Radha ran swiftly down the potholed lane that wove between the row of jhuggis that led to her home. The fierce July sun made her feel as if she were melting right away.
When she reached her door, she paused. Her mother seemed to be home. She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or not. It could mean that Amma had been able to finish her work earlier than usual. It could also mean that she had been overcome by one of the dizzy fits that had been plaguing her lately and had had to come back.
Her heart beating an uneasy tattoo—she tapped softly on the door. Amma opened. To her relief she looked cheerful, in fact the lines of worry on her thin face seemed to have got smoothed out, miraculously. “Radhiya…” she said, turning to pour out a glass of water from the earthen pot in the corner.
As twelve year old Radha, skinny, with bright, sharp eyes, gulped down the water gratefully, her mother began serving out their lunch. Her eyes opened wide when she saw that it was not the usual thick chapatis, which they ate with leftover sabzi given by the ladies at whose homes they worked. Or just onions and chillies if there wasn’t any. It was chole bhature. Something which they only had as a special treat when they had a little extra money.
“What’s the occasion today, Amma?” she joked. “Have you won a lottery?”
Her mother smiled. “Sometimes we can indulge ourselves, too. Can’t we? Go on, eat.”
Radha shrugged and attacked the food. She was ravenously hungry after having scrubbed dishes and mopped floors in three houses. But she couldn’t help feeling a little curious. There had to be a reason for her mother splurging on these delicacies which they could ill afford. Especially since Amma had not been keeping well and they needed to save their money to take her to a good doctor.
She must have noticed Radha’s uneasiness because she smiled again and said softly, “You must thank Santo dada for this treat.”
Radha sat up alert. “Santo dada? Since when has he begun to be so kind to us?”
Santo dada was the unofficial leader of their cluster of huts. A tall, dark, heavily built man with a gang of goons to back him up, it was said that a leaf could not fall in this area without his knowledge. He extorted his cut from all the vendors and shopkeepers there and if any disputes took place he was the one who settled them, often using force. At election time he decided which party they all voted for. Everyone feared him and his goons and tried to keep out of his way.
Amma frowned. “Has he ever troubled us in any way?”
“What can he expect to get from us?” Radha said with a sigh. “Since Bappa left us and Mohan bhaiya was put into the children’s home, we barely make enough to eat, as it is.”
“He’s not bad at heart,” Amma said defensively. “As I was coming back today, he stopped me near the paanwala and said, ‘Sushila behan, would you like a paan?’ I was so stunned that I stood still. Of course, I refused politely. Then he said, ‘I know you’re passing through hard times. Here, buy something for your daughter.’ And he gave me this fifty-rupee note. I was so flustered that I couldn’t thank him properly. The only thing I could think of getting was this chole bhature from the roadside vendor…”
“But why did he do that?” Radha wrinkled her brow.
“Why? Has there to be a reason for everything? Maybe he was just in a good mood and wanted to perform a good deed. He’s human too after all…”
A good deed? Somehow it didn’t go with Santo dada’s image, Radha thought, as she got up to wash her hands. It was possible that she was being unduly suspicious. But her experiences during the last one year had made her aware, even at this young age, that there were very few people who were genuinely helpful. Except for those like Mamta didi, the social worker who held evening classes for the girls in the jhuggis who couldn’t go to school. Girls like Radha. One could make out that she was sincere about helping them to improve their lives.
She was wiping her hands on a corner of her chunni when there was a loud knock on the door. Who could it be? One of their neighbors perhaps.
She was a little surprised to find Rakesh standing there. An old friend of her brother Mohan, he had kept his distance after Mohan had been caught stealing from a shop and been put away in the children’s home.
“Namaste, chachi,” he said. For a moment he paused, before continuing, “Santo dada wants to meet you. He’s sent me to fetch you.”
“Santo dada!” Amma started visibly. She exchanged a frightened glance with Radha, who had frozen where she stood.
“Arre, why are you getting scared? He won’t eat you up…But he’s a busy man and not used to waiting. So you’d better come right away…”
Santo dada’s was one of the few pucca houses in the shantytown. Radha found it hard to control herself from shivering as they stood before the blue painted door, removing their chappals. Santo dada sat cross legged on a diwan in a spacious, white washed room with his pet henchman Bansi standing next to him.
“Come, come, Sushila behan,” he said, showing paan stained teeth in a smile. “So this is Radha? Hmmm…I have heard very good things about you. Smart girl, cleverest in Mamta behanji’s class—hanh? Is it true? Good lady, Mamtaji…helping our daughters…Rakesh…send for some tea…extra strong and tell him not to be stingy with the cream! Sit down, why are you standing.”
