The alley smelled of incense and coffee. People walked past us, looking sleek and happy. Through the huge glass windows, we could see the cozy interiors of the shops displaying artwork and jewels.
“This place is not like the rest of the city. I feel like I am in one of those exotic tourist spots. Wish we two had put on anything but these bright boho skirts,” Kat said.
“It is designed to evoke that feeling – an expats’ hub with a native flavour. Three years ago, it was a potters’ village. They used to sell idols and toys here. Then somebody realized the potential of this spot and developed it to this glittering bubble of comfort. Now the old potters live in a slum near the railway station. We went there for shooting. You remember?”
Kat nodded; looking at the street lights in the distance.
I met Kat five months ago at The Home, an organization working for street children. She came from Brussels to make a movie about destitute children and I became her on-location collaborator.
“I am going to miss them… all the children I worked with. At first, I felt they learned to forget the awful things that happened to them. They seemed happy – always trying to hold on to the brighter moments,” Kat said turning to me. We were sitting on a pavement beside the cigarette shop. With the onset of night, the place became livelier with dance club visitors.
I thought about little Jai, one of Kat’s ‘children’. On the last day of filming he had invited us home – a shabby tent outside the walls of city park. We sipped tea sitting on a mat trying not to look at the open drainage on the side of the tent. Jai showed us a little notebook – his book of dreams. I read one of his entries in the first page.
When I am big, I will be a police man. Not the bad policeman who beat children, but a good policeman. I will buy a house far from here, in a place where dirty water won’t come inside when it rains.
Jai said he was ten but he looked older with his sunken and pale face. When we said goodbye, Jai gave us the notebook as a parting gift.
“Do you want a smoke?” Kat asked walking towards the shop, while heads turned. If it was not for the project, we would have hardly become friends. I have a prejudice for people like her who dress, talk and walk with effortless grace.
“At times, it is important to make a good impression on others which may expand your horizons and lead you to exciting possibilities. So in that way, my pretentiousness is justified,” Kat said with a shrug of her shoulders.
“But don’t go so frank about it. That will ruin the entire act.”
We laughed a lot during those first meetings at The Home.
“Get ready for the green pigeons,” I tried to joke while lighting up the cigarette. Last time we came here a flock of green pigeons had appeared on the nearby treetop when we lit up. They formed a surreal image – those green birds with their unnaturally bright yellow legs.
“I doubted the cigarette for a minute when I saw them. They will probably be flying back home now. In a way, going back home is frightening. Everybody around is so familiar that a slight change in you can create a big shift in relationships.”
She must’ve be thinking about her early morning flight to Brussels – going back home – going back to Dave.
I looked away. She knew it was a bit different for me. I was from a home where people didn’t care much about others’ existence. A place where I felt orphaned as a child, abused as a teenager and outcast as an adult. It was easy for me to bond with the children we were filming. Kat considered it a wonderful talent.
“You can make them open up within no time. How do you do it?” she often asked me with amazement.
“Well, I know how to talk to them.”
“You are the best thing that happened to this project so far.”
In truth, I and those children had a lot in common, same past which differed only in the degree of severity.
Chetan and Mittu were my favourites among Kat’s children. We first met them at the traffic island on our way to the slum. Mittu came to us with a bunch of roses.
“How much is it?” I asked with a smile. He picked one flower from the bunch and held it between his teeth. Then he raised all the fingers of his hands.
“So it is ten rupees for one?”
He nodded eagerly.
Kat fished out a chocolate from one of her bags and gave it to him. He replied with a smile that brightened his large brown eyes. Chetan approached us with a questioning look.
“What do you want?” He put his hand around Mittu’s shoulders.
“She wants to teach you how to take pictures with this camera,” I said, introducing Kat. “Then she will make a movie about it. Do you want to join in?”
“Will you pay us?”
“No. But we will provide food on the sets”
“We can’t do it. I have to sell flowers during the day.”
“Alright, maybe she can quickly show how to take a picture.”
Kat explained a few basics.
“Want to take a snap?” she asked.
Mittu grabbed the camera from her hands. With a few gestures he made us sit near the pavement in a neat line and clicked the picture. It’s a hilarious shot- Kat with her tongue sticking out, me trying to pull her hair and Chetan in the middle with a serious expression. I noted down their details for The Home’s register. At times, the organization provided some assistance to the children who associated with them. Chetan came to the city when he was ten.
“I always had to work at home. Father used to beat me up for not doing all the chores. One day, I met an older boy at our local market who told me about this place. He said it is a great place with cinemas, vehicles and neat houses. So I ran away with him.”
Chetan had found Mittu near a garbage pile during his second year in the city where he became a street vendor selling flowers at the traffic islands. He took pity on the little child resembling a soft toy thrown out of a window.
