“Wait! That hat won’t protect you from the sun! It’s more suitable for the summers in your land. But it looks good on you!” The young girl beamed her friendly smile at me. My pale skin had already started to burn from the blazing rays of the unrelenting Indian sun but I was not one to give up easily. I ignored her, continuing on my day’s adventure with a big thermos of ice-cold water slung from my shoulder, sunscreen lotion and mosquito-repellent slathered on every inch of exposed skin, a dozen small bottles of the best brand of mineral water and my expensive DSLR camera. Hat and dark shades perfectly in place, I was annoyed by her over-friendly demeanour. Turning around, I tried to fix her with an unfriendly gaze but her smile did not falter.
“Look at your face! It’s as red as my bangles.” Giggling, she held up her slender wrists adorned with inexpensive glass bangles, four in each hand. Their ruby red shimmered and dazzled in the sunlight. “Here.” She extended her hand with an earthen cup clutched in her fingers which was full of some watery liquid. “Have some ‘lassi’. Home-made. Very good in the heat.”
I noticed that her blouse hung loose on her ill-nourished body and her teeth were rather large when she smiled. Her dark brown skin seemed to have a lustre to it though, may be the unpolluted air all around helped. Her long skirt, which was worn out and patched in some places billowed in the warm breeze and she wrapped it tightly around her as she kept smiling that happy, friendly smile and stared at me with hopeful eyes, willing me to take the cup from her. In this remote village in Southern India, I was surprised this girl could even converse in English.
“No, thank you. I have my own,” I replied unsmiling but she continued to hold it out to me. I thought she had not understood.
“I said I don’t need that!” I said, pointing to the tiny earthen tumbler, a little too loudly and perhaps a little more curtly than I had intended. This time, she did seem to understand and nodded nervously, her eyes sad, and it seemed for a moment that a cloud had obscured her countenance. But the next moment, she was smiling at me again as she took a few steps forward which brought her closer. Instinctively, I drew back and slipped my hand inside my pocket to make sure my wallet was safe. What did this girl want?
When I had left my home in Kent, London, to come on this expedition with a group of photographers like me who worked for prestigious newspapers and internationally acclaimed television channels, I had been repeatedly warned by my wife and friends.
“India!” My wife exclaimed woefully. “Haven’t you been following the news? Come on, Brett! You work alongside journalists every day! How can you not know! ”
I really did know and I could not blame her. I knew about the problems…… the safety issues that had risen almost to the point of threat, especially for foreigners like us, who were often thought of as extremely rich, with thick wads of pound and dollar bills stacked in their wallets. My journalist friend Tim and his female companion were assaulted on his work-cum-holiday expedition in the mangrove forests and marshy lands situated in the India-Bangladesh border. They were there to film some exotic wild life seen in that region, especially the majestic Bengal tiger and were staying at a forest bungalow. A few of the hooligans targeted his girlfriend and Tim was lucky to have been carrying his licensed fire arm which ultimately saved their lives. Tim had recounted this tale of horror many times in gatherings and parties and I had heard many more about duping, frauds and also using children as decoys before the actual gang looted the unwitting tourists. All those horror stories flooded my mind as I tried to calm myself down mentally. What were the odds of this teenager robbing me? Not much, I assured myself.
I was standing at the foot of a small hillock in a deserted stretch of land and there were not many people around. She, on her own was no match for a six feet two burly man like me but what if her gang was hiding in the bushes, waiting to pounce at the first signal from her? What if the drink that she was trying so hard to get me to drink was drugged! I thought fast. May be offering her some money would help me get rid of her…..
“Here, take this…” I held out two hundred rupee notes to her, “You can keep this for… err…. for offering me the drink.” I tried to smile.
Instantly, she started shaking her head and her smile vanished too. “Not selling. Just… just wanted to….,” she seemed to be struggling to find the correct word, “Help! Yes, help.” She smiled again, and her eyes lit up. “Amma says we must try to do a good deed every day to wash away the dirt from our souls. I don’t know what a soul is but when our hut become too hot to stay inside, I make this drink and distribute among all, makes me very happy! I made this myself….,” she labored on.
