Objects and Memory 101

From where I sit I see

Sunshine as a bonnet,

A calm hand on the heads

Of the young women I teach.

 

Her hair parted in the middle

Frames a heart-shaped face,

Like curved bones in the upper torso

Might frame a cage.

 

Her gaze is sleepy,

And gentle the early light

At our table in room 408.

Dark hollows underlie her eyes.

 

I ask if she would like

to move to a shadier spot,

the other side of the table?

The light’s getting harsh and hot.

 

Mascaraed lids open a fraction wider

A smile parts her lips;

I love the sun, she shrugs,

I do believe she does.

 

Write about an object – cold or hard,

Smooth or furry

that dispose you just cannot,

One that holds a lasting memory.

 

They frown, sifting through the past

For little pools

Where creatures they were, or knew,

Still lodge.

 

They write. I wait.

I see with half-closed eyes

Through the quivering wall of light

At our table, a sickly thing alight.

 

It quakes an unsteady beat

Through a ball of blood red flesh,

A coalescence of tissue.

Is it properly alive? Where are the eyes the beak the feet?

 

The objects that hold them vary…

Teddy bear, keychain, scarf,

A parent’s wedding ring, a frock

With a baby’s initials smocked.

 

These innocuous objects yield

Memories of loss and gain,

But the one from the girl who loves the sun

is a mess of gut, a child left out in the rain.

 

The object she keeps folded behind the towels

Is a scarf to her he once gifted…

Soft pink pashmina, she explains,

Delicate as a girl unencrypted.

 

Her body had yielded to the dark,

The linings scoured and raided…

Her body an object held hostage by time

Like the scarf she never traded.

 

It spills off the pages she types,

The words that won’t be denied,

Bend over bitch, it is your fault:

You were too easy, you were too kind.

 

In the dazzling room

That her soft cadence fills,

The bird in the cage of our ribs tears free,

Joins the blood red one at the table.

Songs of Solace

IMG_20191228_173200797_HDROn a morning in late December 2019, after a night spent in a village home in Rajkot district, Gujarat, I sit with my fellow travellers in a school yard. When we arrived the previous evening, the local people had been assembling the poles that would scaffold a shamiana to shelter us for the time we would spend here. Up and ready, the tent almost blends in with the foliage of a thicket of small shade trees that have been planted in no particular order.

We are about a hundred in strength. Locals and visitors sit on the dhurries and plastic sheets. Our clothes are protected from the mud but the mats allow through the prod of pebbles and other bumpy earth material against our bodies. This evokes memories of school gatherings and I’m uncomfortable and comforted at once. I am a stranger to the Kabir Yatra. A first-timer, naturally shy of gatherings, I can still smell about me the fragrance of deodorants that us visitors must have worn on before coming here. We are sitting close together but not as pressed together as we will be by the end of this Yatra.

My daughters, a friend and I had arrived yesterday in Ahmedabad from Bangalore. The meeting point for Yatris was the café at Navajivan Press, founded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the year of Indian Independence. We waited through the day for other Yatris to arrive. When Shabnam Virmani, one of the key performers at this festival of music, and her troupe of four arrived, my interest was piqued. The four seemed unusual for college students: urban and rather urbane, yet cradling tanpuras carefully in their laps.

In the 13-seater Tempo Traveler that we piled into, making space for everyone and their bags, 22-year-old Shreeparna recounted her encounter with the Bangalore city police the previous week. Along with other students, she was calling out slogans at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest outside Town Hall when the police arrived, beat them up and took them away. She was detained for several hours in the police station with other protesters. Sitting in a jail cell, to raise the others’ spirits, Shreeparna taught them a song. Tu zinda hai toh zindagi ki jeet mei yakeen kar/ Agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar la zameen par/ Tu zinda hai! These lines translate to mean, if you are alive, then believe in the triumph of life/ If there is a heaven somewhere, bring it down to this earth. You are alive!

