“This business is going to the dogs,” he told his wife, Pinky’s mother, one morning. “Fewer people are buying newspapers. So, fewer are selling. How are we to survive?”
“You should change your job, baba,” her brother piped in. “Do something else. Become an Uber driver.”
Little Pinky thought this is it. Now he was going to get thrashed. But her father did not even give her brother his customary peeved glower. She was even more disappointed when her father left the room to talk to her mother outside. She heard only snatches of their conversation now.
“…no money to live well in our village.”
“What?…bangles?…no use.” Her father grew agitated as they talked and Pinky heard his next statement loud and clear.
“Once we leave, we can never come back again.”
Her mother attempted to soothe him, as she always had to these days when he got home drunk almost every evening.
Pinky edged closer to their door.
“But what use has it been?” her mother was saying. “We have lived in this city for twelve years. We came with such promises of wealth, but what happened since? We would’ve been happier at home, in our village, no matter how far away. We were not helpless there.”
“What about Pinky and Viru?” her father asked, still sullen, but somewhat softer.
“The way Viru is going…” her mother sighed, “It’d be better we leave, else he’s going to spend half his life in Arthur jail. What has he learnt in these years? Only to expertly pick locks.”
Pinky was seven years old, and her brother, Viraj or Viru, was fourteen. Both her parents unanimously agreed that Pinky was an angel while her brother, was a shaitan, a devil. When she was five, a rich woman passing by said she was adorably little and the title stuck — much to Pinky’s delight — because it was an English word that made her name sound high-class, and thuspopular in the neighborhood. The family of four lived in a shanty in Bandra, Mumbai, inside a slum located next to one of the grandest building complexes in the city. The slum provided the building’s residents with a steady supply of maids and handymen. Pinky’s father did rounds inside the building compound, collecting old newspapers by kilos to sell to scrap dealers for recycling. He made about a hundred bucks on a good day.
During her school holidays, Little Pinky loved accompanying her father on his rounds. It was then that she caught a glimpse of the lives of people that were unlike her own. She admired the grand interiors of the flats, looking through cracks of half-open doors, while her father sat outside, packets of newspapers depositing next to him with loud thumps. Dust and cobwebs fluttered around, and sometimes Pinky sneezed, but later she learned how to move away and cover her nose with the edges of her frock.
In the evenings from across the road where she played with her friends, Pinky saw the memsahibs and sahibs walk out of their apartment, their hands holding giant purses and tiny children like her. They got onto cars taller than her and drove away. While getting in, if their eyes met, a few of them nodded, but mostly they looked over, even the children, focusing on something afar. When I grow taller, they will be able to see me better, Pinky thought. She couldn’t wait to grow big and tall. Also then, she hoped, she could help her father bring more money home.
There was one particular apartment in the building complex that Pinky loved to go to. It was three apartments combined to one, and very, very spacious. But only one person stayed in it, a posh lady who was awfully old. Fat too. She hardly moved. She had a manservant to help around the house. The lady was called Ms Kushnam Batlivala. Her father had told Pinky her name because she hadn’t been able to read the letters on the nameplate clearly. He also told her that Ms Batlivala had never married and had inherited her dead father and unmarried dead brother’s vast stock trading wealth. Ms Batlivala was always very kind to Pinky, feeding her biscuits and chocolates. One time during Diwali, she also gifted her a blue dress. Her mother later told her the dress looked old and worn, but Pinky loved it. Especially the beige lace and gold trim with big alphabet shaped patterns.
“They are holes,” Viraj told her smugly when she showed him.
“It is design,” Pinky insisted.
“Even her bangles have holes,” Pinky retorted. “It is design! Rich people design!” She had admired the set of bangles on Ms Batlivala’s thick wrists often, worn only on special days. The bangles were strikingly yellow with indecipherable patterns cut inside. From a distance, Pinky imagined they were moons and stars.
“Stupid baby,” Viraj commented laconically, as he always did.
“Stupid shaitan,” Pinky screamed at him, then ran out of the house to avoid getting beaten.
One rainy morning, Little Pinky found her father was up and ready to get to work earlier than usual. “For those who leave for office before,” he told his family. “When husband wife both work, who is at home to sell paper? One should catch them before only.”
