People are often surprised by how busy Haji Ali Dargah is in the afternoon. Though Mumbai’s sweltering heat tests even the most devout visitor’s resolve to visit the dargah when the sun’s rays are at their UV-loaded best. The dargah lies about half a kilometre out on a rock in the sea to the west of the Haji Ali traffic signal.
It is quite a sight to see people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder walking up and down the narrow path that snakes into the sea all the way to the dargah. It is said that a person of any faith who walks along that path with an open heart and pays obeisance in the dargah’s inner sanctum will surely be granted their wish.
At 4.30 pm, Tulika sat on the parapet of the shorefront promenade that faced the dargah. She suddenly wished she could join the people taking their faith-laden steps towards the dargah. Only as recently as a few years back, management finally allowed entry to women into its inner sanctum. Tulika itched to offer a holy chadar in the inner sanctum and make a wish for Karan’s safe recovery.
Instead, she stayed put on the wall, her head covered by her dupatta to block out the sun. She had her mobile phone in her hand, pointed towards the sea. A casual observer might have thought she was photographing the dargah. But she was actually waiting for the call she expected any second. Tulika was completely unmindful of the scalding hot sun and the armpit-drenching humidity. Neither of these was more harrowing than the day she’d had.
Early that morning, as instructed by the man on the phone, she had made her way to her school. Instead of going to her classes, she hung around the main playground adjoining Azad Maidan. There, she took out her mobile phone and scrolled to the smiling close-up photograph of an eight-year-old boy.
The boy in the photograph was Sonu Dalmia, a student in the fifth standard. As per the information she had received from the man on the phone, Sonu was very fond of playing football. Tulika spotted little Sonu standing in position at the far side of the field among the knot of boys kicking around a football.
As she started walking towards Sonu, the man’s voice played in her ears. “Apart from football, Sonu loves kulfi from Parsi Dairy Farm. Take him there.”
As Tulika neared Sonu, the soccer coach whistled twice, signalling the end of the game. The little boys started rushing in the direction of the school. Sonu was just a couple of feet away from Tulika when she called out to him. “Sonu?”
He stopped and turned towards her. He recognised her from school, so he smiled as he said, “Yes, miss?”
Tulika smiled back. “Having a good time?”
The innocent look on the little boy’s face had made Tulika’s throat dry, but she managed to say, “You know what? I am heading to Parsi Dairy Farm for a snack. Would you like a kulfi?”
She saw temptation wriggle its way to Sonu’s face as he replied, “But, miss, I have class.”
Tulika gave him a reassuring smile. “Oh! That’s Miss Rameshwari’s class, right? I’ll speak to her.”
Sonu hesitated for a fraction of a second but almost immediately decided that he was game. “I like the kesar-pista flavour, miss.”
“Sure,” said Tulika and tousled his hair, quickly leading him away from the group of boys heading towards the school.
The guilty Tulika fed him two helpings of kulfi, hoping that he would not get an upset stomach. While Sonu was wolfing down the last bits of the kulfi, Tulika’s phone rang again. She raised the phone to her ear and heard the man say, “After the kulfi, take him for a movie.”
Tulika made an excuse and coaxed young Sonu to accompany her to Metro, the cinema multiplex nearby, for the latest animated movie. She bought him a packet of popcorn and sat him down next to her. She watched him laughing away at the antics unfolding on the screen. She was not interested in the movie at all. The stress of the situation and the fear that she felt in her gut made her keep looking around to see if anybody had noticed that the child was not hers.
Her mind went over and over the additional instructions that the man had given her before she headed to the movie. :If I don’t call by the end of the movie, take him to the amusement area in Sobo Central Mall and let him have some fun on the rides.”
Sonu enthusiastically accompanied her to the mall and tried each and every game and ride that he was allowed on. His expression of unadulterated joy made Tulika feel better about what she was doing, but only just.
Her phone rang again after about an hour. This time, the man said, “Take him to the Ronald McDonald bench outside McDonald’s. Make him sit on the bench and walk away.”
Tulika was aghast. “But how can I just leave him?”
The man cut in authoritatively. “Just do as I am telling you, and everything will be fine. Go to the sea-wall parapet opposite Haji Ali Dargah and wait for my next call.”
Reluctantly, Tulika had called out to Sonu, who wanted to have another go on the ride he was on. She gently steered him down to the McDonald’s on the ground floor of the mall. There she bought Sonu a large packet of French fries and made him sit on the bench. While Sonu was happily engrossed in his French fries, she turned and left.
All the way from the mall to the sea wall, she kept glancing back in anguish and fear, praying that nothing would happen to Sonu.
Now, two hours later, she was still waiting for the call. As each minute passed, the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach lowered itself deeper and deeper.
Excerpted with permission from Girls of Mumbaistan Piyush Jha, Westland.