Didi, didi, didi…
Natasha braked her scooter as it skidded to a stop. Four ragged, untidy, unbathed and brightly smiling children surrounded her scooter and started fiddling with the mirror, the seat and the horn. Each holding a bunch of paper tricolors on sticks in one hand.
“Didi, didi, why did you stop coming on Sundays” – Komal beamed a set of tobacco-stained teeth as her eyes sparkled and she cradled a grumpy two year old Anjali in her arms.
“Didi, I want new chappals. Didi get me new chappals. Didi atleast give me 50 Rs to get new chappals. Didi you got new chappals for Ravina”- Pooja went on her usual song of demands as she beat an imaginary tabla on the back-seat of Natasha’s seat.
“Didi, get me a bag of wheat flour. I am joining school once aatham is over. You said no you will get us food if we go to school. I am going to go to school soon didi. They said I can get admitted in 2nd standard as I am so tall but I don’t know anything didi. Didi buy me a bag of flour no” – Kishan looked beseechingly at Natasha as he fiddled with the rearview mirror on the scooter.
“And little Anjali…don’t you have any demands for didi?” Natasha asked jokingly stroking anjali’s cheek.
Komal, Pooja and Kishan giggled as they mumbled “Anjali is too little to speak didi. Don’t you know that much also”
Natasha smiled and stared at the flags. The saffron, white and green glinting bright against the dull, dust cased faces and drab baggy torn clothes on the children.
“Buy few no didi. I need the 50 Rs. I want to buy new chappals” – Pooja chimed again. Swinging her thin body from side to side as she always did.
“Stand straight and speak” Natasha widened her eyes in mock anger as Pooja stood still for a moment before her eyes started scouting the street again for prospective buyers.
“Didi…flour. Pleajje didi” – Kishan chimed in.
“No Kishan. Once you get yourself enrolled in school only then you get the ration.” Natasha said firmly.
“But didi, you come with me to tell the teacher to let me come. I am tall no so they won’t let me sit in the smaller class rooms” Kishan spoke up.
“Fine. You have my number. Call me when you go to school on Monday. I will come and talk to the teacher” Natasha rolled her eyes. Once again re-iterating what she had said atleast once each month the past year.
“I will check your number didi” – Kishan smiled and got a phone out of his pocket. “Dial your number no didi” – he said, thrusting a phone in her hand.
Natasha took the phone. A shiny thig with a nice DP of Kishan and Anjali. “Whose phone is this?” She asked, turning it around.
“Mine didi, mine. See it has my picture only” – Kishan claimed proudly.
Natasha looked up her number she had saved a few months back and gave herself a ring.
There, she returned the phone as Kishan beamed proudly. “Don’t keep giving my number to random people. Ok?”
All three nodded in unison as they thought of what next to ask for.
“Milk didi. That milk. Atleast get us milk.” – chimed Komal.
“No. I don’t want milk. I want chappal. New chappal” – argued Pooja.
“Milk is good. There didi. Amul shop. Like last time. Come” – Kishan said and started running towards the shop. The colorful flags bouncing as his bare feet plonked from puddle to puddle.
Pooja climbed on to the back seat as Komal eyed it and showed her thumb with a folded fist and a protruded tongue. Victorious and getting the ride this time.
“Come.” Natasha told Komal as she started the scooter and followed Kishan. Pooja on the backseat feeling the wind in her face and the soft clean seat below as the scooter revved a few hundred meters and stopped again next to the Amul shop.
Natasha bought flavored milk for all three kids. Two of who took it smilingly and Pooja sulked, once again pitching for the 50 Rs or the chappals as she reluctantly opened the bottle.
The local govt had gone nuts distributing the national flag under the “Har ghar Tirangaa” campaign. Each shop and house balcony had the tricolor fluttering in the august winds.
“Do you know what you’re selling today?” Natasha asked pointing to the flags as the children drank the milk greedily.
“National Flag”, “Tiranga”, “India flag” – all three chirped with milk moustaches around their lips as they got back to the flavors.
“Hm…which country’s flag”? Natasha asked
“Um…Bharat?” Kishan made an attempt.
“Ok…good. And where do we live?”
“Jamnagar”, “India”, “Bharat” came the multiple replies.
“Hm…all three of you are correct. So what is Jamnagar, what is India and what is Bharat?” Natasha persisted.
The milk was not worth the constant questions or the educational lecture that was to follow. So all three kept their heads bowed and kept sipping as Anjali cooed and stared at the milk bottle that she wasn’t getting to try.
