It was 9 AM when I first noticed her. Though I hadn't noticed her earlier but I am sure she's been on the bus stop for more than an hour at least. She couldn't have been more than 15 or 16. And she was dressed better than most girls that took their buses from this bus stop. She had a small and yet eye catching yellow backpack clasped in her arms. She held it tightly against her chest as if her dear life was caged in it. She was staring intently at something on the other side of the road and was otherwise motionless. If she wasn't waving her hands to ward off the flies, I would have passed her off as a mannequin that some cloth merchant had left behind.
Surprising bit was that that while she was on the bus stop, some 30 buses would have passed by and she did not take any of those. In fact I realized that she wasn't even looking at the bus numbers or making any effort to ask the conductor about whatever destination those buses went to.
She definitely did not belong to the scenery. I have been running the tea shop by this bus stop for almost five years now and I know a local when I see them. I thought that she’s from a well to do family and maybe she has had an argument with her parents and is hiding from them or something. The newspaper was full of reports like that. May be her family has put a large award for information on her whereabouts. This is the kind of luck that I desperately need. I have to pay that damn loan back that I took to start this tea shop. A large chunk of that loan was spent on bribing Pandey, the local constable and his bosses.
Just when I was going to speak to her, I was interrupted by Pandey. He never pays for his tea and I don't like him a bit.
I generally setup my shop by the bus stop by 630 AM. Today was no different. In fact, today I found Shukla Ji waiting for me. He runs the chemist shop in one of the by-lanes and he has been a customer since the first day of my shop. And since then, he has always been my first customer of the day. He says that my tea is like amrrut - the magic potion. He says my tea can infuse life into even a dead man. I think he merely exaggerates. He is a good guy and he keeps recommending me to all his customers and friends. Everything is good about him except his useless conversations. He apparently knows about everything the world has to offer and every day, he chooses a new thing to talk about. Today morning, while he kept me busy with his inane talks about women, their ailments, their whims, I took my time to clean up the place, boil water, brew the tea leaves, pound ginger, cardamom and lemon into a paste and make the first cup. Shukla Ji sipped onto the clay pot with great satisfaction and continued his monologue about women and their shopping habits. At times I have this dying urge of poisoning the tea with a rat-kill and put an end to Shukla Ji's stupid monologues but I refrain myself because I had to run the tea shop and ShuklaJi meant 7 to 8 cups a day and numerous referrals.
Just like that it was 9, ShuklaJi was long gone and it was time for Mrs. Verma to make her appearance. She is the principal of the government school for girls. Though she lives at a walking distance from the school and my teashop, and she can have her tea at home, she still likes to come over, sit here and indulge in gossip about other regulars. I don't mind. 3 cups a day. Mrs. Verma was about 45, looked 40 and considered herself 35. And like all women her age, she was particular and liked doing things her way. Like, she carried her tea cup with her every time she came to my shop. It said "World's Greatest Friend". The cup was too big to serve tea in and I suspect its was a gift from someone. But I am not sure of the greatest friend bit.
I have told her on numerous occasions earlier that since I sit on a bus stop, a cleaner mug makes no difference to hygiene and danger of diarrhea. Anyways I saw her coming and as she was approaching, my gaze automatically went towards her usual place on the bus stop. And I saw the girl with the yellow backpack again. I had almost forgotten about her. She was sitting on Mrs. Verma's place. Of course the bus stop is a public installation and no one can claim any personal rights to a specific bench. But once get used to things, we start getting personal with those things. Now look at me for example. Anyone can setup a tea or a cigarette shop here and I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I could theoretically talk to Constable Pandey but I know him. He will take sides with anyone who greases his palms.
Before I could think of a list of deadly misfortunes that may befall Pandey for not helping me, Mrs. Verma reached the bus stop with her large bag and her coffee mug and she headed towards her regular seat. Knowing Mrs. Verma, I was expecting fireworks. I had mentally taken a note to help the girl if Mrs. Verma got nasty. It’s a free country after all and anyone can sit anywhere they want to, as long as they are not doing anything illegal. Mrs. Verma can anyway be unnecessarily harsh. And the lonely girl needs a guardian angel before I can inform her parents and claim my reward.
