“Hey!” she said in greeting.
“Hey!” he responded with a smile. “Warm day, huh?”
“Yeah,” she smiled back. “Find anything useful?”
“Nah,” he replied nonchalantly. “What about you? Collect anything today?”
“No,” she replied, her smile diminishing. “Not too many kind folks today.”
“Ha!” he laughed. “Fine pair we make. A beggar and a tramp!”
She laughed. It was difficult to stay sad around him. His exuberance was contagious. Ever since she first bumped into him two winters back on this very street, she had met him nearly every day, but she hadn’t seen him upset even once.
Life wasn’t easy. Food was hard to come by. There were several days when they went hungry. Shelter was a huge problem as well, particularly in the winters. But nothing ever dampened his spirits.
“By the way,” he turned to her, his expression suddenly grim. “Did you hear about that girl in Safdarjung Hospital?”
“What about her?” she asked.
“Seven men in a bus picked up a girl, thrashed her, gang-raped her and threw her out of the moving vehicle. She’s now fighting for her life in the hospital.”
“SHIT!” she exclaimed, horrified. She stared at him, struggling for words, her face writ with shock and disbelief.
“H…how did you come to know about this?” she stammered.
“Muthu. He saw the whole thing. He knew something was wrong and ran after the bus screaming his throat off, but no one gave a shit.”
The two looked at each other in silence.
“Men can be such animals,” she said quietly, tears welling up in her eyes.
He nodded solemnly. They spent another minute in silence.
“I tell you,” he said. “We are much safer than the women in this city.”
She looked at him silently.
“I mean, there’s hunger, there’s the winter, and there are these horrible drivers on the road, but I don’t recall a single incident as gruesome as this that’s happened with any of the roadside types I know.”
She wiped a tear off her cheek. “That’s true.”
“Well… there are horny chaps around us, there always are. But who does stuff like this yaar?” he exclaimed.
She agreed silently. He began prodding at plastic covers in the trash.
“Remember the time earlier this year, when those four a**holes from Pankha road got after you? They clearly wanted to have their way with you. Remember?”
“Yeah. And I asked them to get lost,” she said.
“Yeah. I still remember how they slunk away, ashamed,” he said, pausing as he remembered that day. “Shit like this never happens with us, unless you are literally asking for it.”
He poked at something on the ground, and looked up to peer at a plastic bag a couple of feet away near the middle of the road. “Oh well,” he said. “What is it to us?”
He smiled his cheerful smile at her, and leapt towards the plastic bag.
“Watch out!” she shrieked.
He skipped away just in time, barely avoiding the tires of the car that screamed past him.
“F**king dogs!” screamed the driver, sticking his neck out of the window. He spat angrily and threw an empty plastic bottle at them that they dodged easily.
“Are you okay?” she asked him after the car had disappeared. He sniffed at his hind leg.
“Yeah, just a scratch. I’m fine,” he said.
She watched him sit down and begin to lick the paws of his hind leg. A second later she made herself comfortable next to him in the triangle of sunlight that shone through the dense branches of the trees. It was a warm day indeed.