AS A CHILD, I was always jealous of a particular slum girl, a year or so younger than me, who occupied a special place in my mother’s heart. Mother often argued that the reason she cherished the girl was because despite her social standing, she adamantly continued to study. Even the knowledge that the girl’s parents had died when she was still a toddler failed to evoke my sympathy. The only emotion I felt towards her was envy.
She could often be seen taking sanctuary in my kitchen, when the situation at her aunt’s house got worse, and her brute of an alcoholic uncle created a ruckus. The thought was quite terrifying, but it never seemed to perturb Reshma.
When, in one of his alcoholic fits, her uncle burnt her schoolbag and all her books, my mother offered to let her study in our kitchen. Much later I learnt that mother would often lend her money to buy stationery and even bought her a new school bag. Had I known then, I would have hated her fiercely.
Reshma’s alcoholic uncle eventually took to gambling with the family’s meagre earnings. So, it came to be a ritual for me to come home and see Reshma studying in the kitchen. Seeing me, she’d look up and smile. I always returned it with a look of disdain.
Once, having done well in a creative writing competition, I won a dozen mechanical pencils. I was triumphant and rushed home to show them to my mum. I held up the pack to my mother’s face and boasted about the amazing job I’d done. My mother hugged me and through the slit in her arm I gazed keenly at Reshma, who was as usual studying in our kitchen. She seemed a little upset. I was glad. My mother made me give her two of those pencils. I didn’t want to.
When Reshma moved to the eighth standard, she requested me to help her with English language. I grudgingly agreed as I was scared of what my mother would say if I refused. Reshma passed the subject with flying colours and my mother bought a present for her. I thought I would never get rid of the menace called Reshma.
But before long, I was a young adult who’d completely forgotten about my childhood squabble with the girl who I thought wanted to steal my mother. When my mother’s faithful maid of seven years went missing, it took a while for her to find a new one. I never did meet this new maid because college hours ran long.
Recently, my relatives decided to come over for dinner and, as is the case with a full house, I was put to task in the kitchen. Working alongside the new maid, I peeled potatoes. When I bent over her to dispose the peels in the dustbin, I realised that she looked rather familiar.
Suddenly I realised it was Reshma! She looked mature, though she must have been barely 19. My mother had earlier that week taken out old clothes for the new maid’s kid. It was then that it dawned on me that Reshma, at 19, was already a mother. I just looked at her and felt guilty.
Guilty that I hadn’t been more supportive when Reshma was trying to put herself through school, or when she was struggling for a life better than this. Maybe if I had said a few kind or encouraging words, she would have attempted the 12th standard exams. Perhaps, she would have got a decent job and escaped from her uncle’s clutches. He wouldn’t have forcefully got her married and she wouldn’t be nursing a toddler at 19.
Perhaps, a little compassion and help from me would have helped her lead a different life altogether.
Esha Vaish is 20. She is a student of journalism based in Pune