“But you haven’t even eaten,” his wife protested gently.
He hardly heard her. “That harami Pankaj has started doing earlier rounds. I saw him the other day.”
“Take Pinky along,” her mother said. “The building people are more generous when they see her.”
“Paper is paper,” her father grumbled. “If they have it, they will sell it. What will a child do there?”
“They will bargain less on the sale price,” her mother said and prodded Pinky to follow him.
Afterwards, Pinky was glad she went along because she witnessed firsthand what was happening with her father, and made sense of the events that were to follow.
So, this is what happened.
Her father entered the building complex at the same time Pankaj did. Immediately, Pinky saw her father’s face wrinkle with disgust, as if a hand had struck through the surface of still water with force. Then he started walking ahead rapidly, but next to them, Pankaj also gave a lurch and matched him step for step. Then as if thunder had split the calm morning sky, they began to shout simultaneously, trying to drown the other:
“Paperwala aayaa,” the paper man is here, her father screamed. “Papaaarr!”
“VikhrOya!” Pankaj screamed, the O long and emphatic. “Paparaay!” Sell to the paper man.
As they walked, the beseeching calls to sell paper grew more and more desperate. Little Pinky wondered in alarm what was going to happen if someone called from one of the apartments above. That would definitely lead to a deadly scuffle!
She had to only wait for a few minutes to find out.
“Get out of my way,” Pankaj shouted as soon as a window opened, and a face peeped out. Pinky hadn’t even heard someone announce an intent to sell, but kabadiwale (scrap dealers) have an inbuilt antenna for these type of things, her father had told her once.
“Is this your building or what? Do you own it?” her father yelled back, his eyes bulbous and bloodshot. The hair around his ears shuddered like wilted leaves in a gentle breeze.
“You started coming here only since 3 months, Kaushik! This has always been my territory,” Pankaj barked.
“Nobody owns any building,” her father barked back. “It is a fair territory.”
“When you were coming at a later time, I didn’t say anything. Now, why are you coming during my rounds?”
“I will come as many times, and whenever I please.”
As they shouted, they staggered towards each other, posturing with their fists, their stances combative. Little Pinky leaned against the compound wall, whimpering, worried. Her body had started to tremble. She wished her mother was there.
Then things escalated quickly.
She watched her father land a punch on Pankaj, narrowly missing his stomach, grazing his side. Pankaj wasn’t as clumsy; he was younger, his limbs more in control. His blow hit her father square on his nose. He wavered for a long, dangerous minute, confused about what had happened. A single tear fell from an eye to his scraggly cheek.
Pinky’s heart stopped.
But quickly he collected himself. Letting out a feral growl, he attacked Pankaj anew, managing to land a couple of impactful knocks to his ears and cheeks. Pankaj warded them expertly, indicating to Pinky he had some experience in this matter, unlike her father who was sure to lose the fight if they continued. Pinky closed her eyes and prayed.
The security guards came to her rescue then; each of the twelve buildings in the complex had one. It seemed to Pinky all of them arrived together, harried and panting, to push the brawling paper sellers apart. The two men continued to flail their arms and legs in the air even as they were being dragged apart, in an attempt to grab a piece of the other.
People living in the flats facing the lane on which this was happening, looked down from their windows and verandahs. Seated on her wheelchair, Ms Batlivala called out from her sixth floor balcony, “What’s going on?” Despite her age, her voice was loud and clear, like a strident cycle bell. Hearing her, the society manager came running. Ms Batlivala was an important person in the complex, one to be reckoned with. She, after all, contributed the most to the society development fund, sums amounting to lakhs, another fact Pinky’s father had told her.
“What’s this? What’s all this ruckus?” the manager demanded breathlessly, his thin mustache quivering over purple cigarette-stained lips. Immediately, her father and Pankaj chacha stopped struggling with the guards who were holding them. Shaking themselves free, they stood facing the other, focusing on their feet. Pinky noted her father’s face had turned a deep shade of pink.
“Do you want to be banned from entering the complex?” the manager asked, his eyes moving sternly from one paper man to another.
His stricken audience shook their heads in sync.
“There are many kabadiwalas, you know? People will kill to get inside.”
