The interior of our sleek black Mercedes is a cool, clean beige. A children’s nursery rhyme is humming from the stereo, above which I can hear the steady
tuck, tuck, tuck
of the turn indicator.
My driver is tall, moustached and sensible. He sits with his hands resting lightly on the wheel, waiting for the signal to change.
My eighteen month old daughter sits next to me in her impact-resistant car seat and we both look out at the wide sprawl of Chowpatty Beach, South Mumbai’s litter-laced, fish-stinking golden-sand beach.
Hundreds of pigeons gather round a circular bird feeding area – their gray bodies swarm and peck over tiny grains, then flap flap their way heavily into the sky. They swirl and land, swirl and land in stage-managed precision.
car, car… bus!
look up mama, sky!
my daughter says as I hold up her snack box, revealing a still-warm omelette. We are lunching on the go, on the way to an afternoon playdate.
tap, tap, tap
A head appears at my daughter’s window.
She is a young girl, maybe eight, possibly twelve. She is slight and small and wears a green floral dress, once proud and pretty, now worn, filthy and limp. The puffy shoulders look silly and big against her stick-thin scratched-up arms. Her hair is wild, matted; her lips are cracked and rough.
My daughter squeals with delight.
girl, girl, mama see!
eyes, nose, teeth, ears, hair
madam five rupees please madam
She eyes the light yellow omelette, the full water bottle and licks her lips as the signal light changes from red to green, a block ahead. The driver impatiently nudges our car forward and her face disappears, returning quickly outside my window.
madam please only five rupees madam
Her voice is low and urgent as she shuffles back and forth.
girl, girl, look mama
hi, hi girl!
Our car leaps forward suddenly, racing to beat the signal and I turn quickly to look out the rear window. The small girl is standing still, looking back at us. Her tiny feet are bare on the searing midday street, and she is framed by a blue sky and wide flock of swirling pigeons.