Saloni and I met on the road on a sultry Monday morning.
There I was. Amidst chaotic, unruly vehicles at a signal, drivers impatiently waiting to move. I too wanted to move. I was getting late for a meeting and the traffic snarl did not help one wee bit. 930 am, as I impatiently looked at my watch. How on earth would I reach?
Feeling helpless, I rolled down my car window, peeping out. Blast of hot air greeted me. Honking of cars, buses, autos, shouts of hawkers and from that din, there popped up a small, piquant, smiling face.
I looked at her in utter surprise and recoiled, automatically reaching for the window button. Not to be outdone, the girl pushed her small hand through the window thrusting a bunch of flowers almost into my face. Both, me and my driver barked in unison, पीछे हटो (move back)! She did move away, but the flowers stayed. In the meanwhile, the signal turned green and we started moving. The flowers fell onto my lap and the girl started running with the car. It was scary indeed.
We turned at the crossing and she braved the traffic to reach us. With my heart in my mouth, I got out of the car. And that chance face off on the day was the start of a short journey that I traversed with this little girl, Saloni.
We connected that very instant. There was something about Saloni. Something that made a reticent person like me reach out to her every single day, sharp at 0915 in the morning, at the crossing, where she waited with her flowers. She got off work at 11 am and went to a school nearby.
She sat in the car with me for a few minutes, much to the disapproval of my driver, and talked incessantly. Her mother was a house maid and her brother worked at a garage, she told me.
Saloni loved studies, which made me start buying all her flowers, everyday, so that she could study.
My daily ritual with Saloni gradually became a habit. Apart from buying all her flowers, I also made time for her. I would get her something to eat and help her with her Maths. I used to go on a Sunday morning or on a holiday as well, to meet Saloni. To buy her flowers and for her Maths.
Saloni was quick on the grasp and concentrated easily. I decided that I would pay for her education. I told her that I wanted to meet her mother.
Life has its own queer twists and turns. And I was a victim of circumstances. Immediately after asking Saloni to call her mother, I had to travel out suddenly and I had no way of letting Saloni know.
I took the same route after almost a fortnight, at the same time to look for Saloni. I couldn’t find her. A new girl, a little older than Saloni, was at the crossing. One day, I was taking the train. So I got off the auto at the crossing, to hunt for Saloni.
Saloni was nowhere to be seen. I walked upto the other girl to check on Saloni, but she said that she didn’t know Saloni. I looked around for a known face but to no avail. It was hot and I started perspiring. Unable to take the heat and the noise, I moved off.
Despite a daily search on the spot, I couldn’t trace the girl. One day, all of a sudden I chanced upon a familiar face. A boy whom I had seen selling some small items when Saloni was around. I called him and enquired about Saloni. ‘पता नहीं (don’t know)’, he shrugged. With some cajoling and with some monetary exchange, he told me that she lived with her family in Dharavi. I took an incomplete address from the reluctant boy who clearly wasn’t interested in my queries.
On the next Sunday morning, I took off for Dharavi in search of Saloni. The address was only an indicator, as it certainly didn’t do much to the identification. It was a difficult time, locating Saloni’s place. After endless walking around, I was directed to a small, dingy room almost at the end of the colony. As I stood outside the door, hesitant to knock, a woman walked out. She was startled to see me and gave me a hard stare. ‘किसे ढूंड रहें हैं मैडम (who are you searching Madam)’? ‘Saloni’, I asked.
‘अच्छा तो आप हैं (So you are the one)’! ‘Could I meet her? Where is she?’ I could sense trouble as the woman glared at me. ‘She is married and lives in Agra’.
I have faced many losses in my life. People I have cared for, I have lost. More often than I care to remember.
But this was about a 7 year old girl whom I had taught how to dream. To take flight on her own wings. And I had promised to help her fulfil those dreams.
Standing in that heap of dungeon, I was almost in tears. I was speechless and just couldn’t believe what I had heard. In just 12 days! ‘But she is just 7’! I stuttered.
The woman spewed venom. She said I had misled her daughter and made her believe that she could run her life her own way. ‘आपके पास पैसा है आपने बोला। फिर कहाँ गये आप? (You have money so you encouraged her. Then where did you disappear)?’
She said Saloni waited for me days on end. She didn’t want to marry. She wanted to study. ‘हमारे में यह सब नहीं चलता मैडम। बार बार रिश्ते नहीं आते। (Such things don’t happen in our community. Matches don’t come again and again.)’ ‘The boy. What does he do’, I asked. He was a widower with two children. A potter by profession.
I walked away from the lane despondently. A black Sunday indeed. And I never met Saloni again, all of 7, married to a much married man.
I pen this experience of mine for two reasons.
There are many Saloni’s in India. I had a chance to save one but couldn’t. I know what failed dreams are like. I know how Saloni must have felt when she didn’t find me at the crossing, day after day. I will never be able to forgive myself for this.
Timing is everything. I didn’t reach out at the right time, even if I had the inclination, I failed Saloni. In essence, I failed myself. Have I not failed any other time? Yes I have. But here it is not about me. It is about a girl who saw the world through my eyes.
I wonder if this breach of trust was a greater letdown than the legal implications, moral obligations and checking the veracity of the mother’s statement.
But the fact is, I have never been able to come to terms with this feeling of doom.