Its 3 am and we’re on our way back from a party where we’ve just had sparkling wine, cheese and fruit, cold cuts, stroganoff, sushi, lemon cream pie and what not. The mind is at ease because our home is as usual full of family and the kids are cuddled up with a grand aunt and an aunt, fast asleep.
Close to home we stop at a traffic signal at a deserted crossing and two little boys appear selling bunches of jasmine flowers. We’ve already got a bunch of my beloved mallipoo hanging over the AC vent and I point to them and shake my head telling them I don’t want anymore. They beg us to buy more but the car is already full of the smell of jasmine and we really don’t need anymore. They drape the strings of flowers across the windscreen and on the side view mirrors and gesture that now we have to pay them. I shake my head again. Annoyed at being blackmailed into it. Aware that they will grab their flowers away as soon as the traffic signal changes, before the car moves.
The light changes. The OA waits for them to remove their flowers. They don’t. An irate car behind us honks and we’re forced to drive off, the flowers abandoned on our windscreen. One by one they fly away. Such a waste.
I get upset and the all too familiar tears rush to my eyes… ‘Baby, look, they didn’t get paid and the flowers are wasted….’
The OA who is definitely the more practical one of us replies, ‘You think they couldn’t have grabbed the flowers back if they wanted to? They do it earlier in the evening when they want to. Its 3 in the morning and they wont sell anymore now. Whether they chuck it on our windscreen or the road, it’s all the same to them.’
MM..’But that is so awful. They’re so poor. This is their livelihood. They invested money in these flowers and it’s such a loss… ‘
The OA, used to business and loss shrugs… ‘They’re used to it, babe. Every night they probably end up with a lot of it left over. What can they do other than chuck it?’
MM -‘ But such despair ? They’re so young – why should they know such despair? It’s 3 am and our kids are curled up with cousin J and fast asleep after a good dinner of parathas and chicken and in an AC room…’ … and the unspoken words – we’ve just had a meal that was so wonderful..
Ah the joys of guilt taking control of your life.
By now we’re almost home and the OA quietly shows the indicator for a U-turn. Staring listlessly out of the window I say ‘Lets go back and give them some money. Anything, something…’
He indicates with an eyebrow that we’re already at a traffic signal, and he’s waiting to take the U-turn and go back to them. Sometimes the dry banker and the impetuous journalist think alike. Sometimes they meet at beautiful, unexpected places.
We drive back to the crossing and it is, as the OA predicted, deserted. The little boys have given up hope and gone home. I feel a sense of despair that I am sure is nothing close to what they feel and then up ahead in the dark night I see two little figures in white shirts disappearing into the darkness… One with the handkerchief bound around his head.
We honk desperately for them to stop, stuck as we are at the traffic signal. They don’t hear. And then the moment the signal changes we drive up to them and honk some more, unable to catch their attention. Suddenly the tide changes and a horde of boys rushes out of the shadows and descends on the car. Banging on our windows and windscreen. Many of them almost adults and it is for a second, quite scary until you realise how desperate they all are. Shaking bunches of flowers at us. I peer into the crowd looking for ‘our’ two and they grin back at me as they realise I am looking for them. They push their way through importantly, telling the others that didi and bhaiyya have come back for them. I begin to pull notes out of the OA’s wallet and hand it to them. The rest of the boys realise there is some connection and look disappointed.
The OA groans and shakes his head in despair at the hungry faces. ‘Give them all something, babe. You can’t just give two of them and leave the rest staring. Look at their faces.’
I grin at him. I had been dying to do that and was just waiting for his nod… I hand out notes to all of them, whatever little is left in his wallet. The next thing we know, they’re throwing strings of flowers in at us through the open window. Strings of jasmine rain down on us. I breathe the fragrance in deeply and grin at the OA who has an indecipherable look on his face. Semi smile of wonder, semi amused, semi something else. It’s almost like getting married and having confetti and flowers showered on you – your own little sudden private moment or ceremony full of scent and beauty. In the middle of the night on a deserted street.
Yes, I know they had no more use for the flowers, but it was so sweet, so sad, so beautiful, so spontaneous.
And the little fellow with the handkerchief tied on his head, my little friend, solemnly tells the OA – ‘Bhaiya, aaj se aap har Sunday raat ko idhar aana, main zindagi bhar aapko muft mein phool doonga. Kabhi nahi bhooloonga aap jo aaj paise dene laute.’ (Bhaiya – please come every Sunday night – I’ll always give you flowers for free and I’ll never forget you that you came back to give us money.) How little it cost us to give them a few rupees and bring a smile to their faces at the thought of some bhaiyya returning after five minutes to pay them for flowers he didn’t want. Maybe he’ll forget us if he sees us next Sunday but I was rather touched by that solemn declaration by an eight year old. Yes, yes, maybe he didn’t mean it, but I love that he thought to say it. That he grandly and generously promised us a lifetime of free flowers every Sunday night….
We drove away then. Unsure of what we were feeling. Our car almost exploding with the scent of the flowers and the joy of spontaneous gestures. And an uneasy streak of guilt for the life we lead that is so much better than theirs by sheer chance.
Life is strange and sometimes incidents leave you suspended in midair, feeling mixed emotions and things you can’t put into words. And a car full of jasmine.