Returning home from a Carnatic concert a few days ago, I was struck by the unusually pleasant evening. The weather was light, almost crisp, and the night was merry with twinkling stars. Traffic, too, was more orderly than usual, even if cars still lined the road before a traffic light turned red. A gentle wind rustled through the trees, and, lowering the car window just a fraction, you could hear the whisper of the leaves. But what caught my attention was none of these. Despite the cars and two-wheelers, despite the trees singing and flanking the roads, what I saw as a small shape on the road.
It was a little girl. A very little girl, perhaps four or five years old, her hair in messy pigtails. A grimy frock shielded her thin frame from the elements. She stood on the road, a batch of stickers in her hand, wearing a pair of worn slippers. She neared a motorbike and had to look up at the rider, for she was much too small—the motorbike was twice her size.
I don’t know if the little girl sold any stickers to the young men on the bike, but I could see that both of them were startled by the tiny apparition. One hastily gave her money, and the girl stepped forward into the still traffic waiting for the signal to change.
But as she stepped forward, the traffic light turned green. Car lights blazed in sudden fury as engines were revved, and the little girl stood in the middle of the road, stickers in hand, blinking, confused, dazed at the incandescence. Someone over at the pavement called out to her, and she shuffled to the sidewalk, to adults, and other children, waiting for her. Perhaps they were her family. That was the last I saw of her before the car plunged ahead.
I wonder if that little girl had a good night’s sleep that day, for it was well past nine, and quite late for her to be working. In an ideal scenario, she would have been tucked in bed with a stuffed toy for company. But this wasn’t an ideal scenario. Far from it.
For all our country’s problems, it is a sad state of affairs when our children are forced to beg and sell shiny stickers they would have loved to keep. It is a sad state of affairs that four- and five-year-old kids blink in the glare of headlamps, trying to reorient their sight and find their way out of a dangerous street. It is sadder still that poverty brings with it unimaginable struggles and unfathomable heartbreak. To become peddlers instead going to school, to work instead of living a carefree, happy life.
For a country with thousands of years of history, an unrivalled culture and spiritual knowledge, sometimes all it takes is a little girl to shatter the illusion of apparent normalcy.