It had been a particularly long, tedious day. Long meetings, unhappy clients, grumpy boss, colleagues off sick.
World-weary and tired, Rashmi slowly made her way down the steps of the office. Her complete focus was on mounting her two-wheeler and riding home to a hot cup of tea.
While she was fumbling in the dark for her keys, her mind registered a man's voice asking somebody a question in Marathi, somewhere in the distance.
Language is a strange, and very powerful, weapon. It can pierce the realms of your subconscious mind with surprising speed.
She had only just started wondering what the words were, when the voice rang out clearly again, closer this time, "Do you know Marathi?" spoken in broken Hindi.
She noted quite a bit of desperation in there, and her keys were forgotten for the moment.
She strained to hear the reply, spoken in a tone not really unkind, but quite short nevertheless- "Marathi? Who's going to speak in Marathi here, man?
Please move out of the way, I need to go home"-followed by the unmistakable sound of an engine revving and taking off.
She just knew, before she heard him, that the man was now directly behind her, posing the same question: "Do you know Marathi?
" In that split second, her instinctive desire was to deny any knowledge of the language and just shake her head no, not wanting to get caught up in any conversation,
let alone one with an utter stranger in that dark parking lot. Nevertheless, she turned automatically nodded .
His thin face lit up with relief, hope, joy, trust, and determination-all these emotions appearing in a ripple across his sunken cheeks.
Out of nowhere, seemingly, there appeared a bony young woman as well, holding a small girl, probably 4 years old, by the hand.
"Uma, did you hear this lady? She speaks Marathi"!! "Yes, I heard, I heard" so saying, she burst our sobbing.
Rashmi was nonplussed and even a little embarrassed by this display of emotion, clueless about the role she was meant to play.
That's when the man looked at her earnestly, folded his hands and said in Marathi, "Tai (meaning elder sister in Marathi), we hail from Malvati, a small village in Latur, Maharashtra.
I came here with my family because I was promised a job by somebody in my village at a construction site.
He accompanied us to Delhi and then helped us board the metro to come here so that we could be taken to the site and start working.
But when I came here, there was no job-there was a man at the station, but he just asked us to go back where we came from because their project is stalled...
we have been staying in this parking lot for the last two days. I tried to ask around for some work, but nobody understands my language....
" He struggled to keep his tears in check at this, and his voice broke while saying that his child had not eaten since that morning-their paltry supplies had run out.
His little girl just stood mute, clinging on to her mother whose tear-stained face was now looking at Rashmi with anxiety.
Rashmi generally ignored beggars and simply never fell for any sob stories. But something made her ask the bedraggled man what he planned to do next.
Pat came the reply, without a moment's hesitation, "Whatever it takes to make sure my family does not go hungry again tonight. May I clean your scooter in exchange for Rs.
20? I will be able to buy a couple of packets of biscuits with that amount".
Rashmi was at a loss for words. She had been fully prepared to hear a plea for money. But just 20 bucks? Really? And he wanted to earn it! Her decision was made then and there.
She felt compelled to hand over all the cash she had- just over 1000 rupees plus some change to this brave man holding on to his last shred of dignity.
With eyes as round as saucers, he protested that it was too much, he could never repay the amount. He came here to earn a living, not beg.
His child was watching, and no, he could not set this kind of example for her.
She'd think her father fleeced money from strangers! In that moment, Rashmi and the poor worker were no longer strangers. He was a parent, just like her.
She understood his anguish and marvelled at his strength-he was still trying so hard to demonstrate the right values to his daughter!
The child was too innocent to understand the enormity of his spirit, but her mother's smile of love and pride in her husband was dazzling.
Rashmi wished with all her heart that she could help in a more meaningful way. She wished she had been capable of bringing about some actual change in their lives.
For now, money was the only semblance of support she could offer though. With a little wave to the whole family, she rode away towards home.
The fading voices of the couple, full of blessings and good wishes, kept ringing in her ears.
She was full of gratitude for that important life lesson... in exchange for just a few scraps of paper.