Girl at the Signal
Mansi adjusted her yellow helmet – which she had bought to match the colour of her Scooty, as she peered into her rear-view mirror at the traffic signal. A large family of beggars broke into twos and threes to tap on cars or nudge the two-wheeler riders and ask for alms. One of them, a thin, lady with sunken cheeks, wearing a miss-buttoned blouse and a petticoat, but no sari, held a baby in her arms that looked so deep in sleep, as if he had never been awake. The lady gestured with practiced hands that she and her baby were hungry.
Mansi tightened her grip on the Scooty handle, as she fought the urge to hand out some change. The sharp contrast between her privileged comfort and their ragged lives on the streets of Navi Mumbai had always pained her. But she had read and heard enough about the beggar mafias to not help them grow their ‘business’ through these poor posers on the road. She took a deep breath and looked away.
As the beggar woman moved on, a young girl - not older than five years or so - approached her. Mansi waited for her to make the same practiced gestures. She didn’t. Instead, she simply stood there, in the middle of the maze of vehicles, looking at her.
Maybe she doesn’t know what to ask.
But something wasn’t right. The young girl wasn’t really looking at her. She was looking at Mansi’s Scooty.
Mansi felt a shiver of guilt run down her spine. Maybe I should give her something. Maybe she is really hungry. Yes, I think she is hungry. There’s no harm in giving her some food. That’ll surely not help the mafia in any way…
BEEEEEEEEP! Her trail of thoughts was interrupted by the restless drivers waiting behind her. The light had turned green a whole second ago, and she had failed to notice! She took off in a hurry, escaping the furious drivers. But all along her way to her office, she could not keep the girl out of her thoughts.
The next day, she purposefully slowed down near the traffic light to be able to catch it red. She looked around; half hoping that the little girl had found a better place to be. At the far end of the footpath, she noticed a family of hawkers selling helmets. The girl was sitting with them, but when she saw her Scooty stop at the signal, she got up and walked right across the road to it. Even today, she did not ask for anything.
When Mansi couldn’t take the girl out of her mind again all day, she decided to do something about it.
The next day, Mansi deliberately stopped her Scooty beside the local helmet shop on the footpath and waited. The moment the little girl saw her; she got up and walked up to her. The girl didn't say a word; she only stared. But Mansi decided to talk, “Aapka naam kya hai, beta?” (What’s your name, child?)
The girl looked up at her, stunned.
She repeated, “Naam, naam kya hai aapka?”
A glint appeared in the little girl’s eyes. She answered.
“Khushboo Arya, UKG – B, Playstone Montessori School.”
Startled, Mansi stared at the little girl. Did I hear it correctly?
“Khushboo Arya?” she confirmed.
“Yes aunty!” The girl replied with a hint of hope, “Will you take me to mommy? She has a Scooty just like yours!”
Mansi didn’t know what to say. She got off her Scooty and bent down to the girl’s level.
“Beta, you don’t live here?”
“No aunty, I live at home. But now I can’t find it! I can’t find mommy-daddy. I can’t find my best friend…” By now, she was weeping.
Oh dear, she is lost! How did she land up at a traffic signal? “Where is your home? And how did you get lost?”
“Home is very far. I told mommy if she won’t get me a Giant Panda, I’ll go very far away … but she didn’t listen. She had to go… she always has to go…”
“You… you ran away from your house?”
“I ran and ran and ran. Now I can’t find it. I want to go home. I want to go home.” Khushboo was crying loudly enough to draw the attention of the people on the footpath.
One of the teenaged boys from the family selling helmet came running to ask, “Madam, aap jaante ho isko?” (Madam, do you know her). A quick enquiry revealed that she had strolled into their little tent by the road about two weeks ago. She didn't know where her house was. So, they had just let her stay.
Determined to help the girl, Mansi called her office to tell them she won’t be coming to work that day and then turned back to Khushboo, “What was the name of your school, again?”
At the entrance, with no student ID or Guardian Permit, it was difficult to convince the guard that Khushboo was a student there. Luckily, the little girl recognised one of her teachers from a distance and gave her a shout. The teacher, too, instantly recognised Khushboo, and after Mansi briefly described the events of earlier that day, she let her inside the premises with Khushboo.
“Of course I enquired! The teacher replied to Mansi’s questions in the visitor’s room, “I sent at least five notes on KidsConnect to her parents. But they never responded. I even informed Principal Ma’am about it. I think she posted a warning on the parent-message board.”
“You never called them?” Mansi was appalled.
“Ma’am, all parents are connected to teachers through KidsConnect app. They can even monitor their kids in classes through our web-cam facility. That’s the only way we communicate to parents. When they did not respond, we assumed they were on a holiday.”
“Well, clearly they are not. And I can’t even begin to imagine what they might be going through, with their daughter missing. Please call them immediately!”
“Yes sure. Sorry Khushboo. Hope you’re ok…” The teacher muttered behind her as she went out the room.
Ten minutes later, she was back, hiding behind the Principal.
“Their phones are switched off,” the Principal announced, as if suddenly she was no longer responsible. She then turned her stern gaze towards Khushboo and spit out, “You have been a very bad child, running away like this from your house!”
Mansi could no longer hold her anger; “The child has been living on the street for the past two weeks, for heaven’s sake! Don't you have her house address? You should…”
“I’ll check the records.” The Principal cut her short.
The guard at Khushboo’s residential building complex recognised her, but could not place her parents. He let them in after listening to the story but when they reached Khushboo’s apartment, it was locked.
Khushboo started crying again. Mansi rang the bell of their next-door neighbour. A bored-looking, middle-aged woman appeared at the door.
“Ma’am, do you know where the Aryas are?”
“Must be at work. I don't know. Why? Who are you?”
“That’s unlikely. Their daughter had been missing for two weeks.”
“They have a daughter? Oh I didn’t know.” She noticed Khushboo by Mansi’s side, weeping silently.
“Oh is she their daughter? I’ve seen her playing around the building. But I don't talk to her mother much. I think she works night shifts somewhere. Who knows what she does...”
Mansi let out a long sigh. What do I do now? She turned to Khushboo, “Do you know where your mommy or papa work?”
“Office.” She replied.
The police station was not very far away, but Mansi thought better than to take Khushboo along. She requested the lady to keep her for a while.
By the time she reached, it was lunchtime, and she had to wait for another hour and a half before she could speak to anyone. After explaining to three different people why she was asking for someone she was not related to, she finally found a constable who was ready to help.
He produced photos of two cold, pale looking faces of a man and a woman and asked if she recognised either of them.
“No, I don’t. I’ll have to ask the little girl… Oh my God! Are they…?” She couldn’t find the words to complete her question.
“Mrs. and Mr. Harsh Arya. We found their IDs and a couple of personal items including this.”
Mansi stared at the picture of what looked like a life-sized, black & white teddy bear as tears hazed her vision.
The constable continued, “They were in an accident about two weeks ago, but no one has come to claim their bodies till now. Dead on the spot – head impact. Neither of them was wearing a helmet.”
What would Mansi do next? Would she leave Khushboo at an orphanage? Would she try to find her other relatives? Would she adopt Khushboo? Or would she do something else? Tell me your version of the story in the comments section.