And then Tanya asked Laxmi to tell her a two-minute story.
Last few days, this was the ritual: Laxmi, a tiny girl of nine, would finish the washing and cleaning of the Khurana household in Patparganj, Delhi, and the fifteen-year-old Tanya, bored of the long summer days, would ask the maid-servant’s child to tell her a tale as time-pass. The wide-eyed child, tired and sweating after the back-breaking work, would smile at this request from the didi and then tell a new story.
To-day, Laxmi told Tanya this tale in her gasping little voice:
There lived a wood-cutter deep in the dark forest with his large family of four daughters and second wife. The food was scant. One day, on the insistence of his wife, he took his first two daughters to the forest and returned in the evening, alone. “Where are our sisters?” asked the remaining two daughters. “O, the hungry lion ate them up,” said the father and went inside. The little sisters cried. Two days later, on the insistence of his wife, he took the third daughter to the forest and returned alone, crying. “What happened?” asked the fourth daughter. “O, the little one was devoured by the hungry lion,” said the father and went inside the hut. The fourth daughter felt very lonely and cried, thinking of the hungry lions knocking at the doors of the hut. One lion entered the hut and bared her fangs. The fangs gleamed in the cold moon-light. They were about to sink in her when, the scared child woke up, crying!
“What happened next?” asked a curious Tanya.
“The girl remembered her missing sisters and cried every night. One night, she saw a lion tapping her window-pane. It was a moon-lit wintry night. She saw the lion staring at her from behind the closed window-pane, the eyes glowing red. She felt very terrified of the lurking beast and the dark forest looming behind and suddenly, she heard the wailing of her sisters. A clear sound echoing in the dim forest... Three little sisters crying alone and then in unison, while the shadowy creatures danced in the night,” said Laxmi.
Tanya was completely engrossed. “You are a good story-teller,” she said. The child smiled. The two chatted. After playing for some time, Laxmi returned home. Tanya that night dreamt of the big cats prowling for her!
The story became real later on!
For three days, Laxmi did not report for work. The 90-kg arthritic Mrs Khurana – a bundle of soft rolled fat – complained, “These servants! Most unreliable!” She said she had treated Laxmi as her youngest daughter. “Now, she has not turned up for three days. Very ungrateful girl!” As it was difficult for her to do manual labour, Mr Khurana and Tanya left home to search for the missing domestic in their car. In fifteen minutes, they could locate the jhuggi of the child-worker, near the construction site of a high-rise, a few hundred meters from the highway leading to Noida.
A commotion greeted them there.
As they drew level with the jhuggis perched on an elevated ground, both father and chattering daughter saw the mother of Laxmi wailing. Lot of poorly-clad men and women from around the temporary settlement were standing. They saw the two strangers coming and everybody grew quiet suddenly.
“Where is Laxmi?” asked Tanya. The thin mother began her loud wail once again, saying nothing.
“What happened?” asked Mr Khurana, a tall and slim man in his late forties, adjusting his spectacles on his hooked nose. “Is she unwell?”
“Who?” asked a man belligerently?
“Laxmi?” said Mr Khurana timidly. He had this habit of stammering. It would become more pronounced in certain social situations.
“Unwell? They have sold her to a pimp,” said the swarthy man angrily.
“Who is a pimp?” asked Tanya, as always curious. Her dad ignored the question.
“This woman sold that innocent child to a pimp just for a few hundred,” a woman screamed. Others nodded.
“No, Saab. I did not,” said the crying mother.
“Then, where is that child?” asked the angry crowd.
“Where is your man – that drunkard? That useless man sells his own daughters to greedy pimps for just a few hundred rupees, goaded by this woman who is a witch. Where has that rascal gone?” asked the swarthy man angrily. He was apparently leading the public prosecution of the sobbing woman cornered by this ragtag group of local vigilantes. The short and balding man smelled badly of strong cheap liquor. His eyes were blood shot.
“He is not here,” answered the woman, sitting outside her tiny hut of plastic and metal sheets, now blank-faced. In the distance, vultures flew in the grey late-morning sky, feeding off a stinking landfill. An August wind slapped them on the faces with its hot hands. It was a bleak day, depressing and heartless.
“Where is he?” asked the man.
“Must be in the liquor shop,” said another man, a bag of rattling bones. He wheezed and coughed violently and then spit out grayish blob of mucus onto the ground. Tanya just shivered. She was experiencing closely the slum-reality for the first time. Her fair skin crawled by the ugliness of the dismal scene.
“Then?” asked the belligerent man.
“He has gone to his village,” said the frail woman.
“That proves it,” said a woman in a red torn saree. “He went there earlier also, after selling off his other daughters. He is a man who can sell off his own mother for a few hundred rupees.”
“But I saw him last night only, staggering home, drunk and babbling,” said another man.
“He left in the morning only,” said the woman.
“What is going on here?” asked Mr Khurana, a bit assertive.
“Saab,” said the woman in red saree, “They have sold off their daughters to the pimps. This woman is stepmother. She often fought with her man. She would tell that bastard to sell them off. That he did, the spineless man.”
“How did you know?” asked Mr Khurana, now in charge of the situation.
“We heard them discussing. These thin walls do not hide family secrets,” said she.
“Is it?” exclaimed Mr Khurana.
“Yes, Saab. Everything. They sold the girls one by one and then would tell the neighbours that the girls were back with the grandparents in the village.”
