On my way back from Jammu & Kashmir I had to do a short stop in Mumbai. There was something I needed to take care of before returning back to Finland: saying farewell to Laxmi, the flower girl I met by the Gateway some months ago.
Up in the mountains of Leh, neither my local nor my Finnish SIM card was working. While this was unexpected, it was a welcome forced removal from the grid. A liberation from the digital chains of modern society. However, this also hindered me from calling Laxmi and setting up a meeting. So I asked Sajjad, via Whatsapp while on the hotel’s wifi, to call her and arrange a meet outside Café Leopold at 17:30. For the trouble I would buy him a cold hazelnut twist coffee once I got back.
The heat in Mumbai was a stark contrast to the cool mountainscapes of Ladakh. And despite it being Sunday, it was as crowded as ever.
We met outside Leopold, at 17:30, among merchants and tourists. I hadn’t seen her since the time I was in Mumbai, with Hugo, in November. We sat down at a corner table. The café was packed, as always. As we were doing some catching up, we were joined by Puja, a six year old girl. She was the daughter of one of Laxmi’s friends, who was also in the neighbourhood. Cute kid – shy and a bit awkward, I don’t think she was used to these kinds of places.
Ok, I thought. I’ll buy her a meal as well. Looked like she could use it. In fact, neither of them had eaten anything that day. Laxmi had the usual: cheese and chicken sandwich. Same for the kid, but untoasted bread. And a bottle of coke.
I asked her if she still had the photos I gave her. She did, and apparently she treasures them: in order to not lose them, she wears them on her back, inside her dress. She showed them to Nanda, who promptly offered her house in exchange for them. I said to Laxmi she had to be joking. Nope, she was serious.
Although Laxmi seemed to be doing alright, she wasn’t: just a week ago she had been to the hospital for heat stroke, malnourishment and dehydration. She’s not allowed near the Gateway anymore; too many flower girls, the authorities say.
She still sleeps out on the streets. She called me, one evening about two months ago, and told me this. There’s a small flat that she could rent, but has no support network that could help her out. Monsoon will be starting in a month or two, and if you don’t have a roof over your head by then you’re in for worse times.
This was also one reason I wanted to meet her. Tucked away in my backpack I had an envelope with a small sum of cash. It should help her get by, for a few months. A small farewell from me, and a thanks for the whole Diwali thing. I handed her the envelope.
Meanwhile, the shy girl was cautiously starting to come out of her shell, glancing up at me every now and then. She had a toy: the detached front panel of an old phone – just the plastic framework – and a piece of worn out cardboard with some advertisements. If you put them on top of each other you could, with enough imagination, get something that looked like a phone with a large, colorful display.
What about her, I asked Laxmi while looking at Puja, what does her future look like?
They’ll try to get her in a private school. They don’t teach English in public schools – something that is seen as a deal-breaker when it comes to future opportunities. But it’s expensive, and for them to be able to pay for it all they need to save up some money. Until then she’ll follow her mother around, selling flowers and begging.
We started playing with the drinking straws. For some reason, tying knots on them was very entertaining. I would tie a knot or two, hand it over to Puja. She would effortlessly open them and shine a triumphant smile. I picked out a longer straw and tied four knots on it. She thought it was too pretty, and handed it back to me.
Once we were done with our meals it was time for me to be on my way.
Outside, I told her it was nice that we met, on that equally hot day in October. It was nice of her to stay in touch and invite me to the Diwali festivities in Hadapsar. She wished me all the best and said I would be in her prayers.
As the cab zoomed away I waved to Laxmi, and showed Puja the “call me” sign. She smiled and showed up her neat phone.