She waved at me from her rooftop, a mere child of a girl. I thought she looked about eight year’s old. The sight of her, in a sleeveless and flimsy white smock, chilled me to the bone. It was the peak of winter and I was swaddled in multiple layers of clothes. Even my head was protected by a woolen cap knitted by my mother.
I couldn’t wipe the memory of that little girl braving the harsh winter in unsuitable clothes out of my mind. I decided to go see her mother and tell her to dress up her child in woolens. Delhi winters are unforgiving of people who don’t respect them. Schools are shut down due to the thick fog and extreme cold. My college was closed for winter break and I had all the time in the world to think of that freezing child on the rooftop. My professors had warned me of my empathetic nature, which bore well for my social work degree but was detrimental to my peace of mind.
After a sleepless night, I decided to go check up on the girl to ease my conscience. The climb to the third floor flat was fraught with misgivings and internal conflict.
Was I right in interfering in someone’s life? Did the child really look sick and uncared-for or was it my over active imagination?
The abrupt opening of the door started me and my inner chatter tumbled out in a frenzied dialogue.
“Hello! I am a student looking for a room to rent. I saw the room on your rooftop and wanted to know if it was vacant.”
“Oh that! Yes, it is empty at the moment.”
The very pregnant lady at the door winced at the mention of the room or was it because of her advanced pregnancy? I saw a boy of about 5 to 6 years, sitting on the bed. His left arm was in a sling; plaster dirty and cracked, appeared to be an old injury. The bandage on his forehead looked like it was freshly applied.
“This is my son Ravi. He had a fall in the morning and hit his head on the doorjamb. I have returned from the hospital in Delhi where he was treated.”
“Sorry to hear that. Maybe I can come some other time when you are well rested.”
“Don’t bother, I am forever tired. Ravi is accident prone, as you can see from his plaster. Every few days he trips and hurts himself. He is clumsy.”
She went into the kitchen to get his medicines and something to feed him. After offering me a glass of water, she sat on the bed to feed Ravi. I spied the little girl standing at the door, she looked sad and hungry. The woman didn’t even glance at the girl and continued cajoling her injured son to eat. I was appalled at this mother’s neglect of her daughter but held my tongue for the moment.
“Can I see the room? You can stay and feed Ravi. I will run up and see the place.”
“You don’t mind? I am relieved to be to not be climbing up the stairs in my condition. The doctor says it is a matter of hours now before my delivery .”
I raced up to the roof and the pitter patter of the child’s feet followed me. I turned and found her standing by my side; she stood shivering in the same dirty white sleeveless dress from yesterday. Her lips were turning blue in the cold. I put my shawl around her frail shoulders and she rewarded me with a tired smile.
“Didi, look at my sisters. They are hiding under the bed.”
Two little girls came out of their hiding place; both similarly dressed in ill-fitting flimsy clothes. It must be torture for the kids in this weather.
One was about two and the other four years old.
“Why aren’t you wearing woolens? Don’t you feel cold? Ask your mummy to dress you up warmly.”
“Mummy doesn’t care for us, only for Bhaiya. Papa too hates us. We hide in this room and stay out of their sights.”
I stomped down the stairs and confronted the woman in the room.
“While you are sitting in here, your daughters are freezing in the cold.”
“I don’t have daughters, only one son. My husband says, girls are a drain on their family’s resources and we don’t want to waste any money on them. They take and take from the parents and then move to their husband’s house leaving their parents in debt and poverty.”
I slammed out of her house and called up my professor, Mrs. Mehta. She worked with an NGO for neglected girls. I told are the plight of the three kids and the mother’s behavior towards them. She promised to come over to see for herself before taking any legal action. After an agonizing few hours, she reached my place. We went to the little girls’ house and knocked on the door. A nurse stood in front of us holding a baby in her arms.
“Are you her relatives? She went into labor and called the ambulance but delivered the baby before we could transfer her to the clinic. it’s a boy.”
“No, we are not her relatives. We are her neighbors.”
“Can you stay with her till I send a replacement for me? I am a trauma specialist and needed at the clinic. A nurse from the maternity ward will come in an hour’s time, please stay till then.”
“Okay!” We needed time to talk to the girls, so we agreed.
The newborn was hungry and his wails roused the mother out of her stupor. She nursed him, laying down and smiled at us.
“See how handsome my son is, and so strong. I knew it was a boy all along, a mother knows.”
The pride and joy on your face accompanied with her boast of knowing it was a boy made me angry.
“Can you help me to the bathroom? Mrs. Mehta held the new mother’s hand and guided her to the bathroom. I went looking for the three girls hoping to feed them while their cruel mother was otherwise occupied. After looking in the room on the terrace I came down and walked into the baby’s room. The three girls were standing around the baby’s bed and smiling at him. The eldest one had a pillow in her hand which she was lowering to his face and murmuring, “ it’s time to sleep, baby brother.”
“No!” I screamed and she turned to look at me.
The mother rushed out of the bathroom and grabbed her baby, holding him close she inquired,
“Who are you shouting at?”
Your little girls. They were trying to smother your son with this pillow.”
“What girls? I only have two sons; Ravi and this little baby boy.”
“Why are you lying? Can’t you admit that you have three girls too, they are eight, four and two years old.”
The mother fainted.
Mrs. Mehta had the presence of mind to grab onto the baby before he too fell to the floor. When the baby’s mother came to, she told us a chilling tale.
“I was four months pregnant when my husband and mother-in-law took me for an ultrasound. It was a girl, so I aborted it. After two years came my son, Ravi. Twice after him, I had to undergo abortions because I was carrying girls. I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
I looked at the little girls, standing forlorn and beret. The ignorant mother and baffled Mrs. Mehta looked at me for an explanation.
The room started spinning wildly. I found myself being pulled into the quicksand on the floor. My flailing arms, thrashed about to save myself. I heard my screams even before I opened my eyes. I was lying in my bed, in my house. Disoriented and disconcerted, I thought I had imagined it all.
Might is well catch up on my sleep, I thought turning on my side. I saw the eerily familiar pillow lying next to me. The white pillow cover had three pairs of grubby, tiny hand prints on it. This time I needed no persuasion to close my eyes and go into oblivion.
Will you wake me up?
By Sulekha Rawat