She sang Tu Zinda Hai for us in the Tempo Traveller that was now in near darkness, lurching along on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway, just a spotlight over the middle seats on her curly blue-black tresses. We joined in at the chorus, her voice lost some of its anxiety, and the Yatra truly began for us with the companionship that shared ideas bring.

The Baani (or wisdom of the saints), of which Sant Kabir’s couplets are a popular part, arose centuries ago from among the bards of the working class, people low on the caste hierarchy. The thousands that were not allowed access to upper caste Hindu temples and gods have looked for long to the poetry of Kabir and other saints to help them understand their place in the scheme of the earthly and the divine.

In the tradition of Kabir, we hear from Shabnam, there are four kinds of Ram. One is the character from the story – the son of King Dasharat, the second Ram is the spirit that dwells in every creature, from the third Ram spreads all creation and the fourth is beyond all knowing… beyond definition. “We mostly talk about the entry-level Ram,” she smiles. She sings:

“You have wandered far, Kabir

Take rest from craving, my mind,

Walking, seeking, an age has passed…

But lo! Turn the sesame seed and find, under it, Ram!”

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Upon arriving at the village the previous evening we had explored cotton crop and fruit and vegetable farms. We had seen huge ploughing bulls and smiled and exchanged banter through gestures with hosts who spoke only in a dialect of Gujarati that is spoken in this part of Saurashtra.

Our hosts plant, and eat what they grow. Their lives are as simple and as difficult as this sounds. They had watched us with concern, worried that they might not meet our expectations of hospitality. We got the best spots to sleep, often the one bedroom that the most vulnerable in the family occupies. The women of the house would share the room with us. Their men slept on cots on the cold porch. Packets of Lays chips and Parle-G biscuits were opened and bowls of these were placed before us alongside hardy bajra roti, brinjal curry, pickled green chilli, buttermilk and jaggery… the chips and biscuits seeming like offerings to the urban gods who had descended on their homes.

We had slept side-by-side. We now sat shoulder-to-shoulder with our hosts to listen to the singers of Baani, on the dhurries and under the shamiana at the little school.

Mahesha Ramji and his troupe from Malwa, Shabnam and her students, formed the inner circle. The rest of us arranged ourselves like rose petals around them. Between the songs, Chaitanya bhai, an organiser, introduced to us a visitor from Kashmir. Riyaz bhai, he said, was a friend he made in 2005 when his non-profit went to help with rescue and relief work in the state that was reeling from a massive earthquake.

“Ask Riyaz bhai about the situation in Kashmir since Article 370 was removed,” Chaitanya bhai said, handing the mic to Riyaz bhai. The latter seemed as uneasy to speak as the group under the shamiana seemed to be to listen. Disquiet crept over us.

Unable to refuse the mic that his host urged on him, Riyazbhai finally asked: “What is Kashmir to you? What does it mean to you?”

“You are part of India, you are one of us,” someone answered, perhaps trying to speak in the spirit of comradeship. This was a somewhat unfortunate answer as many Kashmiris do not see themselves and their land as part of India.

Riyaz bhai asked how we would have felt about keeping “one of us” under siege for as long as the Indian government has kept Kashmir. “Is this what you would do to one that you saw as ‘your’s’? Do you understand how hard it has been?” he asked, his voice cracking with strain. The group shifted uncomfortably.

Chaitanya bhai, a steady-gazed, elderly man, calmly took his place to tell us about an earlier visit from Riyaz bhai. The latter had visited his home in Gujarat after they had worked together on rescue and relief in Kashmir. Chaitanya bhai’s young daughter, in the living room, while Riyaz bhai drank the tea that her mother had prepared, sang him a Kashmiri song. Listening to her high, pure tones, he was moved to tears. Hitherto having suspected Chaitanya bhai’s intentions, even while he had helped Kashmiris after the earthquake, and feeling very uneasy visiting Gujarat where the communal riots of 2002 were still a fresh wound… the girl’s song restored his faith. It touched in him a chord of humanity.

