You probably recall the time I was locked out of my house. It happened when I stepped out to hand over the garbage bag to this little girl who collects it, and the breeze slammed the door shut behind me.
For several days after that event, this girl, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, didn’t ring my bell. If I had not put out the garbage before her visit, it wouldn’t get cleared until the next day. One day I accosted here in the neighbourhood, and asked her why she had begun to skip my flat. She said with a disarming smile “You had so much trouble because of me!” I told her it wasn’t her fault; her visits resumed from the next day.
A couple of days later, I asked her how much she was paid for doing this job. I gathered, her aunt had the contract for clearing the garbage. She helped the aunt, in return she was given ten or twenty rupees as pocket money a few times a month. In addition, she did household work in one of the apartments, which paid her two hundred and fifty a month. Her mother was dead, and the father did nothing; probably just drank.
I had always seen the girl wearing the same pair of clothes. She probably had just two – a maxi for the night, and a pair of salwar kameez for the day. I found her poverty disturbing, as much as I found her smile endearing. I told her to ask me for money whenever she needed some.
A few days ago, she rang my doorbell and asked me if I could lend her two rupees, which she offered to return soon. I had nothing on me below a hundred. I rushed down to the grocery store, got change, and held out fifty rupees.
The extended her hand but shrank suddenly when she saw the note in my hand. Her face was terrified beyond description. It was the face of a girl who feared losing her honour. I insisted that she take it, and also asked her to collect a similar amount every month.
I thought she understood.
The next morning, the doorbell rang at garbage time, and the same cherubic face asked me if she could return the money that was still left. I patted her cheek, and asked her to keep the money. As I repeated my offer of a salary, I felt a pang of guilt, which wasn’t deservedly mine.
A woman’s honour. How fragile! How noble!