Mrs. Verma stopped right in front of the girl and stared down hard at her. Mrs. Verma has a huge imposing personality. A little on the heavy side, she always wears faded pastel sarees that are ironed, creased and starched as sharp as knives. To add to the dramatic appearance, she has this huge pair of reading glasses that keeps dangling from her neck. I have never seen her using them. I think they are useless and they are merely in place to add to her strict image. She says that little harshness goes a long way towards fixing attitudes. She always asserts her opinions on things that she has no clue about. I mean who dares calls my cups dirty? The entire world drinks from them and so far nothing has happened to no one.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Verma was still staring down at the girl and she kept the stern gaze for what seemed like the longest minute ever. Anyone else would have seen the signs and would have fled. But not this little one. She kept on staring past Mrs. Verma. I think this was the first time when someone had refused to acknowledge Mrs. Verma's presence and authority. Mrs. Verma stood there with puzzled expression. She didn't know how to react. She shuffled on her feet for a few seconds and with uncertain moves and disorderly steps walked towards me. She averted my gaze and she feigned a search for something in her bag. Talking to no one in particular, she said "look at kids these days. They don't respect their elders at all. Look at the pride on her face. I wonder which school she goes to." When she looked up after the rant, she caught ShuklaJi staring at her. He had come just a couple of minutes back and hearing the rant, his face developed an expression of a man possessed. ShuklaJi ensures that he is here at 9 everyday without fail. I suspect that ShuklaJi has a soft corner for Mrs. Verma. Rather than talking to Mrs. Verma, I have often found him talking to her bosom, her bag, her saree and even her mug. And I reckon even Mrs. Verma likes the attention. May be this is why despite all the trouble and my dirty mugs, she comes over to my shop for the tea.
"Madam, who said what to you? Just tell me and I shall take care of the bastard", Pandey spoke as he walked towards the shop. He had apparently heard Mrs. Verma’s anguish and unlike us, could infer what she was saying.
"Nothing Pandey Ji. Just some kid who needs to be disciplined", replied Mrs. Verma, eying the girl.
Shukla Ji was feeling left out. He looked at me briefly and loped a question in the air. "Arey, wasn't this girl sitting on the bench when I left after my morning walk?"
I replied, "I think she was but I am not sure. But she has been here for more than an hour for sure and she hasn't made any effort to stop any bus. I wonder what’s wrong with her.” Though I stated mere facts, I was hoping to add some fuel to fire and get people talking. My experience has taught me more people indulge into conversations, more time they spend at the tea stop and more tea they consume. And nothing like a mystery or a controversy to get their opinions and hunger for tea flowing.
At this, Mrs. Verma who considers herself an authority on young women added "What are you saying? I am sure the girl is a chain snatcher and is waiting for the right target to come along. I know such girls. Like Hawks, they can sit for hours and wait for their prey and when they spot someone, they are as quick as lightening and before you realize they are gone. Look at her long legs. She must be a good runner. And since she is thin, she must be really hard to catch hold of. Pandey Ji, I think you should round her for interrogation. In fact do you remember when I had to call for you when one of my teachers lost her purse in the school? Dint we find it in a girl's school bag? Didn't that girl confess about her crime and how she wanted money to buy expensive clothes so that she may please her boyfriend? Boyfriend at the age of 15. When I was growing up, girls were married for two years by the time they were 15. Girls back then were so obedient and they respected their parents and in-laws. Now, we have a totally different generation. Talk harshly to a girl and she would have a meter long tear running down her cheek. I am telling you, we are giving so much freedom to these girls. It will not help our society. Our culture is getting lost. I mean look at me. Despite the fact that I am a teacher and I need to keep my mind open, I still adhere to things that my parents taught me. And those values that I learnt back then are still helping me instill discipline in my students. PandeyJi, you at once should go and check with that girl and search her yellow bag. How dare a criminal like that is roaming free on our streets?"