“How do you know?” asked Mr Khurana.
“I am their neighbour,” she said.
“Oh!” exclaimed Mr Khurana.
“And they say that the girls are happy there. These two big liars!” She yelled at them.
“No, Saab. It is a lie. We do not sell them off. They are like Maa Durga for us. Do we sell off Maa Durga? Never,” screamed the thin mother of Laxmi. “In fact, this woman is a dalal, a pimp. She services the contractors and their men on the site and brings young girls to them from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh villages. Her man, this swarthy man, this Kalia, works for the contractors as the supervisor and helps his wife supply them with helpless young poor girls from villages as cheap labour. They exploit them. They were eyeing our three nubile girls,” claimed the crying woman.
“Oh! This lying woman! I will not stand this nonsense from a lying woman,” said the red saree and pounced on the latter, dragging her by her hair across the dirty ground. Both impoverished women began attacking each other in a vicious manner. Alley cats! thought Mr Khurana.
“She is a good actor! And a complete liar!” exclaimed the swarthy man. “Last time, when confronted, she said one of her stepdaughters was devoured by a hungry lion in the deep dark forest that broods over their cottage in the little village, near the Nepal border! Is it possible? There are no hungry lions left in the forests these days. In fact, there are no forests left by the hungry villagers!”
They have all moved to the cities, the hungry lions, thought Mr Khurana.
Lions! Hungry lions!
Tanya remembered Laxmi’s story. She shivered and felt sick. The little girl was telling the true story. Lions had visited her tiny jhuggi! And stared at her. At that time, it sounded like a tale but now, it sounded real. Those were the real lions staring at the poor servant-girl and nobody to protect her from these animals!
I did not believe her then. Now, she is not there. Probably, she has ended up as their dinner, as feared, thought Tanya.
They stood there. The women were still fighting tenaciously, marauding, clawing each other and using cuss words that surprised a prim and proper Mr Khurana. Do women in our country speak these filthy male words?
The crowd was milling around the vicious female fighters, enjoying every minute of the bloody fight and the flying obscenities. Most of them were workers working on the construction site and came from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Some of the men worked as drivers or cooks and lived in the sprawl of jhuggis dotting the entire highway. Delhi was undergoing a construction boom and it was all moving outward, near the satellite towns. Huge labour colonies had sprung up and more and more floating population of casual workers had found a temporary shelter in these purely unauthorized colonies that did not have power or any other civic amenities. Life was hell! The tall buildings loomed up and overshadowed these clusters. The males were openly egging them on and laughing. It was pure entertainment and a daily enactment of a desperate battle for survival in most tough conditions. Tanya had heard about these places or seen them from highways but never visited them so far. Her maiden visit to this lawless island of the deprived thriving in the midst of affluence around was a conducted tour in human misery. The naked children defecating in the open; the surrounding muck, the gaping tiny hovels and an open drain running behind the cluster of jhuggis served a grim reminder of a reality not seen or reported frequently by the mainstream media. It is so crude and so revolting!
As the fight escalated to the next fatal level, the detached swarthy man offered a cigarette to Mr Khurana in a gesture of intimacy and equality, an offer that was promptly declined by a surprised Mr Khurana who involuntarily stepped back a few feet. The man was amused by this recoiling action. He grinned wickedly, enjoying the discomfiture of man from the other side of the invisible civil divide. “Any chai-cutting, Saab?” he asked, this time more intimately; his popping eyes simultaneously caressing the fair-complexioned and buxom Tanya in a greedy manner. Tanya shrunk within immediately under this male gaze. She saw a hungry lion lurking in his fleshy dark face; a predator staring at her malevolently. The stare chilled her teen heart. She said to his father in an urgent tone, “Come on, dad, I am not feeling well in this stinking place. Let us move.” His uncomprehending dad followed.
While returning home in their car, Tanya said, “Report to the police, Papa.”
“You do not understand life in India. Police is very corrupt. They will take money from Laxmi’s parents and put the complainants behind bar!”
“Is it?” asked a wide-eyed Tanya. She was leaving text-books behind and entering a different realm. A dangerous reality!
Laxmi’s story sounded so real now!
Papa dear smiled at his innocent young daughter insulated from a wicked world.
Then, in late night dream, Tanya saw a brood of lions walking up to her, in a dark forest.
“Beware of the uncles and strangers!” her mother often cautioned Tanya. “Beware of the innocuous or accidental touches of the uncles or close male relatives. Of sweets offered by strangers! Avoid them. They are the pests. You have to be on your guard always, being a young woman.” She read out the sensational accounts of rapes committed on women in the capital of the nation. “There are wolves in sheep’s clothing everywhere for women. You have to watch your back all the time. For a pretty woman, even home is not safe these days,” she would say cynically.
Laxmi’s hungry lions were coming back – this time to stalk the rich Tanya.
Startled by their sudden appearance, she began to run back into the deep dark forest. This time, there was no moon. The branches closed down on her; the dirt track shrunk considerably, the paths disappeared before her. The lions followed her constantly, roaring ferociously in the dark. The jungle shook by this angry roar. The poor girl was running, falling and then running again in the dark threatening jungle. Then, Tanya became painfully aware of another fleeing frail figure ahead that stopped. A thin slice of pale moon suddenly shone in the sky. The figure ahead stood still. Tanya saw Laxmi panting silently! Before she could react, the face changed. It was her mother now looking at the pursuing lions behind…