Some years ago, Khushwant Singh wrote on the subject of fathers and daughters. It went something like this: a daughter’s influence on the father is strong, stronger perhaps than any other, and it defies description.
The older I become and the more time I spend with my two daughters, the more I see how right he is. They were very young when one of them asked me, “Is the world a good place or a bad place?”
I did not know the answer then; I do not know it now. To have responded by saying it is a bit of both would have ducked the question. To have said that the world is a good place, a very beautiful place in fact, with only a few, very few ‘bad’ people, would have been unhelpful. And dishonest. To have said it is not such a good place, really, and has many very dodgy spaces and few really ‘good’ people, would have been insensitive. And perverse.
I could also have tried looking wise and asked her to examine what she means by ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But that would have taken the wonder out of her query. So I answered the question by silence, as I remember, except for saying she had asked a good question. That, of course, did not help her one bit. But I knew I had been influenced by that question. By its essential unanswerability.
When, a few days ago Mala Singh, herself a strong daughter, gave me a copy of Fatima Bhutto’s Songs of Blood and Sword, I found myself reading it as a father, a daughter’s father.
Towards the book’s end, there is a paragraph that seems to respond to my daughter’s question. “Sometimes,” Fatima Bhutto writes, “when it’s late at night, I feel… that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it... But the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave.”
Assassinations such as described by Fatima have scorched the lives of bereaved women. Beyond the world of the famously martyred, countless women, wives, daughters, mothers and sisters have had their worlds turn dreadfully dark as a result of terror, pogrom, insurgency and war.
And yet, we have heard it said, ‘Life goes on’.
Only those affected know how it ‘goes’.
There is one intersection of life in metropolitan India where ‘life’ indeed goes on. It flows in a ribbon of continuous movement that is required, every now and then, to take pause at what are called ‘traffic junctions’ or ‘traffic signals’.
In the topsy-turvyness of our lives, these traffic signals are also the scene of another activity. Some months ago, in Chennai, my three-wheeler had stopped at one of these junctions. In that throbbing wait of no more than a few seconds, a little girl wove her way into the road, twisting her tiny frame in between lorry, tempo, taxi, three-wheeler, two-wheeler, cart and limo. I was about to shout ‘Watch it, kid!’ when she fell flat onto the steaming tarmac. I thought she had fainted in the heat but no, she was up in a trice doing, in the narrowest of spaces between the traffic, a perfect somersault. I realised that this blithe girl with limbs of rubber was a street acrobat.
I could see she wore a thin coat of make-up that is not to be expected in a girl of her age. I shuddered at the thought of what the future held for her. Perhaps the ‘future’ had already taken hold of her. Perhaps the traffic signal had already signalled another ‘traffick’ for her? On the other hand, who knows, she could become an Anna Pavlova. But Pavlova was not born to the street.
Before I could think further upon it, the light turned green and every vehicle lurched forward. ‘Anna’ wove out of the traffic like a needle out of embroidery and disappeared into the crowd. In Delhi, this April, at traffic signals, little girls, brown hair matted, in tatters, came up routinely to the pulsating car I was in, tapped on the heated window, tiny fists extended asking for alms from its cool inside or trying to sell a bunch of roses wrapped in cellophane. Ironically, this was, most often, near the turning leading to Delhi’s Unicef office.
The amazing work that organisation does worldwide is beyond praise. As is the commitment of numerous government-run bodies, and NGOs such as one I am acquainted with in Kolkata, Future Hope. Streetchildren have had their lives turned around because of such interventions.
But the sheer numbers — estimates put the number of streetchildren in India at 15 million, the world’s highest, at a 15 per cent of the global count of streetchildren — make the challenge mind-numbing. In the relative cool of sundown when their parents count the girls’ coppers and settle down to a dust-laden meal of something under a flyover, will ‘life go on’ for these girls?
It might today, perhaps. But tomorrow? Everything for them could crumble. Abuse piled on neglect and exploitation atop vagrancy could finish what remains of their dignity in one eye blink. And they would want like Bhutto to ‘leave’. Leave what for where? But would they have a choice? Is there anything, anything at all, corresponding to the mynahs of Karachi that would make them see light filtering into their lives so they could say ‘I can never want to leave’?
I doubt that anything around traffic signals would want them to stay where they are. Not many mynahs chatter there. The murder of crows thronging and cawing overhead and around would not let them.
‘Is the world a good place or a bad place?’ has been for me an unanswerable question. Meanwhile, our traffic signals, where impatient India pauses, fuming, before surging ahead, raises questions that are not as unanswerable as they are unasked.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009
The views expressed by the author are personal