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Deccan Herald » Articulations » Detailed Story
SHORT STORY
Social experiment
Gautham N
I looked at my watch. It was nearing 10:00 pm. Divya was late. I looked around me — the mall was getting emptier by the minute. People, who were loitering around leisurely, suddenly seemed to be in a hurry to leave...
 
I looked at my watch. It was nearing 10:00 pm. Divya was late. I looked around me – the mall was getting emptier by the minute. People, who were loitering around leisurely, suddenly seemed to be in a hurry to leave. A cleaning woman had started her work at one corner; working her mop from side to side. She must have done this a million times. Malls are not the place I would normally want to be. The maddening crowd, the jostle amidst opulence. The not-a-care-in-the-world approach to money.

I looked at my watch again. Divya was right; Although, I did not want to be here, the late time made the mall a bearable experience for me.

“At that hour, you don’t have to worry about the crowds,” she had said with a laugh. “Just two of us, in a place out of sync with its own character at that time – Think of it as an experiment in social behaviour,” Divya had said tantalisingly, with the laugh. Divya could be funny, and persuasive. So, here I was – at a newer mall that had come up at the outskirts of Bangalore, still incomplete, but occupied enough with shops to loiter around; waiting for my ‘social experiments’ that Divya had suggested.

I was waiting for Divya to turn up, biting into one of the small chocolate bars I had bought to satiate hunger and boredom (I had bought a couple for Divya too as she loved them). As I was killing time going up and down the floors, stopping at windows that were downing their shutters, avoiding weird looks from the shopkeepers, I noticed something beyond the cleaning women.

In one of the dimly lit corners that had an offset into the toilet areas that was still incomplete, there was this girl, about 10, wearing clothes that was neat, but clearly old and frayed at the corners. She was feeding a boy around 2-years-old. The way she ran up to the cleaning women and talked to her made it obvious that the woman was her mother.

With the mother busy, the girl had taken up the role of mothering her brother. Along with the construction material, there were a stack of papers, from which she picked up one to clean-up her brother after the feed.

I settled down at the one of the ornate benches and watched. As the women came closer to the seating area to clean-up, I lifted my legs up to help her swab the floor. She looked up at me in thanks and I smiled at her. She smiled back tentatively; her son came running up to her playing catch and run with her sister.

The woman, with a resigned look of affection, let the kid climb over her and push her. I took one chocolate bar that I had and held it out for the child. He looked to his mother for approval and tentatively took it. Then he ran with unadulterated joy, screaming out his sister’s name.

I started making small talk with the cleaning women. In any case I was killing time, waiting for Divya to show up. In a few minutes, I heard the oft-said story about a poor woman in India— Santhamma’s husband was a drunkard and had left her only to return to beat her up for money. She takes care of her children; her daughter goes to school sporadically; but of late with her brother in the family, life was taking its toll. The daughter had started doing odd jobs and graduating to regular jobs. Santhamma was repentant that her daughter could not go to school, but she had no way out. Her daughter earned some money that helped feed the family and very basic needs and help retain their dignity; there was no help from any other quarters.

The irony of it all...

Santhamma moved on and yet no sign of Divya; I sighed and called her on the mobile. It was not reachable. “Damn network”, I muttered. I looked at my watch. It was 10.45; the mall-security man on his beat gave me a strange look. There were just a couple of shops still open.

I saw the girl make a ruck-sack kind of carrier and she lifted it to her back along with her brother. She gave a sheaf of paper to her brother who playfully handed one to her as she walked to every shop and slipped one under the door. It looked like some ‘notice’. I saw Divya walking in with a smile. I waved to her and motioned her to wait a while; as the girl moved closer to the shop behind me, curious, I reached out for the notice and took one to read it.

As I read it, I was stuck the incongruity of it; I could feel my anger rising. Then the futility hit me; and I laughed out loud, at the irony of it all. The girl, puzzled, went about her work that would help put food on the floor for the family.

Divya took the notice from my hand and read it aloud— “Whosoever it blah, blah… Government of India blah, blah… ban any children under the age of 14 employed blah. You hereby have time till 30th of September 2006 to comply with this order… blah”.

I walked up to the girl, gave her the remaining chocolate bar. Her eyes lit up with thanks. I quickly averted my eyes, took Divya’s hand and walked out of the mall. I had my social experiment for the day, perhaps for a long time to come. As a 52-year-old mother, holding my daughters hand, I had trouble deciding if the government decision was right or wrong for someone else’s daughter.
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