The taxi slows down. ‘What happened?’ I ask the driver.
‘Construction work, Madam.’
I see a yellow board: DRIVE CAREFULLY, SLIPERY ROAD.
Perhaps a P slipped away.
‘Mom, who are they?’ Miriam points to two girls peddling roses. I tell her they are flower sellers.
‘Why are they flower sellers?’
‘Because they are poor.’
‘What is poor?’
‘They have no money.’
‘No money?’
‘Very little.’
One of the girls has reached our car and is tapping at Miriam’s window. I signal her to leave. But Miriam is jumping, “I want flowers, I want flowers!”
‘Those are from some graveyard, definitely stolen,’ declares the driver. I give him a cold stare and he shuts up. No, these flowers were picked up from some banquet this morning when the party got over. I actually know people who buy their orchids from the signal at Kemps Corner. Per stalk just 20 Rupees.
I teach Miriam to nod her head from side to side and mouth the words NO THANK YOU. She is disappointed, but does as told. The flower girl shrugs and skips away.
Miriam climbs into my lap, she wants to know more about ‘poor people’. I tell her what she can understand. They have no homes, no beds, no TV. They do not go to school. I show her: they live on the streets, they come and ask for money. Wherever we look, we find them. We must help poor people, I tell Miriam.
As expected, the taxi decelerates to a stop at the Khada-Parsi crossing. It is a busy stretch of road, flanked by flyovers. If you didn’t know where to look, you could easily miss the beautiful cast iron statue of a Parsi merchant perched atop an ornate fluted pillar. I hear it is one of only two of its kind in the world. Anyway, who cares about a dead Parsi seth who stands in the way of the living, crushed by rush hour traffic, day after day after day…
Squatters are already getting ready for the night. A woman is pulling up a mouldy mattress, and a child is dragging a broken chair. The base of Khada-Parsi has three, maybe four, mermaids, their bosoms thrust outwards. The provocation clearly finds takers; the chests are much lighter than the rest of their bodies. I look away.
Suddenly, Miriam sits up and almost hits my jaw with her head, ‘Look, Mom!’ I follow her gaze. One man has pushed another from the pavement. The evictee has landed on the road, near our taxi. Territory war.
The fallen man lumbers up clumsily. He has only one leg, and in place of arms, he has stumps. I quietly cover Miriam’s eyes, but she wants to see. She frees herself from my hold, and demands, ‘Give him money! Give him money!’
‘Be quick,’ the driver drawls. The signal light is turning green.
I roll down my window, and choke. Such poisonous air! Deonar is still burning, and Bombay is probably worse now than even Beijing. Soon, we will have to buy clean air in plastic bottles. I hold my breath and grope inside my bag. In my wallet, I find one 500 Rupee note, one 100 Rupee note, and one 1 Rupee note. I hesitate. I can’t part with the 1 Rupee, it’s a good-luck charm. The cripple has reached my window now. I pull out the 100 Rupees. But how do I give it to him? He knows what I’m thinking, ‘Put it in my mouth!’ he yells. He brings his face close to mine. He opens his mouth; it is like a baboon’s behind. Red. His gums are rotting; his teeth are missing. My hands tremble. People are watching me. I try to put the note between his peeling lips. He pecks at the note and misses. The traffic is moving. He opens his mouth again. Wider. There is a sore on the inside of his mouth. Big and cream and velvety, like fat on a piece of raw meat. It is oozing. I pull my hand back. The car is moving. The man is lurching forward. He is trying to keep up. I freeze. My heart is pounding. I stare at the money. The man has fallen behind.
‘Mom!’
‘Shut up!’
My voice is uneven. I roll up my window. I take out my bottle of hand sanitiser and splash it on my palms. And I splash some on Miriam’s palms. I get a wad of tissues, roll the money in it and throw it inside my bag. I’m leaning back, my eyes are closed. The car smells of ethanol.
I am fine now.