“Hi, Do you have anybody with you?” he asked. A voiceless sob was the answer.
“I am Chetan. Do you want anything?”Chetan asked again. Mittu covered his face with both hands.
Unsure of what to do, Chetan bought some momos from a nearby tea shop and gave it to the child.
“It’s good. Have some,” he said and started to walk. Mittu followed him silently. So Chetan took him to the traffic signal where he sells flowers and then to the shop corridor where he used to sleep.
While Chetan talked, Mittu stared at Kat’s golden hair with wonder. She stooped her head to allow the shiny locks to fall on his little palms. He smiled that radiant smile conveying joy and amazement – the only medium through which he could communicate his feelings. Two days later the boys joined with the other children for filming.
“Let us go and get some dinner. I have to leave a little early. Half of my luggage is still unpacked,” Kat said finishing her cigarette. We walked to the food outlets near the road side. I felt sick. It might be the loud music pouring out from the neighbouring club. Kat enthusiastically pondered through the menu.
“Spinach curry with seasoned vegetables. That sounds delicious. What are you going to have?”
I sensed a growing uneasiness in my mind – an unreasonable animosity towards my friend. It started on the day we conducted an exhibition and film screening to celebrate the completion of the project. The event went well making a couple of news headlines.
“It is your day,” Kat told each of the children on the day before the screening. “We will display the pictures you have taken and then there will be the screening of our movie. You are my little stars.”
They were amazing on that day. All of them turned up in the morning to help us with the arrangements. The guests listened to their anecdotes with enthusiasm. They were the stars and they celebrated the transformation with the joy of newly hatched butterflies.
After the program, we asked the children to hand over the photographs. Kat needed them for her exhibition in Brussels. They came, one by one, with envelopes containing their precious shots – shots that made them feel like emperors of their surrounding for split seconds. Mittu refused to move away from the collection desk. I buried my head in the register book till I heard Kat talking. She had Mittu sitting on her lap with his head down, as if he cannot sense her caressing hands.
“I promise I will send all your photographs back within two months. Please explain it to him,” she pleaded to Chetan.
“You will come back to teach us?” Chetan asked with a tinge of hope.
“I will. But I cannot tell you the exact date now.”
He didn’t reply. Instead he gently took Mittu who hung on to his shoulders like a rag doll. They went out of the room without any words.
“I think I am ready for home,” Kat said, wiping her weary face.
“They would have been better off not being a part of your grant dream. Unlike you, they don’t have a luxury abode to hide away from the miseries,” I said coldly.
“What do you mean?” Kat stared at me in disbelief.
“What I have said.”
We stopped talking after that.
I got a text from her this morning saying she wanted to meet me for dinner before her journey back home. That is why we agreed to come to the potter’s village, our usual meeting point.
“How is your sleep?” Kat asked.
Both of us know it is a lie – insomnia was one of the many traits we had in common. To be precise, I didn’t have a problem in falling asleep but fear created demonic silhouettes when I woke up from unknown dreams. For Kat, going to bed was the real challenge.
“It is a kind of anxiety, an inability to trust night with sleep, which makes me wander around,” she often said.
Some nights Kat had driven to my place in search of a companion for sleeplessness. We spend most of our time sharing anecdotes and making fun of each other which rescued me from unpleasant dreams. At times we went to kinky nightclubs exploding with loud music. Kat didn’t enjoy those trips much,
“Looks a bit like a sausage party.”
“Don’t like any of your admirers?”
“I might’ve hooked up with one of those butch fellows if the atmosphere is less aggressive. Let us get out of here.”
When we approached the exit, some of the guys screamed.
“Is that a good price for an imported prostitute?”
“I’m not an expert. But if you’re keen, I’ll try to negotiate a better deal.”
“Thanks for offering to help me. It is true that I need money especially when half of our project is in mid air due to the lack of finance. However, I’m not sure about this fund raising method. Film maker with a flair for slutty deals?”
“Don’t be a cynic, Kat. It’ll make you a film maker with revolutionary views on sexuality.”
“The job is the same irrespective of the way you call it.”
“It is a pity that you are not committed to your art.”
“You know I am pretentious.”
We left the place quickly to avoid the men who came closer encouraged by the sound of our laughter.
During some of those trips we met our children on shop corridors – either sleeping or inebriating themselves to sleep. After two or three such encounters, Kat made it a practice to pack the remaining dinner for them. Sometimes, she took away small packets of alcohol or glue from their pockets.
“Don’t do that stuff today. Come with us for a movie.”
Mostly those movie trips ended up in Kat’s apartment where we all roared with laughter watching cartoons. Neighbours greeted us with cold stares when our unruly kids walked out of the door in the morning. Mostly after these visits, Kat missed some of her trinkets from home.