“They should be driven out of here,” Ms. Batlivala announced from the top. Her voice descended on them like an irate monsoon burst, startling and unpleasant. “Shouting paper, paper so much now, every day. More than before. Fighting also. What will our kids learn?”
“Whose kids?” a guard tittered sideways to his friend. Only Pinky heard him.
The manager turned his face skyward and bobbed his head, as if indicating to the old woman he was taking care of the situation. Little Pinky was unsure if Ms. Batlivala could see anything at all from that height, from her wheelchair. Pinky strained her neck to catch her eyes, but Ms. Batlivala seemed precisely focused on the drama unfolding below and nothing else.
The manager turned his eyes back to the erring men and ended his reprimand somberly, “Sambhalo apne aap ko.” Control yourselves.
“Nikalo maat, sa’ab,” Pankaj groveled. Do not throw us out.
“Aage se nahi hoga, sahib,” Pinky’s father added. It won’t happen again.
“Sambhalo,” the man repeated, seemingly pleased with how he’d handled the situation. He waved his hands towards the main gate. “Ab aaj niklo yehan se.” Today get lost from here.
Pinky watched as her father and Pankaj Chacha folded their hands and nodded their heads obsequiously. Then avoiding eye contact with each other or anyone else in the substantial crowd that had gathered around them by now, they walked hurriedly out. There was not going to be any more rounds for either of them that day.
“Come with me,” her father ordered Pinky. “Let’s go home.”
“Baba, what will happen now?” Little Pinky asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Bhagwan jaane,” her father muttered. Lord only knows.
“Why did you fight like that with Pankaj chacha?” she asked, trying to keep pace with him.
“Gareebi kuch bhi kara sakthi hai, beti,” he replied sadly. Poverty can make one do anything.
A few days passed. Pinky’s father claimed to go on rounds daily, but hardly got anything back to show for it. Their diminutive tempo traveler, which was used to ferry old newspapers back and forth to the scrapyard, stayed unused.
One night, Little Pinky had a fitful sleep. She dreamt her father and Pankaj chacha were fighting outside their house. There were loud voices, angry curses, and knives drawn out. A while later, their wives, tired of their vacuous posturing, demanded they calm down. Munni chachi ordered them to hug each other, and to Pinky’s delight, they did! Pinky saw that her brother and Pankaj’s son, Surya, were also with them. Everyone talked for a long while, mostly in whispers, so Pinky couldn’t hear what was being said. Afterwards, the boys and men shared a tall glass of desi tharra (local liquor) and parted ways.
The next day, Little Pinky snuck a look into the clay pot of desi tharra and found it empty. She wondered, had it been a dream? When she mentioned this to her mother, she laughed it off, saying they’d be better off listening to her dreams than watching Salman Khan Movies. Then Pinky found her father being moody again, and her brother nowhere to be seen, and surmised none of it had really happened. Her hopes were dashed.
Her mother asked her to go with her father on his rounds again. “But what about school?” Pinky asked, and saw her mother exchange glances with her father. “You can go from next month onwards.” Before Pinky could inform her mother that her class teacher was not going to be very pleased with this state of affairs, she was ushered out through the door.
The paper round was peaceful enough. Pankaj chacha was nowhere to be seen. Two people wanted to sell their old newspapers too, but one bargained about the sale price, and put her dad in a worse mood than before. So, it wasn’t a surprise to her when he walked out of the apartment, to the street outside, and heard Pankaj scream somewhere in the close vicinity, vikhrOya! he lost his mind.
“Where is he? Where is he?” he screamed like a mad man, yanking Pink’s tiny wrists as if it were a kite string.
“Baba, you’re hurting me,” Pinky cried. “Let me go.”
But her father had gotten into a wild frenzy. “Today I am going to teach that Pankaj a thing or two.”
“Come with me. Hurry up!”
Pankaj materialized in front of him, as if looking for a fight himself. The two walked towards each other, shouting and gesturing.
“Paperwala aayaa. Papaaarr!”
Heads peered out from windows. The guards gathered near, anticipating another show. Pinky forced her father to release her, and ran to the rear gate. Her back to the wall, she hugged her body tight, and watched anxiously as things unfolded in front of her.