Radha collapsed, rather than sat down on the jute matting on the ground. Why had Santo dada called them? Was he angry that she attended Mamta didi’s class? She had heard that he had tried to prevent them in the beginning. What would he do?
“So Sushila behan, I believe you’ve been having a hard time since your husband disappeared. And that no-good son of yours…” he sighed. “These youngsters don’t listen. If only he had come to me for guidance…Anyway…What do you earn washing dishes? Tell me, don’t feel shy.”
Radha heard her mother gulp as she said, “A-about a thousand rupees…I don’t keep well so they deduct the money sometimes and they pay Radha less because they say she’s a child…,” her voice turned pleading as she said, “It’s barely enough to survive…”
“Tch-tch! I know that, I know that. These rich people, they always exploit our poverty,” Santo dada looked angry. “Have tea, come on, have it.”
Radha wanted to scream. Wouldn’t he tell them what he wanted? Her mother nudged her to pick up the glass of tea. Her hands shook, spilling a few drops on her kurta.
“Well, you know I’m always trying to work for the welfare of our people, even though many don’t appreciate it. In fact, I’ve set up a small business to give work to youngsters like Radha.”
Radha’s eyes almost popped out in astonishment. Had she misjudged him?
“You know,” he went on smoothly, “I need a reliable delivery girl, to deliver my goods to various places…Radha’s very trustworthy I’ve heard. Not like these boys who go off and sit in a movie hall when they should be delivering stuff.”
Delivering goods? It sounded like a strange kind of a job. Somehow Radha mustered up the courage to ask, “Wh-what goods do you want me to deliver, dada?”
His face seemed to darken for a moment, then he laughed. “See, a smart girl. Wants to know what she is delivering. I could be asking her to deliver stolen goods!” he laughed heartily.
Amma frowned at Radha. “Please forgive her, dada,” she said nervously. “She’s a child…”
“No, no, I appreciate it. You’ll be delivering washing powder child, and I’ll be paying you fifteen hundred rupees a month. Is it enough?” he asked kindly. “You will have to be available whenever I need you. If you do your work properly, I’ll raise your salary.”
“Fifteen hundred rupees!” Amma fell at Santo dada’s feet.
“Now, now, what is this Sushila behan? You are like my sister. Here, take this money. Buy two decent suits for Radha. My delivery girls must be well-dressed...And…listen…there’s no need to tell anyone,” he added as, dazed, they got to their feet. “People are so jealous…They’ll wonder why I’m giving you this job.”
Amma nodded vigorously and bowed low as she folded her hands. Radha’s mind was in a whirl. She couldn’t help feeling flattered that Santo dada had chosen her. Smart, he had said. Yes, Mamta didi also said she was the brightest in her class. Keep working hard, she would say, maybe you can become a teacher too, one day. Teach other girls. Radha felt a sudden exhilaration seize her. Life had suddenly taken such an enormous, unexpected somersault. She would have good clothes, decent food…
The bus wound through parts of the city that Radha had never seen. Luckily, she had been able to find a seat. The packet she was going to deliver was not that large or heavy. This was something that mystified her. Washing powder came in big packets, she knew. In the beginning she had thought the job would mean going in an auto rickshaw to deliver large quantities at a time. But she was actually expected to carry just one packet at a time. The first time it was to a confectionery shop.
Another time to a paanwala, then to another jhuggi colony and once even to a man at the railway station. Each time Rakesh came and dropped off the packet and told her where she had to go, whom she had to give it to. That was very important. There was a special message she had to convey each time, “I’ve brought your safedi,” she was to say. When she had wrinkled her brow, puzzled, the first time, Rakesh had laughed. “You know Santo dada,” he had said. “He’s fond of his joke.”
But…she was not too sure if it was just a joke. The other day, as she waited for a bus, she had suddenly felt someone tug violently at her bag. But within minutes two men had jumped on to the person who was trying to steal it and beaten him to a pulp. That had scared her. It was almost as if they had been there, watching over her.
She had tried to share her misgivings with her mother. “What way of delivering washing powder is this?” she had asked.
“One packet at a time?”
“You’re a peculiar girl,” Amma had snapped. “Questioning your luck. You should be happy that you’ve been given such a cushy job, so well paid.”
The job had made a difference to their life, of course. She had been able to take Amma to a proper doctor, who had said the dizzy fits were due to nothing but lack of proper food. Amma was eating better now, fresh vegetables, even fruit sometimes, milk too. Rakesh told her that Santo dada was pleased with her work. Might give her more responsibilities. What responsibilities? Each time he came with a packet, she felt her heart sink. She longed to ask Rakesh—“Is-is this really washing powder…? If not…what is it I’m delivering?” But didn’t dare. Not just because she was scared of Santo dada but… because she wasn’t sure what she would do if she came to know what it really was…If it was what she suspected it was…
She had just turned into her lane when a loud, unnerving sound brought goose pimples to her skin. The sound of someone wailing. What had happened? She quickened her steps, almost broke into a run.
