With her sharp features she could look beautiful if she had access to brush and colors. But the vicissitudes of life had taken its toll. Her imploring eyes and embarrassed smile said it all as she proffered a barely three inches long string of jasmine flowers.
“How much?” Swati asked, slightly perplexed as to what to do with it. She anticipated Swati's mental query as she quoted the price rather brusquely, “Ten rupees; keep it on the dash board.” Women in India actually look for jasmine strings of considerable length to wrap around artistically created hair-buns. Swati paid as she boarded the car. She clutched the money in her hand, raised it to her forehead, and said a silent prayer to God obviously invoking the Almighty's blessings for a hassle-free sale of her bunch.
With her apologies for jasmine strings she receded to her vantage point to survey for prospective buyers with practiced eyes. She kept a wary eye at the rubbish dump near a decorated florists' outlet. A nondescript boy under ten was scouting the dump.
Posh Connaught Place in Delhi, India, appears more starry than the sky on a clear night. All the eyesores on the ground remain carpeted under an unceasing twilight, rapiers of rays of light thrusting in and out of pall of darkness with opening and closing of doors and windows; the impact is further enhanced by diffused street lights.
Omkar, Swati's husband, had taken us all to dine in a fashionable eatery in the area. Before leaving I buttonholed the restaurant usher with a flood of questions. He revealed that the ten year old was his mother's partner. He was waiting for the florists' shop to dump its unwanted stuff which he would forage for 'still alive' flowers including salvageable floral parts for his mother to create strings, and eke out a living.
The boy's duty included washing the salvaged flowers with drops of water beseeching 'saans lo, saans lo (breathe, breathe)'. Flowers responded to his nimble touch by remaining alive for a while more to deck up his mother's strings.
A few months earlier Kriti and her husband, Arijit, drove us to Ocean City, USA. During a stopover, Kriti and I noticed a middle-aged woman with disheveled hair walking slowly towards us. “I think she will ask for money,” Kriti surmised/mumbled. The woman headed straight towards us and said something inaudible. She seemed to have seen better days when she had brush and colors; but now stood in sharp contrast to the ambiance of the area.
A few seconds later, “I say I am hungry,” she rasped in the most authoritative tone as if we were responsible for that. Kriti offered her a 5-dollar bill. She took it and walked away without even a 'thank you.' There plainly was an attitudinal problem. She crossed the road to her vantage point, and crossed herself, thanking God.
Behind the wilted jasmine flowers and the irate scorn of a wilted woman, however, there was a lesson to learn. These were the shields to protect themselves against losing their self-respect. They just did not want to be called beggars, and covered their callings with the best of available resources.
On way back from Connaught Place, as this thought struck me, the smell of car interior freshener metamorphosed into jasmine fragrance. I took a deep breath, but felt a throbbing pang; did we cheat them by offering so paltry a charity for so lofty an ideal?
BY TAPAS MUKHERJEE
BY TAPAS MUKHERJEE