Monita sighed loudly as she walked around their dinghy apartment. Her husband had wanted to move from their small village to the city, to give their son, Viraj, a chance to have a better education.
She missed the open spaces, the fresh air and the greenery of the countryside.
Here, the house was like a small dungeon, dark and cramped, with only two windows. The apartment itself stood on a dark alley that had hundreds of shapeless, colourless and formless buildings.
The incessant sounds of vehicle horns, traffic jams and the sounds of shouting and screaming neighbours, through the thin walls, grated on her nerves and drove her insane.
The alley below was unsafe; a number of street gangs operated in the area, and hence Monita went out only in daylight. People generally stayed at home after dark, though the street below, teemed with people even at night.
Her heart contracted in pain as she watched her son, forced to play indoors, as there was no play area or park close-by. He had no friends and she wondered if this move had been worth it at all.
Viraj’s birthday was next week and she silently vowed to herself that she would get him any gift he wanted, even if she had to spend a little more than planned. She would try and save up from her kitchen budget, anything to bring a smile to his face.
That evening, as they had dinner, she gently asked him what he wanted for his birthday.
He told her he would think and tell her soon.
A couple of days later, after school, Viraj stood on the small side table to look down at the street through the living room window. This was one of his favourite things to do. He loved watching the gang of street boys, who played a boisterous game of soccer on the street everyday.
He watched, his eyes shimmering with excitement as these lads played soccer on the busy street, weaving their feet and the ball through the narrow alley and around pedestrians and bicycles and bikes. Their excited voices echoed off the walls as they ran up and down.
The boy knew what gift he wanted. He went up to his mother and said, “Mom, I know what I want for my birthday. I want to go down and play a game of soccer with those boys.”
Monita was shocked and surprised. The boys who played below were part of a street-gang, was what she had heard. She had seen them loafing around without purpose. Her neighbours had also warned her that they carried bicycle chains and knives with them.
She tried convincing Viraj to ask for a gift that he could keep with him, like a toy or a board game or a book. But no, Viraj stood his ground.
What was a mother to do? Her husband told her that she was giving Viraj’s request too much importance and that she had to be firmer with him.
The more she thought about it, the more confused she was. Two days before the birthday, as she walked to the vegetable market, she saw the boys sitting just outside her building, guffawing and talking.
She observed them – they wore tattered clothes, some had shoes, others had none. Their football was worn out and looked a little deflated. They must have been between 13 and 16 years of age.
They carried on their conversation, mindless of her presence. Her mind vacillated. But then, she remembered her son’s face. There was no harm in asking the boys; after all one game of soccer was not going to change Viraj in anyway.
She walked up to the boys and said, “Excuse me. Can I ask you something?”
The boys looked shocked, it was probably a first for them; that one of the residents had spoken to them.
She said, “My son, Viraj, has his birthday day after. He wants to play a game of soccer with you all. He watches you everyday. Could you include him in your game this Friday?”
The boys still looked confused. Finally the oldest one spoke up, “Sure, why not. Of course he can play with us on Friday.”
All the boys smiled and nodded.
Viraj was very excited and couldn’t sleep a wink till Friday. He came back from school, got ready and looked down to see if the boys had arrived.
Finally at 5.00 pm, the gang showed up. They looked upwards. Viraj took that as the sign for him to go down, and he went down with his mother.
He had the best 2 hours of his life, as the older boys made him a hero and passed the ball to him at every opportunity. Sweating and happy, he said bye to all of them.
Monita thanked them and asked them if they would come up to her house for five minutes. The boys looked uneasy but persuaded by Viraj, they trooped up the stairs.
Monita had bought a beautiful cake, french fries and ice cream. Viraj cut the cake. Initially, the boys were too shy to eat..slowly they started.
One of them said, “Thank you. This is the first time I’ve attended a cake cutting.” The others nodded.
They murmured amongst themselves and appeared tongue-tied and lost.
Where was all the bravado and confidence they showed on the street?
All she saw in her home was a group of young, vulnerable boys, who probably came from broken homes or had no homes, who had to act tough to survive life on the streets.
They left soon after, walking down the stairs, back to the streets.
A couple of days later, when Monita went down to check the mailbox, there was a letter from the Managing Committee of their building reprimanding them for endangering the residents by their activities. The letter went on to warn them that if they continued such activities, they would have to look for other accommodation.