I noticed that she had placed her precious possession, the earthen cup right next to her and was looking at it anxiously from time to time, as if it would jump up and spill all its contents on the dry earth.
“I always wash my hands and use boiled and cooled water….with yogurt,” she uttered like a parrot and I could not help but smile. I was worried she would ask me to take her drink again but she did not. Humanity poked me in the ribs and I was thinking that maybe I could have one tiny sip, (after all, I was carrying all the necessary medication with me) but the bottled water hiding in my backpack chaffed me and I gave up on the idea. Instead, I asked her what her name was.
“Rumani.” She smiled her toothy grin again. “What’s yours?” I was amazed by her lack of inhibition towards me which was very uncommon in this part of the world. “Brett,” I told her.
“What do you do?” Her questions came quickly and her eyes sparkled in her frank, brown face, as if I was her gateway to a magical world that she had never glimpsed before. I pointed to my camera. “I take pictures.”
“Of what?” I could see curiosity bubbling in her and she gazed, in turn, at my face and at my camera in wondrous amazement.
“Of people, places, animals, nature… anything that is interesting.” I glanced at my watch. It was getting late and I still had to cover a few kilometers to meet up with another photographer buddy who had been covering an Indian temple. The midday sun was blazing like a ball of fire and I noticed the little rivulets of sweat meandering down my face and back. The heat was roasting my skin, penetrating slowly but surely through my cotton shirt. It was too much to bear. She watched with keen eyes as I guzzled the cold water from my thermos. It was time to eat some lunch but the heat made me oblivious to hunger. Looking around frantically, I tried to find a means of transport; bus, cab, anything that could take me to my destination but none were in sight. Cursing under my breath in frustration, I glanced at my watch again.
“Are you getting late?” she piped in her slightly shrill voice. I nodded, barely having the energy to talk. She stared at me for a minute or two. “You need to come with me, to my hut. Its close by. I think you’re going to be sick.”
“No!” That’s the last thing I wanted to do but she was right. I was distinctly starting to feel sick and nauseated. There was no tall tree in sight, just a few shrubs scattered here and there which provided no solace from the oppressive heat. Feeling giddy, I stumbled and was about to fall, face-first on the dry, reddish-brown soil but the girl rushed forward and placing her thin arms under my shoulders, succeeded somehow, in breaking my fall. As I knelt on the ground, holding my head in my hands, I saw her unfasten my backpack from my shoulders and rummage through it.
‘Ahh! There she goes, the little thief!’ I thought, alarmed and angry. ‘All that pretence and now stealing my stuff, taking advantage of my situation!’ Thankfully, there was nothing of much value in the backpack except a spare t-shirt, a small towel, bottled water and my box of sandwiches. She could keep those if she wanted to. Even on the verge of losing consciousness, I could forgive her for stealing my stuff. She was needy, I could see that. If only I had the strength to sit up and call my friend for help! Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her still ransacking my backpack at lightning speed….. I had expected her to run with it! What was she looking for?
Soon, she found the towel and without wasting a minute, she soaked it in the cold water from my flask. She patted my face with the cold towel, gently wiping my eyes with it. At first, I held her hand when she proceeded to take my shades off, but she clicked her tongue impatiently and scolded me for being childish. I noticed that she folded the sunglasses and tucked it carefully in the side pocket of my backpack.
“Careful, now! Don’t sprain your neck! Lower your head slowly!” I did as directed and she hauled my backpack which was lying abandoned on one side, placing it under my head gently. She continued washing my face and neck with the cold towel and splashed some of the ice-cold water on my head. She ran her fingers through my hair repeatedly to spread the wetness all over and then bent over me to look into my eyes, worry and concern writ large on her sun-tanned face. I tried to smile encouragingly.
