-By SANJAY JHA
I see her often in the evenings, at a cross-road of South Mumbai. All of fourteen years perhaps, sprightly and smiling, cheerful and chubby-cheeked. She is usually accompanied by two brats, her younger siblings, who look straight out of a comic book, their naughtiness palpable through dry-skinned cheeks, practiced sales spiel and ruffled hair. The trio usually compete with each other to sell flowers in the fleeting sales window that they have before the go-ahead green lights come on. But they have their own rules of the game; even when they display their best marketing skills, it is not that the winner takes it all. They are happy that at least someone succeeded; they are family. Once she said to me, pointing towards the shorter fellow, as I offered her fifty rupees for a carnation bunch, ” Buy it from him, he has had a rough day today “. But the young fellow refused, a slight flush on his cheeks, demonstrating his own professional self-respect. ” It is alright. But tomorrow, promise you will buy from me?”.
Over the last few years, the above has become like a daily ritual. As the traffic signal is short, invariably a meeting is ensured. Sometimes they disappear for weeks, and then return with their familiar chirpiness, perennial smiles adorning their faces. ” So where were you guys?”, we ask. ” Our duty gets shifted from time to time to different places”, they say about their own little mobile work-place and the world of job rotation. But they are triumphant in spirit, and live in hope, a small family eking out an existence.
Once I found the sister looking all puffy cheeks, teary-eyed, and uncharacteristically, low-key in spirits. ” You are not looking well, today”, I asked. ” I am fine”, she said, avoiding eye contact, and looking downwards at the hard tar. ” No she is not”, butted the youngest one. ” Our uncle beat her up, he thrashed her. In fact, she bled from the ear-drums”. But she was adamant ” I am fine now. It happens so often, so what is the big deal?” Indeed!
Often, every time we stop, they forget all their other prospects and come straight to my daughter and me. As a result, we have frequently run up a debt, and have outstanding exposure of five hundred rupees still to clear. So when we refused to buy more till we had overcome our moral obligations and financial borrowings, she said. ” That is alright. Take this bouquet, give it to Madam. It is a gift from us. No cash”. We vigorously refused, but those little hands won. The flowers had been gently pushed through the half-open windows onto our laps.
There are times when we have to return home in a hurry to catch up on a dinner or a movie , when the brief traffic signal seems like an interminable, exasperating nuisance. On those days, I guess, our impatience shows. As they rush towards us, all excited and gung-ho , we are somewhat not as incandescent in our expressions, not as generous in our disposition. I think they understand that from our feeble and not-so-receptive body language. ” How are you, Sir? Everything alright?” On those days, they do not once try and sell us anything; it is as if they suddenly become much older and mature than the tiny years on their shoulders. They understand that today they are not as welcome as other days; there are more pressing matters engaging the occupants of the car. As we drive on, not too far away, a majestic sky-scraper looms loftily into the sky, as a billionaire industrialist builds his private helipad near the stars. The irony hits you hard.
The other day, I had to take a taxi home. As we reached our usual meeting point, they came , bouncing and bright in a happy bunch. I joked with them. ” See, how can I buy flowers from you anymore? Now I have no car, I myself have to travel in a taxi. Who knows, I may be on a cycle tomorrow”. They laughed.
As we drove along, the taxi-driver said ” Sir, if we could just remove corruption from India, everything will sort itself out. The money never reaches us all. That’s why the children become beggars. We know it, but we can do nothing about it. Only the government can change this.” I asked him where he was from. He was from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh, and Beni Prasad Verma was the Congress MP elected from his constituency in the elections.
” We are very hopeful. Rahul Gandhi will change things for us”. There is faith in his voice, and optimism in his tone. It is amazing, but individuals trust their whole lives and destinies on someone, when they trust him. When they believe in his sincerity. His commitment to their welfare.
As we reach home, I fumble with the meager change in my pocket. I promise to run up and return with the money. ” Sir, please forget it. It does not matter. It has been so much fun just chatting up with you.” I wondered, how the poor flower girl and the simple taxi-driver, surviving on daily earnings and facing a continuous year-long struggle, were so large-hearted and trusting as to write off their own much-deserved hard-earned livelihood to virtual strangers!
Rahul Gandhi is right. India is not shining, not as yet. There are miles to drive before we sleep. And lots of flowers still left to sell. But there is hope. If we do it right, if we just do it honestly, anything is possible. One day maybe, even the flower-girl can perhaps have her own rose garden.