In a time when so many Indians want the CAA-NRC in place, and others oppose it, asking that Muslim brethren be accepted as citizens, demanding that the nation adhere to the spirit and not just to the letter of secularism enshrined in our Constitution, Chaitanya bhai’s telling of Riyaz’s tale, at the village school, is like a gentle stroke of the fingers on the strings of the tanpura.

Most poignant, then, are the voices of Shabnam, Shreeparna and the student troupe. They sing Tirhee Pawanda, one of the most haunting songs in the vast reservoir of Sindh’s ancient Sufi music. They dedicate the song to Riyaz bhai, to the suffering of the besieged and to those possibly on the verge of losing their nationhood, their all.

The song is sung softly, voices rising at Allah Hu, a prayer for the healing of faith breached again and again across human history.

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In the Land of Trees

The land of trees stands a little above and inland from the bay I once lived on. That was salty and alive with warm gusts of breeze that would come in from over the Arabian Sea; a land made balmy by the grit of hardworking people.

The land of trees where I am now is alive with beings that nurture. They stand tall and hefty: patriarchs and matriarchs of their domains. Deep browed and gnarled, their fingertips are delicate and stretch towards the sky. Leaves dance at their ends. Like vocal chords these speak in rustles and swishes on windy days and say hardly anything on still days.

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Picture credit: Ashutosh Pathak

But the trunks and limbs of the tree beings are never less than lively. Squirrels and birds crawl and fly from branch to branch in pairs, chasing… calling… chasing. Spreading out and away from the trunks is undulating land layered with brick red soil. These are furrowed with beds on which I can imagine, growing, a small fine crop of vegetable… perhaps a promise of what’s to come.

Regeneration. I have come here to stay a while. To root down and find out who I am and how much beauty I am capable of holding in my trunk and spreading like sap through my veins. Can life stir at my fingertips and pulsate to the young people that depend on me? I am, here, exploring this.

Some days, no, most days are hard. There is much to do as a single parent. There is a household to run, teenage children to attend to, a fridge to stock up, taxes to file, bills to pay. I am, here, the yoked bull pacing the furrowed earth slowly, row by row, and the farmer weeding and planting. I am no writer. Lists of ‘to-do’ are all I ever write anymore.

=======

It is a non-teaching day. I have come rushing in from the rain, drenched and anxious about assignments that wait to be graded and reading I need to get done before the next class. I arrive at the table that I occupy in the faculty room, plug in my laptop and begin. As I pick my way through the first assignment, I hear chattering and giggling behind me. Tapasya, Minakshi and Madhuri, teachers in their early 30’s, who occupy desks close by, are in a light mood. I ignore them. I have work to do.

And then the music starts, low at first… It’s something from Coldplay, and then Just the Way You Are by Billy Joel. It gets a little louder and I stop reading the densely written lines of the student assignment. I feel a kinship rise in the large, high-ceilinged staff room… everyone, even those with their eyes glued to their laptop screens, is listening.

I feel a tingle… this is music I haven’t heard in a while. Others in this space must like it too if it is playing so audibly.

The girls behind me spray something orangey-sweet into the air. Are they trying on someone’s deo spray or trying out a room freshener, I wonder. Whatever it is, they chirp on about it. I feel like I am in the corridors, the leafy alleys of a large banyan tree in a farmland, that I walk through some evenings to clear my head.

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I open a blank Word document and begin to type. Putting aside the assignments and reading, I write for myself, words I have been writing for so many days in my head with no one to tell them to and not a moment to put them down… I have been tracing ideas in the warming milk, scrubbing them into dishes I wash, walking through them in the market looking for bananas and bread and skirting them to have desultory, everyday conversations with people I meet. I am not sorry for this. I am not native to the land of trees and such busy days, but have given up everything I had to manoeuvre a landing, feet first. So I can be independent… complete. As I put this down I begin to understand and forgive myself for being too tired to write at night.

