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Image by Janmesh Shah

The Little Acrobat

Lives of an office goer and a street Acrobat get inter-twined...

Damn!!! Suchitra muttered aloud. Another red light!!! She clamped her lips together to stem the rising tide of anger and frustration. She wondered if she would make it in time for her presentation. She had started out an hour earlier to avoid getting caught in the morning traffic of office goers. But here she was caught in a traffic moving at a snail’s pace. She loved Delhi. Ofcourse she did. It was where she was born and brought up, but the everyday traffic snarls made her gnash her teeth in despair. Her fingers beat an impatient tattoo on the steering wheel.  She revved her engine impatiently as she saw the light turn green. Her car inched forward slowly but much to her chagrin, the light turned red again. Double Damn!! If this Hide n’ seek continued, she knew she would not make it to the office in time. She had taken the Purana Qila Road abutting the Supreme Court building, as the Google map had shown less traffic on this road. But it looked like Google had it all wrong today. Her promotion depended on the presentation she gave today. She had been assiduously working on it for the last ten days but never in her worst nightmares had she envisioned a scenario where the roadblock to her promotion was not her ability but the Delhi traffic. She closed her eyes in disgust.

The sound of a sharp tap broke her reverie. She turned her head. Her eyes caught and held a pair of dark kohl-lined eyes, twinkling with amusement as they peered in. The eyes were set in a small elfin face, tanned by the sun to a golden brown and covered with a powdery film of dust. The hair was matted but pulled back in two neat braids with discoloured ribbons to hold them in place. The colour of the hair was a sandy brown. It probably came from lack of nutrition rather than a salon visit, she thought clinically. The little girl, thin and scrawny, barely reached the top of the window of her low-slung Honda City. Suchitra guessed her age would be 6 or maybe 8. She wore a flower printed frock in an indeterminable colour and a salwar in the same colour. She had an aluminium ring in her hand which she held up like a trophy for Suchitra to see. Suchitra looked closely. The ring was probably the wheel of a small bicycle with the spokes removed, although the jagged edges still remained. Suchitra raised her brows in query. The little girl looked delighted at having caught her attention. She gestured towards the divider and headed there with a little skip and bounce. Reaching the divider, she did a graceful cartwheel and a backflip. By then a young boy, about her age, had arrived with a dhol slung across his narrow shoulders. He began playing the dhol in rhythmic patterns while the little girl did back flips and cartwheels without missing a beat. She then picked up the ring and, using it like a hula hoop, dexterously did an amateur rhythmic gymnastics routine while slithering in and out of the hoop. She ended her performance with a neat dive through the ring which the dhol boy held up at a height of about 5 feet. Suchitra was stunned by this impressive display. She hunted in her purse for some money to give the little girl. But the lights had turned green and the cars behind her in the queue began honking impatiently. Suchitra quickly pushed her gear stick and began to move. Her eyes slid to her side mirror. She caught a glimpse of the little girl, her eyes glistening with disappointment as she saw the car moving away. Suchitra quickly slid down her mirror and waved at her. “Main kal bhi aaongi” (I’ll come tomorrow”), she yelled. She saw the little girl again in the mirror, this time waving back, her face lit up with a huge smile. Suchitra suddenly felt light-hearted. That bright smile of the little girl stayed with her the whole day.

She somehow managed to reach her office in time and breezed through her presentation with complete assurance. Her boss, who was known to be tight-fisted with his compliments had been fulsome in his praise of her work.  In Suchitra’s mind, the little acrobat had become her lucky mascot. While heading back home that evening, she stopped at a candy store in Khan market and picked up a couple of chocolates and a packet of candy, thinking she would give it to the little girl the next day. The image of the little girl stayed with her as she fell into peaceful slumber that night.

The next day, Suchitra woke up early and dressed quickly. She downed her sandwich with a cup of strong coffee and headed for her car with a bounce in her step. She headed down the same road she had taken yesterday. She crossed the Indraprastha park and headed for the Purana Qila. As she neared the lights that turned into the Supreme Court Road, she noted that the lights were green. She slowed her car, earning a few irate glances from other car drivers but luckily the traffic was thin. As she neared the lights, they turned red. She heaved a sigh of relief. Then she laughed out aloud. My God!! Imagine being happy because the lights had turned red. Controlling her amusement, Suchitra braked to a halt and looked around eagerly. There was no one on the divider strip. Her heart lurched with disappointment. She looked at the sidewalk on the left. There were three children sitting under the tree with their backs to the road. She looked carefully. The child in the middle wore her hair in two braids. Maybe she was the little acrobat. Suchitra pressed her horn twice, hoping it would attract the children’s attention. It didn’t. Suchitra rolled her window down and yelled ‘Suno”(Listen), as loudly as she could. The little girl started and turned back to look. Suchitra slumped in relief. She was her little acrobat. She waved, yelling “yahan aao"(Come here). The girl looked startled and then recognition dawned. She shook the shoulder of the boy sitting on her left, pointed to Suchitra’s car and started making her way through the cars towards her. With one eye on the lights, Suchitra quickly scrabbled in the bag for the chocolates and candy she had bought yesterday. The lights turned red just as the little girl reached her car. Suchitra quickly shoved the chocolates and sweets in the girl’s hands and said, “This is for your beautiful performance yesterday”. The girl gave an angelic gap-toothed smile. It was like the sun had broken through the dark clouds. At the impatient honking of the cars behind her, Suchitra pressed the accelerator and moved forward. Her side mirror showed the image of the little girl smiling rapturously while the boy who had played the dhol yesterday, draped a protective arm around the girl and looked a little suspiciously at Suchitra’s car. 

