The Meeting and The Mirror
Updated: Mar 23
Tiranga Park, Allahabad, 12th March, 4:30 pm: I have come to a different corner of Allahabad today. It is close to the sangam, but far from everything I can call familiar in the city. I enter the park with a bag full of goodies—new pencil boxes with blue, pink and purple pens, gujiyas, cookies from Allahabad’s famous El Chico bakery, some anxiety and whole lot of anticipation. This is no ordinary picnic in the park, nor is this an ordinary park. I feel a little lost as I step in. I can see many people sitting on the benches, but not the person I’m looking for. A tall boy of about 16 approaches me and I recognize him. This is Karan, the elder brother of Aanchal, whom I’m here to meet today. Let me rewind a little bit.
I grew up in a house where money didn’t flow too easily. As a kid, I almost entirely survived on my older sister’s toys, clothes and books. If we visited the mall in our Maruti 800, it was to see what shops existed and to get an ice cream afterwards, rather than to shop. I know my parents made many compromises in their best years, but there was only one thing that they, with their honestly earned early-career government salaries, never compromised on—education. They said to us again and again, "study well, and you can be the master of your fate". It was probably just childish innocence with which we took this as the Gospel truth at first, but looking back, the way my life has panned out so far confirms what they said. Every time my education took me someplace good, I wondered what I could have done without it. Not everyone gets parents who can save enough to send them to a good school and college, and give them a good start in life.
In January, I received my first salary. I’ve been paid before, counting internship money, scholarships, fellowships etc. But hey, I’ve never been an employee, nor have I ever had to pay tax (not too happy about the latter changing). I’m not sure when this idea first settled into my mind, but I was very sure that I wanted to start funding a child’s education. I got in touch with the NGO I’ve written about previously here, and asked them to help me connect with a girl child who came from an underprivileged background, was showing a strong inclination towards studying till college, and would benefit from a good education in a private school.
That is how this meeting came to be. When I asked Aanchal to choose a pen for her pencil box, she promptly went with pink. I could sense that she was feeling shy, so I tried to say silly things to lighten the mood (I don’t have much of a sense of humor, unfortunately). She eventually opened up, and told me how she wants to be a doctor, but for now, she is only worried about her upcoming exams. “When is it?” I asked. “Tomorrow morning” said Aanchal, in a matter of fact tone. WHAT? If I had an exam tomorrow, I’m pretty sure I’d be sitting at home cramming and troubling my parents to provide me my favorite food. But, no that wasn’t quite how Aanchal’s evenings and early mornings before an exam went. She told me that her mother works as a maid in a college and leaves for work at 5 am. Aanchal cooks for everyone in the family, and packs tiffin boxes too. When she can take a break from studies, she cleans their one-room house. I could sense that she was almost entirely responsible for the domestic chores, and yet, she made no fuss about it. I asked her about her hobbies and her tastes. She said she likes to dance, although she isn’t much of a dancer. “What do you prefer to wear--kurtas or jeans?” She said her father doesn’t let her wear jeans. Strangely enough, there was no mention of her father before this.
I took her and Karan to eat ice cream near the park afterwards, and we pushed Karan’s cycle through the narrow lanes of Holi-stained Allahabad. When we parted ways, they went further in towards the chaos, and I came out towards the city’s broader roads and bigger homes. Later in the evening, I stared at my food that was very conveniently put before me on the dining table. I couldn’t really make peace with how easily I had entered and then exited Aanchal’s difficult world, leaving her behind with only some support in the form of a free education. What about the fact that she was barely a teenager but had to bear the responsibility of an entire household? What about the fact that she doesn’t get to determine her routine even right before an exam? What about the fact that she supports her family but isn’t necessarily supported in return, even for things as small as clothing choices?
When I got up to wash my hands in the sink, as I looked up in the mirror, my father said, “Ayushi, you are leaving tomorrow, come let’s get you some new clothes—whatever you want”.