I hear voices to my left. A couple of teachers have discovered that Aparna, a colleague, is actually playing these tracks (now Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man has begun) aloud, believing that they are reaching only her through a pair of earphones that she has plugged in. Even though the rest tease her gently, Aparna is embarrassed, impatient with herself. She determinedly re-plugs her earphones so that this time only she can hear the music.

Tapasya dashes off for a class she had forgotten, Minakshi and Madhuri break off their banter to grade assignments or to read. The staffroom falls silent as everyone else turns back to their laptops.

But I have been set free, this moment, by a series of playful happenings, to write this piece. Here in the land of trees, like at the bay, magic happens. And I am swept away easily to reach up for a cloud. For a time… to breathe.

 

Returning home to untarred streets

R for roads, R for rubble

Mumbai to AMS Layout

Shift’d home

On the double.

A tentative step

On a carpet of red

No applause from

Sari-pottu neighbours,

Only a shout of soil

A stretching

Red river bed.

Sharp granite stones

Wedged

In uneven rows

Along the dust of my

Personal Stonehenge.

Centuries ago

The Gangas walked

This very length.

I want elegance…

Try not to trip instead.

My feet in flats

Returning home

Are anointed vermilion

At velcro strap,

And soles soiled

Blood red.

Along this track

Along this less glorious time…

Not Vijayanagara…

But in V’ranyapura

It’s Namaskara

Bannee, hegiddira?

 

 

Next Train In

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Waking            climbing           dodging darting

Weekday mornings at nine,

repeat at five

At the footboard,

half asleep or anxious

but shoved to life

by the announcer’s voice

calling out my station

like a cough:

Khar

 

Khar rings in

I am the next train in

The next train in –

Churchgate 8:42 Slow

Other bodies leap

Through the doors,

Time resets to zero, lurches on again.

 

Jog   climb  hail               slow            listen

Align

myself to a prayer for today:

a chant to the goddess 

All beauty is her

All patience, her

All hunger, illusion,

All activity, is her.

Settle.

 

Shutting packing zipping             climbing

                                     tripping            descend

Wait wait waiting

For the train back home to pull in…

Now the 5:42, hurtling, arrives.

 

Step up

Plunge in                                                     

Dodge      ahead

Breathe.

The trees move in reverse,

The missile gathers speed.

Heavy lidded, headed north

Tired travellers, glaze-eyed lizards on a log

Adrift on murky seas.

The announcer, robotic, dutiful,

chants non-stop:

Andheri Andheri Andheri.

 

Next train in. 

 

Illustration: Gauri Nori, Poem edited by Ashutosh Pathak

Elder

Each month they get more frail,

the elders I know.

Shining for the hour of the visit

in pride and love, in gracious conversation,

to retire wearily

to the mattress pressed into a cradle

by overlong afternoon naps.

 

My father can’t see well

Mother’s haunted by overripe fruit in all she smells

My aunt, by her husband recently gone, the walls of home get her down.

An uncle is all bones, he’s lost his sporting form…

And another who simply wishes to die:

 

At lunch, his brown hands large as plates, like tree trunks lined and veined

cup the air laxly as it rains, sudden and heavy, outside.

 

A word stirs him. The name of the town he grew up in

hails a storm of stories from childhood and youth.

He tells of wise doctors who healed the poor,

trees laden with purple fruit,

men of true grain who built palaces

and sired strong sons and daughters

whose laughter echoes in the courtyards

of a verdant heart.

 

Purple and green, warm things,

lost to him whose days call up a death-like sleep;

and spirit, huddled in its skeletal crib,

docks at this last stop, lonely.

Bluebells in Summer

A couple of years ago, I came upon a new outlet of Just Books. I paused on the pavement, holding the news of the arrival of a local library close. Through the glass front I watched the librarian quietly sift through the books that were in cartons and arrange them on the shelves, and recalled how, a summer thirty years ago, my friends and I started a library.