“Somebody nicked my watch. That’s not nice,” she complained once.
“The gaudy one you brought from the antique shop yesterday?”
“It was not gaudy, but a charming piece of art with an intricately designed chain.”
“I am glad to know that one of your students does share your aesthetic sense. He found it so appealing that he decided to take it with him.”
“I doubt it. He probably took it for other purposes – like a source of fund for his next fix. Anyway, I don’t blame him. I used to steal things when I started doing drugs. I was mad at Mom for making me Katherine Bach through her second marriage. We were in constant battle, me and my mom. But Mr Bach was very kind to me. He gave me everything I needed –money, cocaine and cuddles. After a year, I went through an abortion and Mr Bach was thrown out of the house. I became such a pest struggling with drugs and insomnia that Mom had to send me to a rehabilitation facility. The one good thing I learned from there is that I can express my feelings without being destructive. Slowly I got rid of the addictions but the passion for sharing my ideas remained within. It finally made me a filmmaker.”
“I don’t know whether I can generate any money from this project. But if I can, I will set up an independent fund for the children,” Kat said while toying around with the last of the spinach. I tried hard to suppress the growing uneasiness in my mind.
“What do you think about it?” she asked again.
“Let us postpone that discussion till we have a clear picture. It is better to avoid giving vain hopes to people.”
“Come on. I am barely announcing it to a group. It is not about the fund. Isn’t it? What is it about? Why are you acting like this?”
“Why did you come here, Kat? To promote your image as a socially committed film maker? To realize you were lucky compared to many others around you?”
“Alright. So you think it is a part of self-indulgence. A project designed to quench my inner insecurities.”
“I didn’t get a better explanation. It is true that your experiment empowered them for a while. Probably for the first time in their lives, they felt like respectable members of the society. But the moment you wound-up the project, they were kicked out from that Utopia. Now they are back to their filthy world which treats them no better than a stray dog. You have even snatched away the remains of that dream – those photographs. It’s brutal.”
“I came here because I thought it is important to evoke hope in life,” Kat muttered. Her eyes gleamed even in the dim light of the alley.
“You chose an ideal group for this hope-inducing- journey. Don’t you realize that they are too young to be enlightened by your grand gesture?”
“Let us stop it here,” she replied in a hoarse voice. “Can we have a hug before you leave?”
“I don’t think that will resolve our differences.” I turned away to walk back home.
A nasty headache woke me up in the morning. Last night’s quarrel disturbed whatever sleep I had . The clock sang nine. Kat must be in the plane huddled up in her seat. I called in sick to catch some more sleep.
Hunger finally dragged me out of the bed in the evening. It rained while I walked towards the usual restaurant. Trees added to the rain showering red petals all over the sidewalk. The sight of youngsters splashing water at each other made me angry.
“I don’t know what is so special about this dirty rain,” I muttered.
A shout from the distance made me turn around. Mittu ran into my umbrella in a minute with Chetan at his heels. The boys were breathless with excitement- – two slender figures drenched in rain and mud.
“We went there to meet Kat. They said she left,” Chetan said pointing to The Home’s office around the corner.
“Hi, how are you boys doing? Yes, she left this morning.”
“We didn’t say goodbye. So we wrote her a small note. Can you send it to her?” Chetan lifted his hopeful eyes.
“Definitely,” I said while carefully putting the wet sheet of paper inside my purse. “Want to have tea?”
“Not now. We are going to play. Will see you around,” Chetan shouted before running in the rain holding on to Mittu’s hands.
I stared at the computer screen for long before keying in the words.
I met Mittu and Chetan this evening. They asked me to convey this message to you.
“Thank you for showing us that it is possible to live life in a different way. Thank you for the wonderful time we spend together. We are going to miss you.”
I wish to add a few more lines to it.
Thank you for being there for me in my sleeplessness. Thank you for showing me that it is possible to overcome a dark past.
I was concerned about the children. I thought your love might cause them more pain. But I was more concerned about myself. For me, the time we spend together was like those photographs in the children’s hand. I was not ready to give it up.
I know I have offended a good friend. I hope she will forgive me.
I am looking forward to hearing from you Kat.
It was still raining. I opened the window to let the cool air inside. There were few children on the road side playing with paper boats. One of them looked up and waved at me. I smiled back and took the umbrella from the shelf. It would be fun to go for a walk now, I thought while locking the door.
Smitha Peter is a freelance writer based in India. She has completed her Masters in Science Journalism from City University, London in 2010. After her studies, she worked as a campaigner and researcher under Indian ecologist Dr Vandana Shiva for the not for profit organisation Navdanya based on New Delhi, India which promotes sustainable agriculture and alternative life style.