His blue eyes seemed to bore into me.
“I don’t have change, kid.” I finally breathed out.
The little fingers continued their tapping on my legs.
I was in an auto, stuck at the Rajiv Gandhi Chowk, near Andheri station. The swarming traffic milled all around from various directions without stopping. Horns blared, and headlights flashed as the hapless traffic policeman tried to control the madness that engulfed him. The smoke from the cars bellowed around, leaving no one alone.
But for the scantily clad eight year old boy that stood in front of me, it seemed all that mattered was me. His matted hair interlocked with bits of paper, his banyan revealing scars no child should bear.
I tried to avert my eyes from this child of God, whose breadline state spoke of another lineage. But no matter how hard I tried, my fleeting eyes ultimately rested on the boy.
Again, with an effort I looked away, only to see other children, possibly his friends, engaged similarly. Rolled up windows and stoic silences separated them from those much more fortunate than them. A few of them had some knick-knacks with them which they tried to sell to stone-faced motorists.
The taps became more hurried.
“Bhaiya… Char din se kuch nahi khaya… Behen bhuki hai…” (“My sister and I haven’t eaten for the last four days…”)
No longer could I look away, the hundred and fifteen rupee coke rumbling in my gut. I had just spent four hundred rupees to watch a size-zero lady frolic with a pumped up young man and yet here I was in an auto rickshaw, stuck in traffic, sitting trying hard to avoid eye contact with a skinny lad of eight, one who hadn’t eaten in last four days, not by choice but simply because he was born on the wrong end of the social structure.
Looking at him, I tried to speak, but no words came out.
“Bhaiya… Bhaiya…” (“Brother… Brother…”)
His fissured lips barely parted, his hands moving up and down in air signaling his hunger. His steely blue eyes never left my face, pleading, begging for something. And all I had was an empty wallet
Making up my mind I leaned forward, and tapped on the auto driver’s shoulder.
“Yaar dus ka ek note dena.” (“May I have a ten rupee note?”)
He turned around and paused for a minute as he saw the unkempt boy standing next to the rickshaw. Eyeing me for a moment, he slowly dipped his hands into his front pocket, and took out a crumbled ten rupee note.
As I handed the boy the note, it seemed as if I saw pure joy for the first time. His blue eyes lit up like fireworks as he flattened the note out with dirt encrusted hands. He then looked up and stared at me, as if looking right into my soul. Unwavering, piercing. A sly smile slowly formed across the greased face, which turned into a grin.
The cars behind us honked. The signal was finally green. The boy looked at the slowly advancing traffic, and with a small wave at me, he darted off.
The driver started to murmur as he started up the auto rickshaw.
“Sahib, aise nahi deneka. Sab chor hai…” (“You shouldn’t give them anything. Little scoundrels…”)
His voice trailed off in a distance as I stuck my head out of the moving auto. On the divider, I could see the little boy run towards the smaller girl, gushing about the note he held in his little palm. As soon as the girl saw the note, she squealed with joy and the brother-sister duo leapt off the divider over to the other side of the road.
Just before the auto rickshaw turned the corner, I saw the two of them walking away hand in hand, with a spring in their step. The elder brother holding her hand firmly, and the little sister, reciprocating a little tighter.
Alighting from the auto rickshaw near my society, I entered an ATM to withdraw money. As I handed the driver the crisp notes, the driver grunted, and took extra care to count the notes, as checking if the extra ten rupees was present. I stood there with a smile on my face, until the auto sped away contend.
Many times since then, I have been caught in traffic at that signal, but not once did I again see that boy with blue eyes, and torn banyan, his fingers tapping away. Maybe the two of them found a better place to be, maybe they found a home.
But all I know is that those were the best ten rupees I ever spent.