We loved to read as much as we loved playing outdoors, so we pooled our books, and led by the oldest – Anu, 14 years old and gregarious – lined our much-thumbed-through Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and Tarzan comics, and Enid Blyton series along old racks in Meera’s garage. Meera lived in number 46, while the rest of us lived in houses across from hers on second cross lane, Vasant Nagar. Our city was called Bangalore, green and serene, less city and more town-like in those days.

Meera was a soft-spoken girl, so dear to her father’s heart that he parked his car on the street outside and gave us the use of his garage.

We named it Bluebells Library. How could we not, when books like The Faraway Tree and Adventures of Mister Pinkwhistle were as much part of our daily fare as sambaar-rice! The image of blue, bell-shaped flowers, blossoming along cool, wooded paths, danced in our oily crew-cut or pig-tailed heads in the tropical heat of Bangalore.

Word got around and our friends (and their friends) trooped into Bluebells Library. We took turns to be the librarian – suggesting books, issuing and making a note of them in a ruled register and collecting payments of 50 paise per book. The long summer days became purposeful. Shifting from being a reader to becoming a provider of story magic was terribly exciting. We did our duty as the local librarians officiously … perhaps too much so, for the day 10-year-old Balaji decided to take his favourite comics back home, a fight broke out.

What started with Anu ordering him to keep them right back became a scuffle in the hallowed space between the bookshelves. Balaji yanked Anu’s long braid and she grabbed a fistful of his summer mop. They pulled and yelled. Someone fetched Balaji’s sister, Ranju, who came charging in to drag him away from the fight. But then Balaji’s precious wristwatch fell to the floor and its glass broke. We stood by, stunned and sorry, as, sobbing, he retrieved all his books from the shelves and trudged back home.

While the rest of us had stood watching the fight, Meera had slipped indoors. Shaken, she refused to come out for the rest of the afternoon. We received orders to dismantle the shelves of Bluebells Library. The space that had crackled with books, chatter and the clink of 50p coins, became a drab green-walled garage again.

We talked about starting another library, but where? Meera’s father had been the only parent willing and able to spare the space. Our own grandfather was a doctor who ran his private practice out of the garage, his little growly Standard Ten car parked in the lane outside. We returned to playing Hide-n-Seek and Lock-n-Key for the rest of the summer.

As teenagers, the girls among us contented ourselves with a lending library a few lanes away in busy Vasant Nagar market. We’d sigh over the ‘T.D.H’ heroes of Mills & Boon romances, not quite able to imagine exactly how tall, dark and handsome the brooding heroes actually were. We ran through Jeffrey Archers and Sidney Sheldons. The librarian was an indifferent woman who didn’t meet our eyes and left us to forage through her common fare on our own.

A library is not business-as-usual. It is a space to indulge the community’s love for stories through sharing and (quiet) conversation. It’s about the availability of worlds to explore and lose yourself in. We all had access to school libraries of course, but these were part of school and rules like ‘if-you’re-caught-talking-you-don’t-get-a-book’ … so, not much fun.

We grew up. Meera continued to live in Number 46, renovating the house and raising her children there; Anu, Balaji and Sriram moved abroad to live and work; Adithi moved to north Bengaluru. She and I became authors. We wrote a collection of short stories called Growing Up in Pandupur, etching in incidents and spaces of our childhood in Vasant Nagar…

Balaji’s older sister Ranju featured as ‘Thangi’ in many of my stories. She was the perfect heroine – bold, spontaenous and often in trouble! Ranju would attempt to climb impossible trees and walls, grazing and bruising herself in unlikely places. She’d run pell mell, barefoot, down the street on errands for her grandmother. Our houses shared a compound wall, so she’d be sitting on it at 7 am, teeth not brushed, hair uncombed, impish grin in place. She’d call our names till Adithi and I got out of bed and wandered sleepily over to listen to her plans for a long day of adventure.

