She was standing at the base of the stairs leading up to the main road, in the subway*. She wore a checked kurta and salwar. A neatly folded dupatta was slung across her shoulders formed a ‘V’. Her hair was braided, tied with ribbons. A huge school bag completed her school uniform. She may have been in middle school. It was lunch time, so it was not unusual to find school students wandering about, and I would have never even noticed her presence.
She held on to the railing, and took one step on the staircase. She dragged herself slowly, up one step. It was then, that I observed her. Her entire body was shaking, as if she had Parkinson’s disease.
I tried not to make her feel like she was out-of-place, and pretended to have not noticed her. I suppose I failed at that. As I walked past her, she spoke, ‘Excuse me Didi! Time kya hai?‘ I looked at my phone and informed her of the time. She then asked me, ‘Aap ek phone call kar sakte ho?‘ I agreed immediately. She called out a number, and asked in Hindi, ‘Please ask my father to come and pick me up… My name is Payal^.’
She was still holding on to the railing of the staircase, taking one slow step at a time. I dialled the number she called out. It was unreachable. She dragged herself up, and I walked beside her, trying to match her pace. I tried to call the number a second time – still unreachable. Perhaps the network was poor. Maybe I could try once again after exiting the subway. A young man climbing up the stairs looked back, and enquired what the matter was. He seemed a little sceptical, and asked if she came this way everyday. He kept looking back, as I called the number once again.
Once we were on the footpath of the main road, with no more railings to hold on to, she held on to my hand. The young man asked in Hindi, ‘Shall I put her in an auto**, so that she can reach home?’ I ignored the man. Even though I had just met her, I felt responsible for Payal.
I asked her where she lived. ‘I live just behind that’, she said, pointing towards a bend in the road. Her father’s number was still out of reach. ‘Shall I take you home? Do you want to go in an auto?‘ She paused, and then nodded her head. She said we could walk.
She had just met me, and she trusted me enough to put her safety in my hands. I held her hand and we took a few steps. It didn’t take long for her to realise it would be a very long walk. In a soft voice, she asked, ‘ham auto le len?’
I agreed and stopped an auto on the road. I asked the autowallah# if he could take us to her house. I pointed towards the bend in the road. No autowallah would travel such a short distance. The expression on his face, upon looking at my new friend, changed. ‘Baitho,’ he said, gesturing towards the seat. I asked him for the fare. He waved his hand, as if to say, ‘don’t worry about it…’
We hopped in. Payal began feeling a little comfortable around me, and attempted to speak in English. She asked me my name. ‘Its a nice name. You going to office? College?’ She gave directions to her house. It was perhaps a kilometre, and I wouldn’t have minded walking. But for Payal, it would have been a huge struggle. I asked her which school she was in, where it was, and how she ended up at the subway. She told me her school bus dropped her off there, and she was waiting for her father to pick her up.
When we neared the apartments. She smiled widely, and said, ‘Welcome to my home! Please come home.’ We got off the auto. I asked the autowallah how much was the fare. As I paid him, Payal cried, ‘Wait, I will get money from home. No you don’t pay.’
I told her its okay. He had charged only the minimum fare.
I gave Payal a silly excuse to leave. She repeated herself, ‘Welcome to my home!’ I followed her up to the doorstep of her house. Her mother stepped out of the house, and clearly alarmed, asked Payal how she came, who I was, and why she didn’t call. It’s hard to tell if she was angry, or if her natural tone was like that. She tried to give me an explanation, for why no one was there to pick her up, as if she were, in some way, accountable to me.
I hastily said goodbye to Payal and left. On the way back, I couldn’t help but feel sad for Payal. She was such a small girl, and she had to face such huge challenges on a daily basis. At the same time, her courage to put up a brave face, and smile so sweetly, was inspiring.
As I walked back, I caught myself smiling, just as I had caught the autowallah smiling, when he was about to leave.
* * *
*subway : also known as underpass – a walkway that passes underneath an obstacle such as a road (Wikipedia).
**auto : short for auto-rickshaw; also known as a tuk-tuk – a three-wheeled vehicle.
#autowallah : the driver of the auto rickshaw.