Mrs. Verma was breathless by this time and had to actually sit down and fan her face with the edge of her saree. Before Pandey made his unlikely move, I had to do something about the situation. Mrs. Verma was just being vicious and I had anyways told myself that I would help the girl. I was beginning to like the girl. And if Pandey identified the missing girl, I would lose the opportunity to claim the missing person’s award. I retorted, "Verma Madam, how can you say something like that? Look at the poor girl. She seems to be from a good family. I think she needs help. Does she look like a chain snatcher to you? Look at her clothes? She is dressed better than most of your girls. She is wearing such nice blue shoes. Look at the watch on her wrist. She can’t possibly be a chain snatcher. The bag would not have anything but her books.” I eyed towards Pandey for support. I knew that he is the laziest policeman ever and even if the girl had crook stamped across her face, Pandey would not bother moving his butt.
Constable Pandey wanted to speak up and before he could do so, ShuklaJi jumped in. "How can you talk like that to Mrs. Verma? She is the most educated person amongst us." Shukhlaji paused for a second, looked into the eyes of Mrs. Verma and continued talking. "She has a point. If she wasn't a chain snatcher, why would she be sitting here? If she is lost, can’t she ask people for help? If she was from a respectable family, she would never run away from home and bring disgrace to her family. But what would you know? Only Mrs. Verma can appreciate these things. We should listen to Mrs. Verma. We should check with the girl. If PandeyJi is reluctant to go, I volunteer to go and speak to her." Dropping his tone a bit, addressing Mrs. Verma's dangling reading glasses, he said. "I have even heard that there are girls her age into flesh trade. They look for gullible and unsuspecting people and trap them. These girls would come to you, cook a story and tell you that they've lost their way and they need help. What can an honest and kind man do in such a situation? And moment you offer help, they cling onto you and dont let go. I have a friend who got trapped like that. I am ..."
Pandey cut ShuklaJi short and said, "Your friend? If my memory serves me right, dint you yourself come to the police station a few weeks back and filed a report against a girl who had stolen some money from your shop? And you dint have any witness to support your claim?"
"Uh ... yes yes it was me but how are these things related? It was a case of shoplifting and this is a prostitute we are talking about here". ShuklaJi tried to dodge the volley.
"Prostitute?” I asked with disbelief. "ShuklaJi! Sir, if we can’t help the poor girl, let’s not throw baseless allegations at her.", I said.
"I think in your report you said that this girl asked you for help and you gave her some money and when you refused to give her more, she snatched money from you and ran away", continued Pandey.
"Arey nahi nahi sir. That was something else. Anyways I took my report back after I spoke to the Station In-charge. Didn't I? And we have a bigger trouble here. We need to know who is this girl and where is she from. We need to know if she can cause any harm to Mrs. Verma and her girls.” ShuklaJi tried making peace with Pandey.
It was now Constable Pandey's turn to put forth his opinion. He said, "We are just making a mole of a mountain. I am saying its nothing. This is just a case of the girl bunking her college. She does not where to go and hence she is just whiling away time at the bus stop. It’s so cold outside. Who would not like to soak up some sun? I think we should leave her alone. Why waste our time and effort on talking to these girls? Anyways once they are old enough to get married, they would be sent to their in-laws house and all they would do the entire day is cook and clean."
I was aghast. I was amidst a bunch of people who were supposedly educated and yet they spoke of women as if they were mere objects. Especially in the age when women were launching rockets in space and running big businesses. I did not know how to react to these comments by Pandey, Shukla and Madam. I sincerely wish I could do something for the little girl and help her. I could think of only one way. I handed a cup of tea to Pandey and told him, "PandeyJi, I know it’s inconvenient to you but could you please check with her? This is the least we can do for her and if she is lost, we can help her find her way to home".
Pandey looked at me with irritation and said, "Ok ok, I will do it."
And moment he turned towards the girl, he stopped in his tracks. So did we.
There was no one on the bus stop. Not even her yellow backpack.