Stories about Thangi/ Ranju have found their way to school library bookshelves, and even to some local lending libraries. Just as well. Ranju, who lovingly ran a nursery school in a town in Kerala, lost her life to cancer last year. We found out through an announcement on her Facebook page. It jolted the rest of us into reaching out. Over phone, email and visits we communicated grief at her loss, rued our distance over the years and recalled the happy summers of our childhood. In every conversation, Bluebells Library featured. We laughed over the scuffle between Anu and Balaji and worried about how he was coping.

Ranju’s leaving cast a pall over my memories. Those summers don’t seem like they were only about climbing up the Faraway Tree or spying out invisible Mr. Pinkwhistle. I see now that in our gardens red hibiscus, not satiny-cool bluebells, grew.

That tiny outlet of Just Books in Lokhandwala shut down barely a year after it opened. When I sent them an email asking, naively, for it to come back, their Customer Care rep wrote – Mumbai has its challenges of extremely high real estate costs which sometimes a small library chain like ours cannot afford 🙂

I know. I just needed to ask one time …

Books haven’t left my life. I continue to buy for my own bookshelf and browse among my friends’ books. I’m certain my childhood friends have gone on to discover great stories in others’ collections and to dispense story-magic in their turn. Perhaps they take their children to the local library on Sunday afternoons.

In each book lover lingers a librarian and a member. The space for books shrinks but we continue to share and to savour.

What a reader felt

Like all writers, for a time I live in the world I’ve created, in close proximity with the characters who inhabit it. But once written and published, I long to know if the story resonates with readers.

A young school teacher in Hyderabad read A Blueprint for Love and reached out to me on email soon after. She said she’d experienced the emotional truth of the story… in her dreams. I am moved and grateful to her for writing in. Sharing her email here –

Dear Chatura,

Often, when i read a book, i try to, at the end of it, write my thoughts and impressions about it and note down quotes that moved me. i did the same with ‘A Blueprint for Love’ and felt like i could share it with you.

January 2017

A BLUEPRINT OF LOVE by CHATURA RAO (2016)

Vivek let me borrow this book. I saw it lying on his fridge, amidst the chaos and dust of a home in the middle of renovation, it stood out in the splash of blue that the cover page held. From the very first page, an email exchange, there was an easy connect to the writing; probably because I love writing letters and I know very few people who write emails to share lives and news. And as the story slowly unfolded it’s many layers of bondage, love, loss, stubborn emotions, an unwillingness to let go and an almost instinctive and in that, instant making and breaking of relationships…it was too close to reality. Each character seemed full of life…like they could actually exist, these are characters that could be walking by and with us, outside the pages of this story. No character felt incomplete or tangentially surprising in their thoughts and actions.

The trauma of being the target of an attack…an attack motivated and driven by a sense of belongingness to a certain community, a certain god and in being so, finding all else alienating and maybe even threatening… the very idea of it seems so far away from my reality. Of course I read about incidents as these happening in the papers, but I feel so isolated and in a way immune from it all for the lack of personal exposure and experience. I can’t remember ever being made to feel different owing to my religious or communal identity…but then again, I have never felt a sense of belongingness to either of these identities.

And yet, the story stayed with me long enough to creep it’s way into my dreams. I dreamt of a very well-lit bedroom with minimal furniture and a very simple print bed spread. I was sitting at the edge of it with a friend. The emotion being of anger, fear, anxiety and deep sadness. D had decided he was going to join the rebellion, train to use arms and ammunition and fight the ‘other’ in an attempt to find justice. I woke up with the memory of the intensity of the chaos of the emotions I felt at having a loved one walk into the path of violent rebellion. And suddenly, in that moment, all of it did not feel so far away from my existence and reality.

Real people and real lives stand proof to this story. And that is at once the merit and also the heart-wrecking reality of the book.

