Madame

Sitting by the window sill, Smita watched as Aryan got into the school bus. He had just left with his school bag slung over one shoulder in a rush and tiffin box in hand. Gopal had gone to Aurangabad for 2 days and she had the entire day to herself. She smiled as she thought of her husband and her son. Life was so different now! She smiled as she remembered how far she had come…

*********************************************

Today was another of those crazy rainy days in Mumbai. Smita hurried out of the hotel, cursing herself for not carrying an umbrella as it was pouring cats and dogs. The sky was dark with heavy clouds and thunder and lightning added to the feeling of foreboding. Not wanting to be stranded, Smita wondered what she could do as the station was far away and trains could not be trusted in this weather. She saw a cab turn into the lane from the corner. Money was hard to come by, but evaluating her options, Smita decided to hail the cab. It screeched to a halt and the cabbie asked “Where do you want to go?”

“Dadar bhaiyya”

“Ok, it will be three hundred rupees.”

“But bhaiyya, the distance is not so much. Please reduce it a bit.”

“Yes, but have you seen the rains? I am risking my life for you. You know how unpredictable Mumbai rains are. Take it or let it be!”

Knowing she had no choice, Smita settled herself in the cab. She wiped herself somewhat dry with the pallu of her cotton saree and looked out of the window. The glass seemed to be misting over and all she could see was water accumulating in the corners of most streets. People seemed to be indoors waiting it out. Only she had no such choice. If she didn’t make it on time, those people would never spare her. She had been there long enough to know. Not wanting to brood further, she kept her eyes on the roads. As the cab turned the next corner, she saw a woman frantically trying to hail the cab. On instinct, she told the cabbie “Bhaiyya, please stop the cab for a minute. Let’s see if this lady needs help and if we are going in the same direction, then why not?”

“If you take another passenger, I will charge extra.”

“Theek hai. Please stop.”

Abha on the other hand was wondering what to do as the cab screeched to a halt near her. The door opened and she saw a woman was already seated in the back seat.

“Where are you going Madame? Can I drop you somewhere?”

“Arre, I told you if you take this lady along, I will charge you extra.”

Abha watched this exchange between the passenger and the driver and assessed the woman in the mean time. She looked simple in her cotton saree, with jangling bangles on her wrists and a big round bindi on her forehead. Abha had been trying to hail a cab for the last twenty minutes, but this was the only one that had actually stopped.

“I need to go to Dadar. I have been trying to get a cab for sometime now.”

“Ok, I am going in that direction too. You can join in since cabs are hard to come by.”

The cabbie not to be outdone immediately prompted “It will be three hundred rupees Madamji.”

“Arre, you are already charging me three hundred rupees. Don’t be so greedy.”

Abha interrupted “It’s okay, I will also pay you three hundred rupees” and the cabbie gave a satisfied smile. Abha settled down in the backseat with her laptop bag on her lap.

Smita observed Abha too as she sat in the cab. With a knee length skirt and a white shirt to match and high heels on her feet, Abha looked every bit the corporate woman, a proper madame. Smita was unused to people like her and was immediately conscious of her dowdy appearance.

Abha turned to Smita with a smile and said “Thank you for stopping. The rains are pouring down so heavily and there are hardly any cabs on the road. I was not sure what to do.”

“It’s okay Madame. I also would not have taken the cab, but today the rains gave me no choice. If I don’t make it on time…”

Abha’s interest was piqued. She sensed that Smita wanted to continue, but was not sure if she should. Abha decided to probe further.

“What is your name? Where are you going?”

Smita was now in a fix. She was confused whether she should speak up or not. But there was something about Abha that seemed reassuring. Deciding to go by her instinct Smita said, “Madame, my name is Smita and I am a simple girl from a small village on the Maharashtra – Gujarat border. Circumstances brought me here to this big city and now I know, I can never go back to my village.”

“Smita, what do you mean by that? Please tell me. Maybe I can be of some help.”

“Madame, I don’t know if anyone can help me.”

“Don’t say so. Maybe I really can!”

Madame, I fell in love with a boy from my village. Our parents were against our relationship. I was just seventeen, but we eloped and took a bus to Mumbai. Vikas and I got married and the first six months were very good. However, Vikas fell into bad company and started drinking. Soon, he stopped working and his nights were spent at the local bar. He was always in need of money and whatever I brought home, he made sure he staked his claim on it too. Beatings and abuses became a part of my daily life. I knew that I could not leave him and go back, so I continued on.”