From then on, Suchitra made it a point to carry something for the little girl every day. Sometimes it would be sandwiches, sometimes it would be ladoos or jalebi, at times it would be the leftover paneer from yesterday’s dinner or a couple of apples. The little girl would receive her offerings with a huge smile, with the dhol boy standing at her side like a guardian angel, as though trying to keep all harm at bay. One day when Suchitra arrived at the red lights, the little girl was doing her acrobat routine. While doing her cartwheel, her frock rode high, revealing her thin torso with the ribs jutting out. Suchitra promised herself she would get her more food. A wolf whistle cut through her reverie and made her turn around. She saw a couple of middle-aged men ogling at the little girl. Suchitra was upset and perturbed. The bastards!! She cursed under her breath. The girl was little more than a child for God's sake. The little girl had no protection against these rabid wolves except for her dhol player who was a little boy himself. This realization made Suchitra wring her hands impotently. That day, during the lunch hour, she took an auto to the Janpath market and picked up a couple of track suits. She made sure that the track top had elasticized edges which would not allow the top to ride up. That evening while going home, she turned back from the Purnan Qila road hoping to find the little girl on the sidewalk. But there was no one there. Disappointed, she went home, hoping she would find Kartab the next day. In her mind Suchitra had started calling the little girl ‘Kartab’.

The next day, as her car inched towards the Purana Qila red lights, Suchitra looked around for Kartab. There seemed to be no one on the sidewalk or the divider. Suchitra turned back from the Purana Qila road in order to make a second run past the lights, hoping she would spot the girl. But the sidewalk was still empty. Suchitra felt a sense of gnawing premonition. Had something happened to the girl? She prayed fervently hoping she was fine. That day when she reached her office, she contacted her friend Manya, who ran an NGO for orphan girls and told her about Kartab. Manya promised to take on the girl provided she came willingly. Suchitra heaved a sigh of relief and decided to go looking for Kartab.

On her way back home, Suchitra parked her car outside the court premises and walked towards the Purana Qila side. She was determined to find the little girl and get her off the unsafe streets of Delhi. She waited for almost an hour on the sidewalk but to no avail. Kartab did not come. She asked a vendor if he knew her. He looked at her strangely, and shook his head. Suchitra went back home that day feeling drained and defeated. Where could she find Kartabr? That night she had bad dreams. In her dreams, she saw Kartab running with two men running after her. The next morning, on an impulse, Suchitra took a day off. She was determined to look for and find Kartab.

She parked her car outside the court and walked to the sidewalk. In her hand she carried the bag containing the tracksuits she had bought. She stood on the sidewalk, looking around, hoping some miracle would happen and the little girl would appear with that angelic smile on her face. After waiting for what looked like an eternity, a dis-spirited Suchitra began to trudge back to her car. On the sidewalk, on the opposite side of the road, she thought she glimpsed a mop of sandy brown hair. With all her lung power, she yelled out “Kartab suno”(Kartab Listen). She started running down the sidewalk. Heaving and panting she reached the point where the sidewalk ended. But it was empty. Her shoulders slumped. She turned around and began walking back, her eyes wet with tears. And then suddenly, from behind the tree, the dhol boy materialized. Suchitra looked at him carefully. His eyes were red. They looked at Suchitra with a dead, closed look that scared her. ‘Kartab?’, she said in a shaking voice. He shook his head. Suchitra caught his shoulders in a tight grip. “Where is she?” The little girl who did Kartab?” He shook his head again and swallowed hard. “Her name was Pari”, he said almost under his breath. “They killed her”, he mumbled softly. Suchitra’s heart contracted in pain.” “What are you saying? Who killed her? Come with me. We will file an FIR in the police station”. Slowly, haltingly, the whole sorry story came out. Two men had followed them when they went home that ill-fated evening. They had forcibly picked Pari up and headed with her towards the Purana Qila. She could not shout for help because she was dumb by birth. She had, however, slipped out of their grasp and run towards the road. An oncoming SUV had slammed into her slight body, and she had died on the spot. The driver of the SUV had not even waited to see if the girl needed to be taken to the hospital. Sobs wrenched their way through the dhol boy’s slim frame as he haltingly narrated the tragedy. The plastic bag fell from Suchitra’s nerveless hands. The bright red track suits lay strewn on the sidewalk, like the blood that had drained and pooled around the body of little Pari. Tears streamed down Suchitra’s cheeks. She scrabbled in her bag, took out a couple of 500 notes and tucked them into the dhol boy’s fisted hands. Then she started to walk back. 

The next day was overcast and gloomy. Suchitra somehow managed to get ready for her office. Her feet dragged as she walked to her car. As the Purana Qila lights approached, she felt a sense of extreme loss. The lights turned red. She waited, not looking either at the sidewalk or the divider. There was a tap on the window. Suchitra’s heart missed a beat. She turned slowly hoping to see dark kohl-lined eyes twinkling with amusement. Her eyes met red-rimmed dark eyes. His hand tapped at the window again. She started to roll down her window. Two 500 notes were thrust in and before she could say anything, the dhol boy walked away. The lights turned green. Impatient honking pulled Suchitra out of her daze. She shifted gears and her car slowly inched forward. Everything was blurred as she accelerated away. She thought she glimpsed a bright smile and twinkling kohl-lined dark eyes in her side mirror and almost turned back. "Take hold of yourself Suchitra", she muttered. But a force beyond her control made her roll down her window and wave. A final farewell to her little acrobat. 

~Janvee Bose

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