When they were inches away from each other, Kaushik caught hold of Pankaj’s collar. Instantly, they started hitting each other, and to Pinky it looked like her father had practiced, the blows were landing in the right places and Pankaj was wincing, crying out in pain. But he was landing them right back and it was an equally matched fight.
After ten minutes of name calling, punching, and hair pulling, Little Pinky could no longer make out who was besting who. She wished the society manager would come again to save the situation as the guards were merely enjoying themselves and not doing much this time. Last time she realized, they had acted because the manager had been around. Then she remembered — her father had told her mother a few days back — the manager was going to drop Ms. Batlivala off at the airport for her annual vacation with her aunt’s family in Delhi.
Thinking the situation unsalvageable now, Little Pinky began to weep.
After ten more minutes of fighting, the guards grew bored and decided to break them up. Managing to pull them apart, laughing alongside, they ordered the two men to leave the compound immediately, mimicking the manager’s severe tone.
“He started it,” Pankaj cried. “Dirty rat.”
“You did!” Kaushik snapped. “Gutter dog.”
“See, you made my daughter cry.”
“Having a father like you will make anyone cry.”
“Break it up,” a guard murmured. “We will complain to the manager when he comes back.” Another turned his palms up. “We don’t know what will happen now. You’re lucky he’s not here.”
The two men glowered at each other as if the fracas was the other’s fault. Somewhere close by, on the road, Pinky thought she heard the thundering motor of Surya’s old scooter. Should she run to him for help?
But things had improved. Pankaj and Kaushik looked sufficiently chastised.
“Go home,” one of the guards murmured grimly. “Don’t come back until the manager says so.”
Pinky bawled all the way from the apartment complex to their home. Her father cursed and muttered alongside, and Pinky wasn’t sure he even realized she was with him.
“Baba, wait,” she cried several times, but her father walked on, staggering on his bow legs, his torn shirt flapping in the wind. He was walking faster than usual, his pace feverish.
Pinky had never been happier to see her mother, who having heard them had come to the door. Her petite body leaned to one side, resting lightly. The afternoon sun melded with the room’s gloom to give her body a soft watercolor edge.
“Mumma,” Pinky cried, running to her. But when she reached her, instead of the concern on her face, she saw a questioning look directed at her father, then… relief.
She began to laugh.
Pinky stared at her stupefied. All the complaints brimming inside her against her father died on her lips.
Behind her, her father had started laughing too. Pinky stood frightened, gazing from one face to another.
Had they gone mad?
“Mumma,” she mumbled anxiously. “Baba.” But they paid no attention to her.
“We need to leave soon,” her father told her mother in an urgent tone. “Have you packed?”
She nodded, then ushered them quickly inside. Pinky saw bundles of clothes in the hall, and their two battered steel trunks pulled out from under the bed. They were locked and seemed packed to the brims.
“Where are we going?” Little Pinky asked wonderingly. “What about my school books and dolls? Have you packed them?”
“We will buy new ones for you, Pinky,” her mother said. Turning to her father, “Viru called,” she said. “He has left for the train station.”
Her mother shook her head. “He left. They divided everything before. Pankaj and Munni are in a relative’s house. They will leave after nightfall and take a bus to their village.”
“We hadn’t talked of this,” her father said dourly. “They were supposed to leave immediately.”
Her mother shrugged.
“Hope the boys did a good job,” he added. Then, tapping on the closest trunk, “I’ll get the tempo traveler,” he said. “It will seem like a normal paper run. We can ditch the van close to the station.”
It took them three days by train to reach the remote village by the backwaters. Little Pinky loved the place as soon as she saw it. There were big fields to play in. In the mornings she could catch fish, in the evenings, she could sleep in the hammock outside. There was no school either!
Only her brother wanted to go back. “It’s boring here,” he said.
Her father told them they would return soon. When everyone would forget.
“But I like it here,” Pinky protested.
Her brother opened his satchel. “See Pinky,” he murmured, clutching and pulling out a handful of the brightest gold Pinky had seen, “now you can have all the dolls you want.”
Little Pinky clapped her hands. “I want that,” she said, pointing to the gold bangles with the stars and moons.