It was the summer of 98, exams were over and done with, and the holidays were in full swing. We spent the summer holidays swimming, reading Tinkle comics, eating mangoes that we plucked ourselves from the trees in our backyard, and preparing bottles and bottles of Rasna squash, our favourite flavour of which was, again, mango. We would put these bottles of juice in the fridge and empty one of the bottles on an ice tray so that we could enjoy mango ice cubes later in the day. In the evenings, we would go to the park right across the street, and we would play on this particular tree which had long, low-hanging intertwining branches. We would pretend that this was our space-ship, and that we were travelling across the galaxy to save the universe.
My sisters and I would go swimming at the club every alternate morning, waking up early so we could enjoy the pool when it was not yet crowded. One morning, when we were returning home after swimming, we met a girl on the road. She was wearing a yellow salwar-kameez, and her hair was neatly plaited, and I saw that the tip of her plait reached her waist. She wore glasses and carried a sling bag, but she carried it as one carries books, holding the bag close to her chest, as though she was afraid she would lose it. I also noticed that she had a unibrow.
The girl approached us, and spoke to my mother. I didn’t hear what she said because I was walking a little ways behind my mother and my youngest sister, but I saw that the girl started to walk alongside my mother.
“Who do you think she is?” I asked one of my sisters.
“Probably a saleswoman” she replied. My sisters and I bantered back and forth about different topics and didn’t pay much attention to the saleswoman.
We reached home, and I was surprised to see that the saleswoman was following my mother as she entered our house. For a brief moment, the saleswoman turned to smile at us. I didn’t like her, because I knew she was trying to sell my mother something we most likely did not need.
My mother asked the maid to prepare some tea for our ‘guest’, and I went to take a bath, fully intending to scold my mother after the saleswoman had left. As I shampooed my hair, I thought “I’ll tell her that it isn’t just us children who shouldn’t talk to strangers, that she ought to be careful too, and what if the saleswoman was a criminal, because women could be criminals too.” After I finished my bath, towelled myself and put a shirt and shorts on, I went to the living room. The saleswoman was just leaving and I heard her say to my mother ‘thank you for the tea’. After she left, my mother cleared away the teacups.
“So what was she trying to sell you?” I asked, as I followed her into the kitchen where our maid, Juhi was making puris for breakfast.
My mother laughed and said she wasn’t trying to sell her anything.
“So who was she and what did she want?” I asked, intrigued. My sisters were now watching TV in the living room, they couldn’t have cared less about our visitor.
“She said her name was Amil and that she had run away from home. She didn’t tell me where she lived but I suspect she hasn’t wandered far.”
“She ran away from home?” I asked, confused. I was only ten at the time, and I classed people under two groups only – children and adults. The girl had looked to be a bit older than the oldest girls in our school, so she was definitely an adult. I had been under the impression that adults could do whatever they wanted; it seemed incredible to me that a grown-up would want to run away from home when they didn’t have anyone to tell them to do their homework or eat their vegetables or to wake up early. “Why did she do that?”
“Well” my mother said as she seated herself down on one of the dining chairs. “Sometimes parents tend not to be very supportive of certain decisions their children make. When you’re young, we can scold you and try to influence you in a good way to the best of our capabilities. Then you grow older and you become more and more set in your ways, and then the parents are no longer able to exercise that influence anymore.”
I blinked, not understanding what she was trying to say.
“I’ll give you an example. You love to play basketball, right? Now, I can tell you that you can only play until a certain time of day, and then you have to get inside and do your homework. But suppose this love for basketball continues till you’re say, twenty, and I tell you to concentrate on your studies, but your only dream is to become a national level basketball player, so now there’s just a couple of adults arguing about what is right for whom. And I, as your parent, in my earnest desire to have you spend your college years well so that you can have a good future, pester you all day about your lack of interest in anything other than that sport, and thereby miss a very important point, which is that basketball makes you happy, and in attempting to take away the very thing that makes you happy, I contribute to your increased state of dejection, albeit unknowingly.”
“So she was unhappy because her parents didn’t allow her to do something that she wanted to do?”
“It wasn’t so much not allowing her as it was not affording their acceptance, and it wasn’t so much her wanting to do something as it was her wanting to be someone.”
I nodded, though I still didn’t fully understand.
“I told her” my mother continued, “that I could only convey to her what a parent might feel on learning that their child has run away. That, perhaps, we fail to realize the hurt that we cause our children but that everything we do is out of love, and that if she could somehow find a way to talk to her parents, she might find that there are a great many things they would be willing to give up rather than their daughter.”
“And what did she say?”
My mother sighed. “She didn’t say very much. But I hope she goes back home.”
Later in the evening, my sisters and I were in our backyard playing pretend that we were the Famous Five, our cat Pizzazz reluctantly and uninterestedly playing the part of Timmy. My father had just gotten back from the office and he and my mother were sitting on the verandah, talking and watching us play.
I went inside the house and into the kitchen to have a glass of water and as I was on my way back out, I heard my parents talking.
My father was saying “Yes, they spoke on the phone, but for tonight, and perhaps for the next few days, she’ll be staying with their relatives.”
“That’s a relief” my mother replied. “Not that I was worried about her. She seemed capable enough of taking care of herself. But I wanted her to realize that she needed to talk to her parents the way she spoke with me, a complete stranger she had just met. Maybe it wouldn’t have solved all her problems but it would have been a start.”
“By the way, what did she say when she approached you?” my father asked.
“She asked me the time, and I knew she was lonely because I could see her wristwatch peeping out from under her sleeve.”
And I had thought she was just some woman trying to sell my mother cheap cosmetics. I had noticed not only her unibrow, but also the pit stains on her tunic, and the gaudy bright pink elastic band she had used to tie the end of her plait. Suppose she had asked someone other than my mother the time, and suppose that person had noticed only the things I did, and not the fact that she was broken-hearted and lost, she might have gone wandering further until nobody knew where she was anymore.
Like I said, I was only ten at the time. I couldn’t understand what it was that a person could want so badly that it would drive them away from their family. If my parents didn’t allow me to play basketball, I would’ve sulked for a few days, but I certainly wouldn’t have even considered leaving my sisters or my parents.
I did think about Amil a lot though. Days later, I’d ask my father whether he had made any phone calls to enquire about the girl, and he’d tell me that yes, she had gone back home and the rest was no longer our business. I’d sit on my area on the spaceship tree and wonder whether she eventually spoke to her parents about what made her so sad, whatever it was, and whether her parents were good enough to not argue about it anymore. I’d wonder if she was finally happy, and found myself hoping against hope that she was.