We decided to send A out at the tender age of three to the store in our compound to buy one single item. It was only to teach her that she could do it. She was born fearless and off she marched to the shop determinedly and going down three flights of stairs she walked to the store which was about a hundred feet away. She handed over the ten rupee note (or was it a five rupee) to the assistant and brought the coconut back matter-of-factly. The triumph was what we felt. Five minutes later the assistant rang our bell and handed over the change. He said he had called out to A but she had ignored his call and walked away. We had told her not to talk to strangers after all and had forgotten to tell her about the change!
In Lucknow, when she was five, there was a day I sent her out to buy milk from the doodhwallah who sold government dairy milk in sachets. It involved going down our street and making a right turn where the milkman waited in the morning for his customers. S, the baby, was fast asleep and inclined to bawl loudly when he woke up and D was three but inclined to take refuge in her pillow when things went out of control. There was no harm lurking on Aliganj streets in those times as it was less a city than a village with long and wide roads which were usually empty. In hindsight I was very foolish (and I can never stop kicking myself even now and feeling the terror I felt on that day), in sending A to fetch the milk. She was smart and wise beyond her years even then and I must have overlooked her age and trusted only in her ability to negotiate anything new. I told her how to get to the milk booth and stood outside the gate but noises inside drew me into the house for a few minutes. I waited for much longer than I should have, then leaving behind S and D, I hurried to the milk booth only to be told that Baby had long since got the milk and left. Shocked, I stood on the road wondering if A had taken a wrong road and how was I going to find her. It must be clear by now that their father was not at home. He was away in some UP district on work. I was terrified that A might have wandered away and there was no one at all I could turn to for help in a strange city, without a telephone or a vehicle and not one person whom I knew. As I stared at the road that stretched far away towards Q Sector from B, completely empty at seven in the morning, I saw a yellow speck. A was dressed in her yellow skirt and top that morning and I desperately hoped it was her.
It was, and she must have seen me too as I stood in the middle of the road, and she walked towards me carrying the bag with the milk packet, and though she must have been a little nervous at having lost her way, she was less fazed by the whole event than I was. I can still feel the relief I felt at that moment and I am amazed that she had the common sense at the age of five to turn back at some point and return to where she had begun. Any other child would have stopped and cried. Of course by that time I already knew she was not just another child, but someone special.
We walked back home to find S wailing loudly and D trying to pacify him telling him “Don’t cry”.