building gate. She didn’t notice me, but I did. What is she doing here?
I went up to her.
“Saab, I was waiting for you saab. This watchman said that saab log come out only after 1 o’ clock. I was waiting for many hours saab.”
“Why were you waiting here for me? What happened Phulo?
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