A sprawling figure on the ground startled me. As I moved towards it, I smiled as I realised that it was Chhoti again. She lay there beaten severely by the bazaar bullies. I kept my hand on her shoulder, and said, “Are you okay, Chhoti?”
“Just leave me alone, sister. They beat me again today. I just can’t take it anymore,” she said softly.
Chhoti was an eight-year-old girl who lived with her nanny Sita. They lived a few houses away from us. Her parents passed on seven years ago and ever since, Sita was her only support. Chhoti studied at the same nearby school where her nanny worked as a peon.
Life, as they knew it, was steady for the duo, until one day, the school caught fire. Chhoti and Sita were two of 16 survivors. Barring them, all staff members, students and the principal perished in the fire.
As a result, Sita lost her job, and the little girl wasn’t fortunate enough to go to another school. All of their savings were eroded and they now barely had enough to even eat.
Now Chhoti was fond of one particular kind of food. More precisely, it was a drink; not the usual Coca Cola, tea or coffee, but rather it was milk.
All she desired
Placing a friendly arm around an injured Chhoti, I asked, “What can I do for you?”
She said, “I want some milk, Didi.”
I smiled and said, “Get up first, and let’s check your injuries.” When she stood up, I noticed she had a bleeding lip and nose and she’d sprained her ankle too. Limping as she was, I helped her get home.
When Sita saw her, she ran out and slapped her hard on her beautiful brown cheeks. Chhoti glared at her and rushed inside.
Sita thanked me and said, “What can I say? I can’t afford much, and all that matters to this girl is a glass of milk. She says she just needs some milk and that all will be well. She goes to the bazaar daily, begs for milk and gets beaten rather than receive any milk.”
I asked her if I could quickly go over to my house and fetch a glass of milk for Chhoti. Sita said nothing; she simply smiled and walked away. I went over to my house and upon seeing my mother hadn’t returned yet, I grabbed a glass of milk and ran back to Chhoti’s.
Sita had gone out to look for a job, as she did every day. I then ran towards an open window and shouted, “Chhoti, come here, I have a glass of milk for you!” Going by her expression, I knew she had no time to be surprised. She jumped with glee.
“Sit quietly, Chhoti! I don’t think Sita will be too pleased to see me by the window,” I said.
She did so, and finished the milk in one big gulp. I then took the glass from her and went back to my house.
Leaving for university
I would go and visit Chhoti every so often. And as time passed, our friendship grew closer. My mother and Sita became good friends too. On certain days, we’d spend hours talking, but the grills of the window were the only boundary we had. Everything else was exactly how two sisters would bond. It was all going well until my exams were around the corner. I then had to lock myself in my room and had no time to go over and meet Chhoti.
Yes, I was in class 12 at the time.
Two months had passed and I’d been unable to visit my dear friend. Suddenly one day, my mother came in to my room to tell me that Chhoti was at the door. I went to see her, and luckily, she looked well — just like when I’d last met her.
“Why don’t you come over to meet me anymore?” she asked.
I explained to her about how I was preparing for my exams. I also shared with her how a good percentage would allow me to apply for Oxford University in the UK. While I spent a short while catching up with her, I let her know that I would visit her as soon as possible.
She said nothing. Chhoti just smiled and ran in the direction of her house. Not too long after, my exams gave over and I visited Chhoti like I would do earlier.
Once the examination results were declared, I was ecstatic to learn that I’d passed with flying colours. Without losing time, I applied for Oxford, and thanks to my stellar grades, the university promptly extended me a letter of acceptance.
I was happy, and at the same time, I was upset too. The bitter sweet emotion I felt was probably because I would now have to break the news to Chhoti about my departure.
One evening, the two of us walked towards the park. As we strolled along, I clenched her left hand. I then cleared my throat and hesitatingly said, “You see Chhoti, I am, uh…”
But before I could complete my thought, she quipped, “You’re going to that big English school in London, right?” I nodded my head in acceptance.
Chhoti’s face wore a sombre expression. She looked down and said, “You will only go to London, but I shall go everywhere — to Hong Kong, Paris, America, San Francisco and London. I shall meet you there. Promise me you will keep in touch and meet me too.”
“Maybe you will go to all those places. And yes, we will meet there for sure,” I replied with a reassuring smile. She said nothing and left, running away as she always did. That was the last I saw of her, running away from nothing, her flimsy chappals slapping against the road. The wind was beating against her face causing her hair to fly.
What a pleasant surprise
Decades have passed since that breezy afternoon when I last saw Chhoti. I am 70 now, and am actively engaged with my philanthropic company. It took me several years to grow the organisation but it is a successful and well know firm today. I decided to finally settle in London, although I still maintain a home in Shantiniketan.
Looking back, I am proud of all my pursuits. I retired from my job a few years ago and now spend the bulk of my time with social causes and visiting my adult children who are married and settled in other cities.
As I sipped on my tea one afternoon, my secretary, Meena, came in and sat on the chair opposite me. She informed me there was someone who’d come in from Paris and wanted to meet me. In addition, the stranger also did not reveal her identity to Meena.
Since the visitor had come without setting up a prior appointment, I was a little annoyed at first. I usually like to know ahead of time how my entire day is going to be but on this particular instance, I decided to make an exception. I asked Meena to show the stranger in.
To my surprise, I immediately recognised the visitor as she walked in. She was Mrs. Anita Das — the founder and owner of a famous dairy company. I’d seen her on television often, I’d read about her in several publications and only recently, I recalled seeing a huge front-page advertisement about her business acumen.
As she came in the door, I motioned to her to take a seat. I must admit I was taken by her presence; she seemed one with a strong personality. “How can I help a famous businesswoman?” I asked with a curious smile.
“I shall reveal that in a bit,” she said as if trying to build up suspense. “But yes, as promised, I’ve already been to Hong Kong, Paris, America, San Francisco and London,” she continued. “You seem to have forgotten me, haven’t you? And although you’d promised, you never kept in touch.”
“Well, I am afraid I don’t recall what you’re referring to. Refresh my mind if you will, please,” I said.
“Well, you were my inspiration to start a dairy company. You gave milk to a poor girl. And that poor girl felt sorry for those who were less fortunate.”
“I then worked tirelessly to accumulate money,” Mrs Das continued. “As luck would have it, I won a lottery and received Rs. 2,00,000. I am sure you can now recognise your little Chhoti?”
I was overcome by emotion as memories from long ago came flooding back. Fighting back tears, I stammered, “Chhoti! How, how did you? Oh gosh! I have to write a story about you, if you allow me, of course. And I want to know every last detail of your story. But first, tell me, tea, coffee, or Coke?” I asked impatiently.
We hugged each other. And true to her old self, Chhoti went, “Coke? No, Didi, I still don’t prefer anything but milk. I want milk, Didi.”