The quotes I liked –

“For Reva even now the house was like a cupboard that wouldn’t close. She tried to spring-clean her memories, with a light heart whenever possible, arranging the odds and ends, patting them down and shutting firmly, the old doors. She would wedge remembered conversations like folded pieces of paper between them. Yet, ragtag shadows and sounds spilt out. Impressions that were nearly three decades old still called to her…in her bed next to Tarun, sometimes travelling on a local train, or sitting on a beach in Mumbai, the city she now called home.”

“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”, Rumi.

“On a quieter lane of the main road, the three came to the gate of an old two bedroom cottage with flowering hedges and a mango tree in the front yard. The front door, set a couple of steps up, was open. A woman in her early sixties came out. She was lean, her skin was ruddy and lined like the complexion of most women of this region. Her hair was grey, short wisps escaped from the neat bun at her nape. From her earlobes hung traditional silver hoops. She wore a lightly printed cotton sari and a smile that reached her eyes.”

🙂

love, ankita

 

Feb’s grace

An armless aging man
boards the Ladies’ at Mahim.
At the familiar sight
of a beggar in the aisle
women stir, their eyes drawn
to the bluntness of his arms.

Someone must have draped his lungi,
buttoned the shirt well-worn,
placed the skull cap, shifted
the collection bag strap
for tolerable comfort…

His feet stop by each – she dips into her wallet,
reccine worn or shiny new,
gives what she can to lend a hand.

The beggar presses his right stump
to her head
imprinting the blessing of her choice:
good marks in the child’s exams,
a salary raise,
but most of all, most of all
may her man be gentle in his ways.

I alight at Wadala station,
the train will carry on –
peopled by the grace of strangers
that live in this city of sound.

Photo courtesy Vibha Ravi

Of Three Eggs and a Sports Bra

“Who are these girls?” asks Shenaiya, shifting her weight from one foot to the next. She’s at ease on the sands of Juhu beach where she runs every day. It’s 7:30am on a Sunday in December. You feel like you could breathe ribbons of soft pink cloud in, and breathe out the mauve sky.

Shenaiya is tall for a girl of 12. She’s wiry strong in her black tracks and fluorescent yellow T, hair scrubbed back into a ponytail. The spring in her stride when she walks is replicated in a manner that’s friendly and childlike. Openly curious, she throws an arm in the girls’ direction. “Why are they here?” Shen and a 15 year-old fellow athlete, Pratya, have just taken these two girls – Lakshmi and Rupali – through warm-up exercises on the behest of their coach.

The coach looks tired. He’s arrived from an overnight trip to a different city, where he went to bury his grandfather. His wife is sick at home, and once he’s attended to her, he must rush to South Mumbai to monitor his athletes who are competing at races there today. He’ll probably have to skip breakfast in order to advice Lakshmi and Rupali on how to run this marathon. The girls tell him that they run four rounds of a 300m track at their local park in Dadar every morning and he understands that preparing them to run 21 kms in a span of a month is a task for the foolhardy. He braces himself for it.

He writes down in their notebook, ‘Monday, Wednesday, Friday’. And below that, ‘3 kms. Write down the exact time taken.’

“Run 1.5 kms one way and 1.5 kms back on a stretch of road, three times this week,” he instructs. “Start small. Run slow. Don’t hurt yourself.”

He writes down a low cost diet plan for their mentor, Deepali, to see to. Three eggs for the mornings they run 3 kms, is the first item on this menu.

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The girls are to report to him for training the coming Saturday. He says they will have to build up to 15 kms in the next month in order to run 21 kms at the marathon, injury-free. His main concern is that they not get injured by their marathon stint. The girls are sent away to learn exercises from Shenaiya and Pratya, after which Shenaiya returns to ask who these girls are.

“They are from a group… that takes care of girls,” I explain vaguely, aware that Lakshmi, Rupali and Deepali share our circle, listening.

What words do I use to tell Shenaiya and Pratya, both much-loved children from privileged homes, that Rupali and Lakshmi, barely 6 years older than them, are homeless?