A bunch of people had gathered in front of Shyamlal’s jhuggi. “What’s happened?” she asked, turning to Lakshmi, a neighbor.
Lakshmi’s young face was grim. “It’s Suresh,” she said. “He-he’s dead.”
“But…what happened? An accident?”
Lakshmi looked around cautiously, then whispered. “They said it was smack…you know, he used to take it.”
For a moment Radha felt she would fall right over. She clutched Lakshmi’s hand hard. Suresh was just a few years older than she was. She could feel Lakshmi shudder as she whispered, “They say Santo dada…he supplies it…”
“Santo dada…” She had always known she was lying to herself… now the truth stared her in the face…stark, horrible…
ldquo;Yes…” Lakshmi gave her an odd look. “Everyone knows…but who can dare say anything against him? They say…even the police are in his pocket.”
Amma looked up as she stumbled into the room. “What’s the matter? Are you ill? Did you hear…”
But Radha could not speak…
The knock at the door startled her out of her reverie. She was alone in the hut. Her mother had gone to the market. She had stayed back, saying she had a headache and wanted to rest. The very thought of passing by Suresh’s jhuggi made her break into a cold sweat. After Amma left, she tried to read the storybook Mamta didi had given her but her thoughts kept wandering. What was she to do? How could she continue to be Santo dada’s delivery girl…knowing what she was delivering?
But…would he let her go? Even the thought of telling him made her sick with apprehension…
The knock came again, sharp and loud. Her heart thumped uneasily as she went to open the door. It was Rakesh… just as she had feared.
“There’s a packet to deliver,” he said, staring at her hard. “What’s wrong? Are you ill or something?”
She was tempted to grab at the excuse. But…it would only be a temporary reprieve. Santo dada would not accept any excuse the next time. Numb with despair, she gazed at the packet in Rakesh’s hands with horrified fascination. “What is it you are asking me to carry?” she wanted to ask. “Why-why did you all have to choose me?” But of course, there was no point. She knew the answers already.
“Where do I have to take it?” she whispered, barely able to hear her own voice.
Radha walked down the rutted path to the bus stop like a zombie. If only she could throw the packet away in the rubbish dump and run, run as far as she could, escape from Santo dada’s clutches. But where could she go? And even if she fled, there was Amma. She knew too well what could happen to her…
The sight of the policeman who patrolled that area made her stiffen with fear. Suppose he stopped her, asked what she was carrying! Suddenly a strange thought entered her head, suppose…she went up to him, told him about Santo dada’s work of death? Weren’t the police there to stop such things? But the very next moment she rejected the thought. She knew it was no use. First of all, he would refuse to listen to her. And…she remembered Lakshmi’s words, ‘…even the police are in his pocket.’
Wasn’t there anybody--anybody at all, who could help her out? Was this her fate, to carry on delivering these hateful packets, delivering death to youngsters like Suresh? Bitter tears of despair flowed down her cheeks, unchecked.
Then…a thought flashed through her mind, sharp as a bolt of lightning. Mamta didi! Didn’t Mamta didi always say that they didn’t have to surrender to their fate? That they held their destiny in their own hands. And…if they ever had any problems… they could contact her any time. She had given them her address, her telephone number. Along with the other girls, Radha had written it down at the back of her copybook. Yes, that’s what she would do. She would go back, get the number and contact Mamta didi!
But…suppose one of Santo dada’s men was following her? He would see her turning back…would he suspect what she was up to?
For a moment she stood there undecided, shivering with terror. Then the scene outside Suresh’s house came back to her mind.
And she felt herself harden with resolve. Whatever happened, she would not deliver death any longer…
Still, she could not help glancing back nervously, all the way home and all the way to Mamta didi’s office. Could not control the frantic thudding of her heart, even when she was safely there, amazed that she had actually made it.
“You’ve been very brave, Radha,” Mamta didi said, after the whole story was told. “Very few girls would have the guts to do what you did. But, it’s lucky too, because the longer you continued, the more difficult it would have been for you.” Her face turned grim for a moment, then she patted the tearful Radha’s hand and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything…”
And she did, right away. She got on the phone to someone high up in the police, sent somebody to fetch a bewildered Amma. Found them a new place to stay and some work for Amma to do, packing masalas at her centre.
Radha goes to a regular school now and teaches other girls in the evening. But sometimes…she still has nightmares…even though she knows Santo dada is in jail. But…there’s one thing she’s sure of at least…that what she had done might have saved…God knows how many more Sureshes…
From the collection Not Just Girls published by Rupa & Co.
Image under license with Gettyimages.com