They said she was the daughter of a sailor, one with an English name which no one could remember. Though she was just thirteen, she was very close to her father, wherever he was, whoever he was. Angel had never seen the sea but she had overheard the elders talk about it, its mighty waves thrashing at night, like her mother’s dark hand beating the hell out of her own breasts in agony. Her mother had become used to the pain, she had herself confessed that she even liked it at times, but still, every night she would succumb to it, whimpering and moaning, her dark sweaty rag picker’s hand holding her belly which nursed a child inside.
“My father was a handsome man”, she declared, but there was no one to listen to her thoughts but it didn’t matter to her, because she had seen his look-alike in a magazine at Suman Madam’s book shop, where a dashingly blond actor glowered from the top cover – after all, she did have a blond streak of hair. Her soul fed on such thoughts like a vulture on a carcass, eating, biting, gnawing at every bit of useless thought she could imagine.
Her mother could not remember her father’s face because it was too dark to see that night. She had told her that her father was her first man, and when she was born, he had kissed her on her forehead while she caused a ruckus, crying in the middle of the night and then he had left to sail off into the faraway waters and that was the last time she saw him, she had thought about him often, but his memories had become vague like the contents of an old letter, but the only thing she remembered that he had a nose that resembled one of a black horse. It was not something that bothered her.
She shared the same streak of blond hair that her mother was so famous for, which the strange men who visited her longed for. But Angel didn’t smell like her, she knew that so she wept alone beneath the red and green traffic lights, she smelt bad, she was wreathed in the miasma of the sewers and vomited cheap alcohol and no amount of water had been able to wash it off. She wondered if those strange men with dirty teeth would ever visit her, like laughing hyenas searching for dead meat.
Her mother had been in labor for the past 8 months now, but Angel was not sure because she didn’t know how to count. She had overheard that from the dirty old women who snored loudly at night in the pavement near the road where they all lived. At night, Angel closed her little cherry eyes, not because she needed some sleep, but because she knew that to see what she wanted to, she had to close her eyes.
That was her world, which she created, away from the auto-wala Sagar, who scratched his huge pumpkin belly as he waited near the signal, away from Aparajita Bai, who had promised her that she would give a painting when she didn’t have one of her own, away from the stench that surrounded her, away from the red tilak marks on the walls which inconsiderate ba*tards spat on the walls, the walls that supported her house and she would stay with her father and sail on a boat with the blue beautiful waves crashing around and tiny drops of water would splash up and she would just be overjoyed.
She begged in the traffic signal at Chembur, harassing pedestrians and car owners alike. She picked rags at times too – she had made friends with many rag pickers there. They always had stories to tell, those rag pickers, so she loved them and wanted to run away with them, away to green fields with windmills and they wouldn’t go near for fear of being swept away; but she could not betray her mother. She juggled through pieces of broken toys and torn clothes along with them, conjuring up a life beyond the pavement, relishing in the imagination of new outfits and toys, like a jigsaw puzzle she would fit in all the pieces of the life she wished her brother would have, but then, he didn’t understand her prayers yet as he still slept in the comfort of her mother’s womb. She looked at herself and her torn clothes, her bare skin radiating her stench even more and she felt like the half skinned broiler chicken at Ahmed Kaka’s butcher shop.
Every evening, she would wait outside Shree Krishna Sweets where she pressed her ugly nose into the glass and showed her dirty teeth to the owner inside. The owner was a pious man, he wore a clean dhoti and there were three marks of white powder on his forehead. She thought of him as a tantrik, she had after all, overheard the wicked old women talk about them – tantriks knew of unheard ways to conjure food out of air, drank the blood of goats whose heads were severed but were still dying and make love to women standing upside down.
The owner actually gave her the stale pavs from the day before or earlier, he thought it was better that the poor girl eats it rather than go to the stray dogs which strolled around hanging their tongues out, he neither drank blood nor could conjure food out of nowhere. But Angel still thought of him as a tantrik because every day he would touch her in the forbidden place between her legs before handing over the pavs behind the stall and she would bear silently though she wanted to bite his balls off, but then, she had two more mouths to feed. She wondered whether her unborn brother would understand what she had done for him.
Every morning she placed the coin in the middle of the road, by noon the coin would become a little thinner and she would be very glad. She had started this when her mother told her that she was going to have a baby brother soon. So each night, long after the birds and humanity slept, she would take that coin and place it on her mother’s belly and prayed for him, while her mother snored.