Rupali is from a town near Sholapur in Maharashtra. After her mother, a flower-seller, died, her alcoholic father and other family members abandoned her. Lakshmi is from Chhatisgarh. Her reticence finds its source in severe abuse. Her family is untraceable. They have not reported her missing although she boarded a train for Mumbai two years ago.

Both girls are running the 21 km half-marathon to raise money and awareness for Urja Trust, an NGO that takes care of them. Urja gives them shelter, food and the opportunity to pick up the pieces. They’ve arranged for jobs – Rupali works at Faaso’s and Lakshmi at Ammi’s Biryani outlets – and for night school. The girls are studying in the 9th and 10th standards.

“So…” Shenaiya says, innocuously, looking over to her friend with a grin, “Shall we go there and be taken care of, too?”

“I have my mother to do that,” her friend mumbles back. The girls step aside and make plans to see a late morning show of ‘Mockingjay-2’ where Katniss Everdeen will lead a class revolt against President Snow, for the poor of her country. Her bow and arrow and severe demeanor will bring tears to our girls’ eyes and a fight into their hearts.

For girls like Lakshmi and Rupali who don’t have Katniss Everdeen, nor a mother close by to take care of them, other men and women must step forward.

A week ago, they took the day off from work to make a trip to a small, spotlessly clean apartment in Four Bungalows, Andheri West. There, a 39-year-old scientist in pyjamas and a T, greeted them in cheerful Marathi. She’d volunteered to give them tips to run the marathon. Madhuri is a molecular biologist who lives in Germany. She’s run half-marathons in Germany and the U.S. Like many Non-Resident Indians, she’s visiting her home in Mumbai this December.

A few minutes into the conversation, Madhuri realises that Rupali is answering questions she’d addressed to Lakshmi. “Don’t you speak Marathi?” she asks Lakshmi. Lakshmi shakes her head.

Madhuri switches to Hindi as easily as she’d welcomed the awkward, taciturn girls into her home. Sanjivani, the social worker who’s accompanied them, explains their bare workout and Madhuri goes to fetch their shoes that had been left outside her door. Both pairs, she finds, are literally, down-at-heel.

She demonstrates warm-up and stretching, her toddler patting her stomach and pulling at her hair as soon as she’s crouched or lain low enough for him to reach.

“Run slowly,” she advises the girls. “There’s no hurry. Don’t hurt yourself.”

Madhuri’s mother bustles in with tea and biscuits and advises everyone to shut up for a while and drink the chai hot. “There is no substitute for food to the stomach to give you some energy to talk,” she says with a piercing look at her talkative daughter. Madhuri grins and gratefully picks up a cup of the steaming brew.

Then Madhuri asks the girls if they have sports bras. The girls look blankly back. “Twenty one kilometres is a long way to run,” she says. “Your breasts will hurt if you don’t wear a good bra.” She darts into her bedroom and emerges with two, handing one to each girl. “I’ve barely used these. I kept them aside this morning for you. If you’re training on alternate days, you could wash and dry them before the next session.”

Sanjivani and the girls look at her in wonderment. Her generosity lies, not in parting with her sports bras, but really in having thought about something so essential and yet easy to overlook.

Madhuri sends them away, her baby firmly on her hip, with a promise to replace the down-at-heel shoes, but also with a bit of advice that perhaps most of us could have used at Lakshmi and Rupali’s age – “When I was 20 years old, I thought everyone around me knew so much. But now I understand that however old we get, we’re all quite confused in life. So be easy with who you are.”

“And when you go for the marathon, don’t be shy or scared at all!”

Lakshmi and Rupali’s lives are documented as case studies in a file at the shelter home office. Phrases and adjectives enumerate abuse and abandonment. But strangers care, sometimes. Start small, they might say… Go slow and don’t hurt yourself. And they might offer you an avalanche of love in the act of handing you a sports bra or prescribing three eggs, for your journey to a distant finish line.