“You feel better? Hmm? Drink some water.” The girl knelt beside me and lifted my head on her lap. She poured the water gently down my throat, combing my hair with her bony fingers and sprinkling some cold water in my hair as she had done before. It was a little embarrassing but I was already feeling better. I felt strong enough to sit up.
“Don’t!” She scolded and though I knew I was definitely feeling better, I decided to give in to the mother-like authority in her voice and the fierce look on her face. Abandoning my efforts of sitting up, I smiled at her from my prostrate position on the hard, sun-baked earth.
“Thank you for taking such good care of me,” I croaked. “I feel so much better. How old are you?”
“Twenty-two,” she answered carelessly and I was genuinely surprised. I looked at her malnourished body and her face with the slightly high cheek bones.
“You’ve to come home with me. I need my mother to make sure you’ll be alright. You need a cool bath and…. do you have a phone?” she inquired, after a pause.
“Look, I am alright. I really am! I can be on my way now.” I tried to assure her. My conscience kept chiding me for the thoughts I had about her being a thief but now I didn’t want to burden her and her family with looking after me.
A hot breeze had started blowing and she seemed to get more restless. She dismissed my claims with a wave of her hand. “Give me your phone!” I fished it out of my pocket and handed it to her.
“Amma works at the local health clinic here. The only one that takes care of the sick from three near-by villages including ours. None of us have a phone… no one in our village. But this health clinic has a phone so I will try to get her to help….” She waved her hand again when I started to protest, as if swatting an invisible fly and I sighed at her obstinacy. Meanwhile, she kept talking as she took off my canvas shoes and started sponging my feet with the towel, much to my displeasure.
“That is the only phone here… for miles. Oh, one more… the police station… .”
“Is your mother a nurse?” I asked, tentatively. My voice sounded better than before.
“She is a doctor. Actually, the only doctor here for miles. She used to study in a college for doctors, she told me… in a very big city… in Bangalore! I’ve been there once…” she hesitated. “To meet my grandparents…my mother’s parents…” She was staring at the ground, and poking it with a stick absent-mindedly. Her countenance, though partially hidden, was clouded by pain.
She continued, as if compelled by some obligation. “They didn’t behave with us nicely. My grandfather didn’t speak a word to any of us… neither me, nor my parents… and my grandmother hugged me and cried a lot. My mother cried too. She was the only one who gave me sweets… lots of sweets and bangles and a lovely dress. My father sat quietly in one corner, looking guilty as a thief.”
She hesitated. “You see, Appa is a farmer. Not much educated. He has a small piece of land here but…. farming isn’t easy in these dry regions.” I nodded.
“Amma and Appa fell in love when Amma went to see her father’s village. Then Appa followed her back to the city. They wanted to get married but my grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. So, they eloped.”
She started to giggle and made me smile.
“In true Bollywood fashion, eh?” I countered. She nodded, happily.
The positivism and innocence of this young woman whom destiny had deceived in so many ways struck me as extraordinary.
“We are poor but Amma and Appa says that the most important thing is we are happy.”
She glanced at the phone in my hand and slapped her forehead with her palm, berating herself for her distraction.
“Yes, the number. ” she closed her eyes and thought for a minute, then started to dial but the complex touchscreen eluded her and she handed it back to me. She gazed attentively as I dialed the number and signaled for her to speak. Her face glowed with wonder and amazement as she saw the lights flicker, like a child who had just been given a magic wand!
“You want one like it?” I had to find a way to repay this unexpected kindness. For a moment, her eyes glowed like embers. Then she smiled and shook her head in a no.
“Too expensive!” She was holding the phone as if it was something sacred. “Not good for us!”
Her mother arrived soon, together with her husband and they insisted I spend some time resting in their house. The husband nodded and smiled and I guessed he wasn’t conversant in English. Her mother, simple, yet graceful, spoke to me and explained that I had suffered a heat-stroke, so it was best I stayed indoors to avoid more damage from the insufferable heat. As there were no motels or lodges within miles, they insisted that I accompany them.
