“Ma’m, can you please spare some money for me? I haven’t eaten for the last two days. Please Ma’m, God will bless you with abundance,” begged Malti. She was standing near a car window that had stopped at the red signal. A lady with two kids were sitting in the car and ten year old Malti was begging for some alms.
“Ma’m, you have such beautiful children; may they always remain healthy,” Malti pleaded again with an innocent face and huge black eyes. This wish seemed to work . The window was rolled down, a hand came out to put a ten rupee coin in Malti’s outstretched hand. The window rolled up again, the signal turned green and the car moved on. Malti, ran away to the side of the road. She counted the money in her small bag. It was already more than the minimum she had to earn by begging the whole day. It was still afternoon and Malti was confidant that like every day, that day too she would be the one in that area, to have collected the highest amount of money through begging. Tony would again be happy with her and reward her by a glimpse of a smile, when she would hand the money to him. This happened most of the days.
Malti was a tribal from Jharkhand. She used to live with her parents and a younger sister in a remote village, that reeled in poverty. Everyone was very very poor. They never had two meals a day. In fact, most of their meals comprised, rice with water and salt. Boiled potatoes were a treat that they got when they were dug up from their open patch of land. The land was so very infertile that only potatoes were managed to be grown. There were cattle, mere skeletons for lack of proper pasture so they hardly produced any milk. The village was in such a remote area that the villagers remained oblivious of the world around. Raju Bhai was their link to the outside world. He would come twice a year and talk about the different world existing outside their village. The villagers would just hear the stories, dumbstruck. Even the thought of going out of their village never entered their minds. Raju Bhai would choose boys and girls, all in their early teens and take them away with him, in the promise of giving them a better life. In return, as a gesture to help, Raju Bhai would give the families a grand sum of a thousand rupees for each child. Every time that he would visit the village, he would give that sum to the parents of the children he had taken earlier. The mere sum of a thousand meant quite a lot to those penniless.
Raju Bhai would get those children to the city and supply the boys mostly to the small restaurant owners, garages and the girls to work in the houses. He would take the salaries himself and not give any to the children. The most paid ones were the ones sold to the beggars den. The children then would be taught to beg and then they would become the sources of earning for them. Tony was the master of the beggar’s den that Malti was a part of. He was a burly man with small eyes that shone like burning charcoal, all the time. His mere presense exuded fear. He would beat up the ones who would not be able to collect the minimum amount from begging in a day. Malti was the lucky one to be his favourite for she, with her sweet innocence, always managed to bring in much more than expected.
This life in the city was nothing that Malti could have ever imagined. There was nothing at all even remotely similar to her village, except the big Banyan trees or Peepal trees that she found here and there. The other beggars who lived with her in that den, were brought from different places but had become mostly alike. They had become abusive in their language, filthy in their habits and many were addicted to various drugs. Somehow Malti remained much unaffected by her surroundings and she had managed to retain the innocent child like heart that reflected on her face and behaviour. One day, at her usual begging area, something caught Malta’s attention. On the pavement, under a banyan tree across the road, she saw a small group of children sitting doing something. She went up to them and saw that they had books and were reading something while a young lady with a beautiful smiling face sat among them, on a stool. She stood there watching for sometime and then on asking a friend of her’s told her that it was a class going on for street children. These children were studying? Why? Thought Malti and now every day she started going there and keep watching them. The young lady, one day called her and asked her, her name. A bit shyly, Malti muttered, “Malti.”
“Wow! Malti, the lovely flower,” smiled the young lady. “ I am Simran,” said she as she beckoned Malti to come to her. Malti went to her looking into Simran’s smiling eyes.
“ I see you every day watching the kids here. Would you like to study with them too?” Simran’s question caught Malti completely unawares. She didn’t know how to respond.
“Tell me Malti, would you like to sit and study with them?” Simran was asking her again. Without understanding too much, Malti just nodded her head. Her head was racing. “What would happen if Tony ever got to know?” Was her biggest fear. Somehow everyone in Tony’s den had a soft corner for her. She had earned it through her kindness and genuine care for each one out there. She would be the first one to tend to the ill. She would generously share her food with someone whose was not enough. She would offer to do odd jobs to help out the old Mausi, who had only one leg and was the one to cook for everyone out there. So no one complained to Tony when Malti joined Simran’s group. She would hurry herself up and collect more than what she did before and then would run to sit with the street children studying there. Malti was blessed with a very intelligent and sharp mind but what made her stand out among all, was her intense zest for life. She just seemed to gooble up all that Simran had to offer.