“Jamnagar is our?” “Sheher” – Pooja mumbled …shyly
“Good…good…that is very good” Natasha encouraged.
“And India or Bharat is our…” “Desh” …. Everyone stared…shocked…as Anjali mumbled the reply.
Then all burst into laughter. “Didi…you have repeated this so many times that even Anjali knows it now”
Komal said, closing the milk bottle and about to toss it on the road.
“No Komal…where do we put our garbage?” Natasha said…anger creeping back in her voice.
All three children walked to the nearby dustbin and plonked their empty bottles in it. Returning back and gauging their chances of getting more snacks tonight. Staring at the colorful packets in the brightly lit shop.
“Why are you selling the flags?” Natasha persisted. Pointing at the cheap paper adaptations in their hands.
“Because it’s 15 august and everyone is buying them. All the children. All the parents.” Komal said.
“I am selling it at 10 rs. I bought it at 5rs from the shop in hapa. I am earning a full 5 rs for every flag didi. I am going to be rich soon” – Kishan beamed, a bundle of positivity as usual.
“Arre…but didi is asking why now? Like we sell diyas on Diwali, patang on uttarayan, colors on holi… right didi?” Pooja started bouncing up and down. Excited at her spark of knowledge.
“Yes. Correct. Very smart Pooja” Natasha smiled, drawing Pooja closer and patting her on the shoulder. Very aware of the questioning stares that the street hawkers and passerby’s were giving her. Talking to a bunch of begging kids as if they were her own. Some of them had gotten used to her association with the children. But others still disapproved and were surprised. And Natasha was surprised at their surprise. For some reason, the society had decided to treat these children very much like the drain rats. Deny their existence. Swat them and drive them away if they were annoying. Feed them crumbs and left overs. For some reason, this society that was otherwise very capable of empathy and religious beyond reason, did not find it worth being kind to this segment of their own.
“Tomorrow is 15th august. It is our independence day. Swantrata divas. What is it?”
“Swantantrata divas” – all four repeated.
“But didi…what god is worshipped and which temple serves prasad tomorrow?” Komal asked, never before having been told anything beyond the words 15th august.
Kishan jokingly hit komal on the shoulder “Dumbo, no temple, the corporator gives prasad. There is a function at police ground. Lots of people will go there in the morning. If you wake up at 8am, you can get free food there. They give sweets and gathiya and tea also. I got it last year. But you have to wake up at 8am. Else it gets over”
The children’s perspective was always amusing to Natasha. She nodded.
“True. No God is worshipped tomorrow. We celebrate independence. Swantantrata”
“What is independence didi” Pooja asked. Now walking a little farther and putting the flags on a dry patch of ground and squatting on the raised platform of the shop.
Natasha walked over, examined the dirty platform, looked for better options, didn’t find any and sat down next to Pooja.
“Good question Pooja. Independence is freedom. 75 years ago, we, you, me, our grandfathers, we were not free. We were serving some white people. We did not have our own government. We did not work for our own community. We served people from another country” Natasha said..noticing that the children had started fidgeting more and were looking around for more customers. The promise of flavored milk wearing off now.
Natasha contemplated on how to explain freedom to a bunch of children who begged on the streets for every meal and did not have any ideas of society or constructs of hygiene or health.
“Like the police beat us and shoo us away? Like that the people from other country shooed our grandparents away?“ Kishan asked. Staring at the ground now.
“But the police are still there didi. The government is still there. We are still poor. We still don’t have food or clothes.” Pooja challenged.
“I know beta. But there are many others like you who do have it. Your situation is very tricky. You do have access to schools if you want to go. You do have food that you can claim if you want to claim. The police cannot shoo you away unless you are harassing someone. You have rights. You have powers. Only thing is, you are still poor because your parents are choosing to be poor.”
“So we need freedom from our parents?” – Komal asked. “That makes sense. My mom beats me every day. On days that I don’t get money, she beats me more and takes away the food I get for the family. She even sells whatever nice clothes or blankets anyone gives me”
“So why should we celebrate swantantrata didi?” Pooja asked innocently.
“For the food, dumbo. If you wake up at 8 am and reach police ground, the corporator will give you free food. So you should celebrate. You don’t listen to me. That’s why you suffer” Kishan tapped Pooja lightly on the head and all of them laughed and continued to stare at the tricolor perched on the pole near the shop as the night faded.
**Written as part of Write Club Bangalore’s session on Freedom