“These folk look so different from most others here today,” thought Shalini as the family walked in, almost hesitatingly, into the mall. The man wore flip-flops popularly called “Hawaii” slippers. His frayed but clean clothes bore the tell-tale signs of having been washed innumerable times. By habit, she began to analyze them. Was he a junior employee in the Government? Perhaps a school teacher from a nearby village? She studied him more closely. He looked the strict type. What brought him here and who were the others with him?
His wife appeared self-conscious in the splendor of the mall. Her colored glass bangles jingled incessantly as she tucked her sari tighter around her slim waist. Her eyes, wide open with wonder, darted here and there. Their children were small. The boy, who may have been seven years old, broke away from his father and skipped ahead eager to see the new sights. His eyes sparkled with excitement, clearly fascinated by what he saw. The girl of perhaps four years, her neatly combed hair tied in two pigtails with red ribbons, walked quietly next to her mother clutching her sari.
Though she was not consciously tracking them, as often happens Shalini bumped into them at several points. Her curiosity was aroused. She wondered idly whether at all they would buy anything, as she bought a couple of novels for herself and glossy magazines for her mother. The small kids would certainly ask for something or the other. But the prices here were simply exorbitant!
Once she saw the man and the woman argue about something. As always, she watched discretely. The father seemed to say they could buy something but the mother shook her head in disagreement. Though diminutive in size she was quite spirited. The boy looked sullen and disappointed. They must be discussing something he had asked for.
By now, Shalini had reached the food court on the highest floor of the mall. She waited for her turn and collected the lunch she ordered. A big fat burger, French fries with lots of ketchup, and a Diet Coke to go with it. There was a table getting vacated in a corner. She hurried towards it and bumped into a policeman, carrying a loaded tray who was heading for the same table. They looked at each other sheepishly and took the two chairs available. While she delicately pecked at her burger, the cop wolfed down favourites in local cuisine that he had ordered: bisibele bath and kesari bath. A plate of puris and some jalebis were next in line. The sounds he made showed how much he relished the food
His age and build took Shalini to a memory from the past. A policeman like him had helped her once in Mumbai. They had gone on a “Study Tour” organised by their college. Dreamy as usual, Shalini got lost as soon as they got off the train and were walking towards the exit. Wheeling her strolley, she was pushed aside by two urchins fighting on the platform. People walked by busy with their own schedules. Unlike her, no one stood there watching the fight which ended when a porter passing by yanked the bigger boy away and gave him a slap.
Shalini’s sigh of relief turned to panic when she found that the platform was almost deserted. The Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus was a cavernous, huge, old building. There had been swirling crowds just a few minutes ago. Now there was no one. Some stragglers, mostly elderly people, were still getting off the train that had brought them from Bangalore. Where were the other girls? Were they looking for her? She had no idea where they were supposed to go from here. She reached for her cell phone to call Rashmi. The phone was engaged. She tried two other numbers but couldn’t get through. Perhaps they were searching for her.
A gang of boys idling there leered at her. “Hello, Beauty, need any help?” one of them asked. She gave them a cold glare and walked on. One of them edged closer, “I’ll take this” he said reaching for her strolley . “No, no, it’s ok. Leave me alone,” she snapped. The four other boys had crowded in closer. She felt highly conscious. To her their eyes looked mean and hungry. Surely they wouldn’t assault her in such a public place? Her vivid imagination went into overdrive. Would they gag her with some kind of chloroform? Being from Mumbai’s notorious underworld would they take her to their hide out? Then they would ask for a ransom. Her mother would freak on taking that call. She shuddered at these thoughts, shivering with fright. Just then a police constable strode towards them swirling his baton. He glared at the boys who melted away.
Shalini was alone again. The constable asked her, “Are you alone? Looking for someone?” She explained in broken Hindi that she had got separated from her friends. The platform seemed to go on for ever but he walked with her to the Helpdesk where she spotted Rashmi towering like a lighthouse in the crowd. “We were looking all over for you! Where the hell were you? You scared us, you idiot!” shrilled Rashmi. She stuttered an explanation which was scoffed by the others. “Must have been day dreaming, as usual,” they said. She profusely thanked the constable who smiled showing betel stained teeth. She offered him some money which he refused. He rattled off something she didn’t understand. Rashmi translated for her, “He says he has a daughter too and was happy to be of help. Says you can’t buy happiness. What did he mean?” Shalini blushed remembering how scared she had been only ten minutes ago.
As Shalini thought of the wizened face of the Mumbai police constable, the Bangalore one at her table brought her back to the present. He belched with satisfaction. “Son, Infosys. Daughter-in-law, IBM” he smiled at her, as if that was sufficient explanation.
Aromas from diverse cuisines wafted all over the food court. The spicy tang of hot sauces and chutneys rent the air. Row after row of superbly crafted pastries and doughnuts lined up in one shop. The next one sold hot tikkas and kebabs. The pungent flavors of Indian food seemed to make people more hungry. They stood in queue before the kiosks to place their orders.
It was then that she saw them again. The family she had seen earlier.
The customers had to wait patiently till their numbers were called out. ” Number 15!” yelled the boy at the corner eating joint. A fat man collected his tray laden high with rotis of different kinds, bowls of dhal and large succulent pieces of chicken.
Shalini couldn’t take her eyes of the small boy who gulped on seeing the loaded plate. Fatty walked past preceded by his belly. The family stood rooted there, looking lost. The prices were displayed everywhere, of course but they didn’t buy anything.
That cop at Mumbai had helped her, a stranger. Today she would do the same. She had never known how it felt to look at food but not be able to afford it.
Shalini stood up to call the family over to her table.