[This story was published by Deccan Herald on 31/Dec/2006. The link is here (or):
I looked at my watch again. She had said 9.45. She was late. I looked around me. The mall wore a strange forlorn look. A cleaning woman mopped the floor. Her mouth drooped and her eyes stared at the floor as her hands moved pushing the mop this way and that.
What did she think of all that she saw here? I wondered. The abundance. The greed. Hungry mouths. Grasping hands… I shuddered. Malls frightened me.
"Are you out of your mind?" I had said when she suggested we meet at Garuda Mall.
"At that hour, you don't have to worry about the crowds," she had said with a laugh. "Think of it as a social experiment. A mall at an unmall-like hour. What happens there? Bring your notebook. You can make notes…"
I had smiled into the phone. Divya could be funny, and persuasive. Garuda mall was too much in the heart of the city and I had wanted to avoid driving in the Friday night traffic. So I had proposed a newer mall that had come up at the outskirts, still incomplete, but occupied enough with shops to loiter around; or help conduct ‘social experiments’ that Divya had suggested. She had agreed.
Here I was, waiting for Divya to turn up, biting into one of the small chocolate bars I had bought to satiate hunger and boredom – I had bought a couple for Divya as she loved those; As I was killing time going up and down the floors, shopping at windows that were downing their shutters, avoiding weird look from the shop keepers, I noticed something beyond the cleaning women. In one of the dimly lighted corners that had an offset into the toilet areas that was still incomplete.
There was this girl, about 10, wearing clothes that was neat, but clearly old and frayed at the corners. She was feeding the boy of, perhaps just over 2 years old. The way she ran up to the cleaning women, talked to her, it was obvious that the woman was her mother; with the mother busy, the girl had taken up the role of mothering her brother. Alongside the construction materials, there were a stack of papers, from which she picked one to clean-up her brother after the feed.
I settled down at the one of the ornate benches, and watched. As the women came closer to the seating area to clean-up, I lifted my legs up to help her swab the floor; she looked up to me in thanks and I smiled at her. She returned the smile reluctantly; her son came running up to her playing catch and run with her sister; the woman with a resigned admiration, like any other mother, let the kid climb over her and push her. I took one chocolate bar that I had and held it out for the kid – the kid looked to his mother for approval and tentatively took it – and then ran with unadulterated joy, screaming out his sister’s name.
I started making small talk with the cleaning women. In any case I was killing time, waiting for Divya to show up. In a few minutes, I heard the oft-said story about a poor woman in India – Santhamma’s husband was a drunkard and had left her only to return to beat her up for money. She takes care of her children; her daughter goes to school sporadically; but of late with her brother in the family the living was taking its toll. The daughter had started doing odd jobs and graduating to regular jobs. Santhamma was repentant that her daughter could not go to school, but she had no way out. Her daughter earned some money that helped feed the family and very basic needs and help retain their dignity; there was no help from any other quarters.
Santhamma moved on and yet no sign of Divya; I sighed and called her on the mobile and it was not reachable. “Damn Networks”, I muttered. I looked at my watch, it was 10.45 and the mall-security in his beat gave me the strange looks; there were just couple of shops still open.
I saw the girl do a ruck-sack kind of carrier around her back and she lifted it to her back along with her brother. She gave the sheaf of paper to her brother who playfully handed one to her, as she walked to every shop and slipped one under the door. It looked like some ‘notice’. I saw Divya walking in with a smile. I waved to her and motioned her to wait a while; as the girl moved closer to the shop behind me, curious, I reached out for the notice and took one to read it.
As I read it, I was stuck the incongruity of it; I could feel my anger rising – I was getting incensed. Then the futility hit me; and I laughed out loud, at the irony of it all. The girl, puzzled, went about her work that would help put food on the floor for the family.
Divya took the notice from my hand and read it aloud,
“Whomsoever it blah, blah… … Government of
I walked up to the girl, gave her the remaining chocolate bar. Her eyes lit up. I quickly averted her eyes, took Divya’s hand and walked out of the mall. I’ve had my social experiment for the day, perhaps for a long time to come. As a 52 year old mother, holding my daughters hand, I had trouble deciding if the Government decision was right or wrong for someone else’s daughter._________________________________________________________________
Author’s Note: I wrote this story for http://www.refreshbangalore.com. The starting lines of the story were already published as a part of “kathe Korner”; that story needs to complete those lines. Those lines are the ones in italics.
The winning Story is at: http://www.refreshbangalore.com/shortwinner.asp