“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.
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.