“We can’t offer you much,” she smiled, as I appreciated her graceful bearings, “but we just want to make sure you don’t suffer another heat-stroke. It’s only going to get worse if you try to keep walking in this heat.”
I didn’t want that so I did as told. The young woman turned on the only small, run-down table fan that produced more noise than cool air and stood on a wobbly table. Struggling, she dragged a heavy, wooden
chair in front of it and in spite of my protests, forced me to sit on it. A few of their neighbors arrived to behold the sight… elderly women offering words of advice, at least that’s what I guessed from their tone… school-age boys with bare torsos and shorts which they had to keep hitching up to avoid a wardrobe malfunction and young women who peeked from behind the door and windows, giggling and
shoving each other. I waved at one of them and she blushed furiously, then burst into a fit of giggles and disappeared behind the door.
My young hostess returned with an earthen tumbler in her hand. “Oh dear!” I thought. “Not that again!”
She smiled as she handed it to me.
Distracted by the giggling girls behind the door, she shooed them away with a few angry words.
“Don’t mind them…” she pointed to the door and shook her head in mock anger, “they have never seen a foreigner before!”
I took a tiny sip from the tumbler and liked it immediately. It was nothing like I had ever tasted…. very different from the soda and the
lemonade we buy from the stores. The cool earthen tumbler had lent the drink a distinct aroma and flavor.
I drank the rest in two quick gulps and looked up to see her smiling with satisfaction.
“Like it?” She beamed. “Appa wanted to get some rice pudding for you but Amma wasn’t sure the milk would suit you…..” She took the tumbler from my hand. “I will make some more for you.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, she pulled another bottle out of my backpack and ran to the tiny kitchen.
As dusk set in, more people arrived with plates laden with food. The mother and daughter got busy serving me. They set the plates down on the floor around me and with their palms joined together, urged me to eat. It was an overwhelming moment. For the first time, I shed my inhibitions and worries aside and shared in their joy of being able to help me. It was like a glimpse to a different world, the happy faces, the toothless smiles, the kind words uttered in an alien language which Rumani tried her best to translate somehow left me speechless.
I started taking pictures of them, the young and old alike. Rumani posed and giggled ceaselessly and I kept clicking her photos. I promised I would print her pictures and send them to her and she provided me with the address of her mother’s clinic.
My friend, who I could finally contact, arrived soon after, looking worried and flustered. But I had never felt so serene and peaceful before. As I stepped outside their hut, the crowd followed me to the car. I joined my palms in greeting and then turned to my hosts. Fishing out a couple of large bills from my wallet, I gestured
to her father to accept them.
He shook his head vehemently and uttered, “Atithi deva bhava.” Puzzled, I looked to Rumani for help and found her looking slightly affronted.
“The guest is the divine Himself,” she explained, “we don’t charge the guest for food and shelter!” All I could do was sigh and walk to the car. She walked with me.
Once I was seated inside, I looked at her face one last time. Her smile was beautiful.
“Come with me!” I blurted, even before realizing that I had spoken the words. Beside me, I could hear my friend gasp as a blush crept up her cheeks. Rumani looked bewildered. Slowly, she turned around and walked back to where her people stood waving, as I stared silently at her retreating form.
After a few days, I mailed the photographs to her. Behind one of her photos, I scribbled a quick note that I would be leaving India the following week and she should contact me if she needed any help in future. I included my address and was sure I would hear from her soon.
I did not.
Years passed and Rumani remained an obscure presence in my mind. One day, I received a letter from her.
“I am getting married next month.” she had written, “We, in our little village, often relive the happy memories we made with you and cherish the photos you sent us. Thank you.”
I scanned the letter eagerly. She had signed her name with a heart to dot the -i- but my eyes were searching for more. Then, I caught a few words at the bottom of the page that had been scribbled out hastily, yet could still be deciphered. I smiled as I read.
The words were: “And please remember to wear a good hat.”