One day Simran distributed drawing sheets and some colours to everyone and gave them a free hand in drawing.it was a sight to cherish. Each head totally engrossed in their own world of imagination!Simran was silently watching everyone when her eyes stopped at Malti’s sheet. The beauty of her drawing just took her breath away. The beautiful sunrise, the sea, the palm trees and a girl making a sand house; it was incredibly breathtaking. She gently bend and asked Malti,
“ You seem to have been doing a lot of drawing Malti! You are so very good at it.”
“No Didi, this is the first time I am drawing on a paper. I would earlier draw on the ground, on special days of the year. I would use rice powder to colour it, but drawing like this, using so many colours is so much fun,” gushed Malti.
Simran kept gazing at the drawing. What amazing use of colours! The drawing seemed all alive. It remained in Simran’s mind all day. She strongly believed in art, in any form, being a true expression of oneself and that is what she was working on with the NGO ‘We Care’, that she was attached to. The NGO aimed at working with Cancer patients and their care-givers together, where they would engage them with activities like drawing, colouring, singing and even dancing so as to help them de-stress and be stronger in coping with the so very difficult phase in their lives. These activities would help them to a large extent, in bringing out the expressions, sometimes of sadness, helplessness and many a times the joy and love that probably they craved for. Simran was thinking of Malti that how a girl with such darkness in her own life, could see so much beauty of life in her imagination. Simran had by now, made up her mind.She knew taking away Malti from under Tony’s wings would anger Tony no ends. She had to tread cautiously.
She made a plan. She arranged for some whole salers to supply her some items of necessity or frequently used that she got distributed among all those working as beggars in that area where she was taking her classes. She also taught them to make a few lines on some funky Bollywood numbers and sing them while selling their ware. So now the ones who were begging for alms before, were singing self made songs selling, toys, balloons, dusters, napkins, biscuits, books , stationary etc. etc.. This worked amazingly well and it brought smiles on the faces of the passer-byes in place of the scowls before. Everyone started earning and the collection grew much more than the given target.
Tony was pleasantly surprised to get extra money everyday. One day, without telling anyone, he went to see how this was happenning. He couldn’t believe what his eyes were seeing. His people, who were all supposed to beg, were singing songs and making money by selling stuff!Who was responsible for this huge shift? Then he spotted Simran, standing under the Banyan tree on the pavement, who like a Queen bee was instrumental in making the others work. He went straight to her and demended an explanation. Facing Tony unexpectedly, Simran gathered her composure and showed him how happy his people were, making money, the right way. She explained to him that he was not losing out in any way; in fact his daily collections had increased. Begging was an illegal way of earning, she pointed him out gently though firmly while all these people were happily working to earn money as well as respect. They were no more shooed away by people. Then Simran told him that she had more plans for them. She wanted to give them a purpose in life. Tony heard her patiently. He was not a bad man. He had chosen this way of earning. He was quite protective towards his own people, though he beat them up in anger but no one dared touch any of his people. Unlike many others in the same profession, he never indulged in flesh trade. Simran’s logic was making sense to him. With the same people he could earn more, legally and respectfully.
“Madam, you have opened my eyes. I totally agree with you and henceforth my people will follow your suggested path. I will always be indebted to you for your guidance,” Tony pronounced gratefully.
Now Simran would have workshops organised for all these people, who would practise activities related to art. Quite a few talents were discovered and groomed in singing, drawing, dancing etc. These people were engaged by “We Care” to take sessions in their workshops for Cancer patients along with their Care givers. There was a sea of change in every one and their lives had changed for sure, for the better. Malti’s drawings caught attention of the prominent artists and in less than two years, She was standing in a gallery receiving guests who had come to see her art exhibition. Malti had come a long way.
Simran, two months back had left for her home town in Pithoragarh. She had become unwell so she took a break to stay with her family, till she recovers. Malti was filling her space to her best, in the NGO. For some reason best known to Simran, she had become completely inaccessible by switching off her phone for the last five weeks or so. Malti was missing her a lot and she felt uncomfortable at not being able to contact her. But she had no way that she could reach out!
Six months whizzed past since Simran had left. Malti was missing her terribly that day, when “We Care” was celebrating their tenth anniversary. Many workshops had been organised for the cancer patients all over the city. Malti was taking the drawing session at the main centre. The room was packed. Malti started distributing the sheets and the colours. As she reached the last patient sitting on the last seat, she handed out the sheet with the colours and was turning back when she heard a familiar voice,
“Thank you Malti,” someone whispered.
Malti turned around. Was she seeing right? A frail Simran with a scarf tied on her head, sat staring at her with oceans of sadness in her deep blue eyes. The Game Changer of their lives, for so many, was sitting there as a cancer patient, with her brother as her care-giver.