“What happened then?”

“Vikas died in an accident one day after drinking. The day he died, he had struck a deal with the bar owner for 10,000 rupees. Yes, he had sold me to the bar owner. I got to know all this only after Vikas was gone, else I would have run away from there too.”

Smita had tears in her eyes as she said so and wiped them away with her pallu.

Abha was shocked. She being a woman, could understand how difficult it had been for Smita to even say this out aloud. But she realized that there was more to the story.

“So, what did you do then?”

“The bar owner took me home and used me for his pleasures for the first few months. When he got tired of me, he sold me to the lady in Kamathipura called Amma by most people. I am now under her care”

Abha’s head was reeling! She had thought this simple woman would tell her a tale of domestic woes, but this was something else altogether. She then realised that she was sharing a cab with a commercial sex worker. It seemed unimaginable, yet true!

“So, where are you coming from now? And where do you need to go? What happens if you are not on time?”

“I met a customer at the hotel. As I left, I saw it was pouring heavily and hence hailed a cab. Amma’s right hand man, Raghu will meet me in Dadar. We will travel back home together. If I don’t make it on time, Amma will get very angry and punish me for the next two days. You really don’t want to know about the punishment.”

Abha could not believe it at all. The matter of fact way with which Smita accepted it all and said ‘home’, it was all too much to grasp! Yet, she knew that Smita was a girl caught in these circumstances and wanted to help her if she could.

“Smita, tell me something, do you want to get out of this? Have you spoken to the police?”

“Madame, the police work hand in hand with Amma. They come every week to collect their cash and disappear. They only step in if a customer is being difficult or harassing us.”

“Madameji, Dadar station is here”

Realizing they had reached their destination, Abha acted on impulse and said, “I would like to help you Smita. I really would. Please share a number with me if you can. Give me some time. I will be in touch for sure.”

Abha and Smita parted ways after paying the cabbie and exchanging numbers. Smita had given a ‘care of’ number but Abha had told her to call her if anything came up and she needed help.

The next day, Abha discussed this story with her boss Arjun. Arjun warned her to steer clear of this case, but he also knew how determined Abha was by nature. Reluctantly, he put her through to one of his friends, Madhav who spearheaded the NGO “Nari Aangan”. They had helped rehabilitate many such women and Abha wanted to do the same for Smita. Madhav too cautioned her that the road ahead would be tough as Amma wouldn’t let go of Smita so easily. He mentioned that they may need to buy her off eventually as Amma would only let go with money.

Abha decided to pour in her life savings for this cause. She firmly believed that money would come and go, but life would not give her such an opportunity again to save and shape someone’s life and she wanted to grab it with both hands. A meeting was finally mediated with Amma through Madhav and Nari Aangan. It was a big price to pay, but Abha decided to go through it all. She wanted to get Smita out of this mess. The police were also witness to this exchange of money. The only condition was that no official complaint would be lodged against Amma and all traces of Smita would be wiped clean from their end in exchange.

Smita was rehabilitated at Nari Aangan. She was taught to sew and knit and also studied English in the evenings. Over time she met Gopal, a volunteer who worked with the women at Nari Aangan. Gopal liked Smita for her quiet, simple nature. He also observed that she was very hardworking and a quick learner. They became friends and eventually, Gopal confided in Madhav that he had fallen in love with Smita. Madhav conveyed the same to Abha who was thrilled.

Abha had stayed in touch with Smita and was updated on the progress. She was glad that life had given Smita a second chance to find happiness. Abha helped with the wedding arrangements and even with the house that Smita and Gopal now lived in.

***************************************

Smita smiled again to herself and blessed Abha Madame for everything she had done. Abha had moved away to the US eventually and was married to an American boy. She had twin boys and shared their pictures from time to time. Smita was lucky to have found Gopal. Her son, Aryan was her world and those days with Amma seemed like a bad dream. But more than anything, she owed it to the Madame and one cab ride which had truly taken her where she needed to be…

****

Glossary:
Bhaiyya – Brother
Theek hai – Okay

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Sheetal Ashpalia

With a teenage son and a full time job, writing is what Sheetal enjoys in her spare time apart from singing and reading. She firmly believes that “Something beautiful is about to happen”.

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