Over the past months, the coin had become flatter and her mother had become fatter and she would smile wickedly alone at the oxymoronic relation between the two, afraid that someone would see her smiling like that. But most of all, she was afraid that she would be seen by the boy in the building nearby. Earlier she used to pray for the quiet – a life without the honks of the cars of the day or the snoring sick women nearby, but one night, her prayers were answered and everything was quiet, there was not a sound to be heard, it was the call of death and the only thing that reminded her that she was alive was her stench, and she shivered in fright and she prayed feverishly for the unquiet, the chaos, the hullabaloo and not long after, her prayers were answered again.
While humanity slept, there would be a single window open, two stories up on the building. Early every morning, when she placed the coin and at night, when she took it away, a boy would look at her from that window, with a face without expression or emotion. It was blank face and it reminded her of an unknown fear about what the boy must be thinking, though she could not , for the life of it understand, how it mattered to her. She hated that face, she could not figure out whether it was hatred or love within that round chapatti faced boy and she would curse him for watching her during her private ritual. But she suspected that he could actually be dead but wondered why his parents did not know so.
It was the night which was drenched by untimely rain. The drains were overflowing with glittery yellow and brown pieces of filth but she was not unhappy because that was the smell she was used to, it was her smell, the smell of the grime of the gutter where she belonged. She waited underneath a huge billboard for the rain to subside where a beautiful lady was kissing a piece of soap. She had overheard of such women, who would kiss anything or anyone or anywhere for coins, and she was proud she didn’t have to do anything like that; all she needed to do was just ask for a coin and once in a while, she would be given one.
She was depressed in the wee hours on that day because she could not find her coin. Before the sun could rise, the wicked old women sent her out of her home to get some food and all she could hear was her mother screaming as if she was being strangulated, writhing, groaning, shouting all at once. Then she had gone to the sweet shop and pressed her nose on the window but the shop was closed and the rains had started. She saw the boy in the window stare at her, but today she didn’t go through the ritual and she wanted to tell him why but she didn’t know how to and ended up praying that her mother doesn’t spit out her heart while screaming.
When she returned home without the pavs, her mother was weeping and there was no sign of her baby brother. Before she could say a word, her mother hugged her tight and wept bitterly.
“I was wrong” her mother whispered, “it was not a boy, it was a girl and they took your baby sister away”
“But why?” she asked, unable to understand anything.
“I do not know, but the old women took her away. They said she was beautiful”
“What did you do with my coin?”
“I gave it to the women as a token of goodwill for your sister”
Angel thought for some time and asked, “Why didn’t they take me away when I was born, Ma?”
Her mother looked into her eyes, deeply and she could feel the warmth spreading in her heart even before she said anything.
“Because you are the daughter of a Sailor, my darling Angel” she said, and patting on Angel’s head, she sung,
With roses, He shall soothe you,
Coconuts, you shall drink!
Oh! He was an awesome sailor,
And never did his boat sink!
Mr. Venkatraman, owner of Shree Krishna sweets, thought highly of himself. He was a pious man and the white lines of powder on his forehead told tales of his supreme devotion. He had some shady dealings in the street, that had gave him money and how can God be unhappy when he gave him enough to buy a flat in Mumbai? He called out to his son, “come here! I have got something for you”
His son, Vighneshwara, silently walked up to him. He handed over the small box to him.
“It’s a coin from the Akbar’s time” his father remarked, trying to make him smile. But all he did was say thanks and took the box away to his room. Venkatraman wondered why his son was so emotionless, so different. Was it because of what he did behind their backs? Was it because he ran the association at the signal? Was it a punishment by the Almighty? He rubbished away all his thoughts. After all, selling just pavs wouldn’t have got him a flat in the heart of Mumbai.
It was not even morning. The sky wore a deep shade of blue, making false promises of rain. He put on the light on his room and looked at the girl staring at him from below. He had watched her for the past few months. He held up the coin that his father had given him. Even from below, she knew it was her coin.
She was overjoyed and her face was like a butterfly just out of a cocoon. She smiled at him and in the first time in days, she could see a twitch in the contours of his face, which she suspected was a smile. He looked at her once more in the eyes, closed his window and put off the light. He wept that night, for the first time on his life, he had a friend. Angel felt blessed by the pulsating glow of amber light in the traffic signal.
As the first rays of sun kissed the earth, Angel washed herself and suddenly she realized that the stench she always carried with her had gone away. She felt fresh and anew. There were still no cars on the road when she placed a new coin on the road. She watched and when the first car drove over it, Angel whispered a silent prayer for the well-being of her brother at the window.