Twilight was giving way to darkness in Mumbai when I realised I had left my purse behind at my cousin's place.
The dry feeling it produced in my throat was nothing new. The bane of my existence, the cross I had to bear was my memory. In fact, I had nothing against my creator except he had short-changed me on memory cells.
I resignedly took the train back and recovered my purse after a light scolding from my rather stern aunt. Then I made my way back to the railway station.
I settled down with a glossy film magazine on a bench in the windy station to await the train.
The voice was thin. I was deep in the antics of the latest starlet, too busy to listen. But it was insistent.
I lifted my head. Maaji couldn't be me, I thought, but looked around anyway.
There stood a boy, a ragamuffin if I ever saw one, clad in shirt and shorts of a nondescript colour, with a bag on his shoulder. He held his hand out.
"Maaji, ek rupiya," he said. "Mother, one rupee."
His scrawny shoulders were hunched and he had no shoes on. Yet the expression on his face was a comfortable one, as though he was simply doing his job.
"What will you do with a rupee?"
I wanted to help him. I could, of course, give him the rupee. But how much of a help would that be? What could I do for a street child?
"I will eat something with it," he said.
"What will you eat? Let me buy it for you."
The shrill denial surprised me. Why not, I wondered. Was this an Oliver Twist reborn, who had to share his money? I looked around and spied a group of ragamuffins. One of them was puffing on a cigarette.
That is why, I guessed. He wanted a smoke. "I will buy for you what you want to eat."
He started to protest. But seeing my set face, he followed me to the little cafeteria in the station.
I bought him an egg sandwich, a couple of apples and milk. He refused the milk and I didn't press.
I sat watching him wolf it all down. I had another 15 minutes for my train.
A feeling of helplessness stole over me. I had wanted to be 'adult'. And this was what adulthood involved -- seeing firsthand the wrongs of this world and being unable to put them right!
"Do you smoke?"
A quick headshake. "No, but I have to give it to my brother or else I will get a beating tonight."
I didn't know what to believe. It was probably a lie. But my depriving him of the rupee wouldn't prevent him from begging it from another. I extracted a rupee. And a fiver.
"This is for your brother," I said offering him the rupee. "And this is for you."
He stared at me surprised and pocketed the money silently. He didn't stop eating.
I heard the unintelligible station announcement that conveyed my train was arriving. I stood up to go. I didn't know what to tell him, so I didn't say anything.
The train rumbled in. I boarded and made my way to the window. As we moved off, I looked back.
"Bye bye!" The voice was still thin, but it carried. "Bye bye!".
He was waving to me with his scrawny arm. I waved back.
I wonder what quirk of fate made me a 'have' and him a 'have-not'.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh