They loved looking out to see places flashing by so fast. It gives them a glimpse of what life could have been. Though for a brief moment, they realized there is a different story for each individual they saw. It appears that everyone seems to have a clear plan. People always gave the impression that they are dealing with something that is very crucial. Most people looked like they have a clear forethought to understand what is that they need to do with their lives.
In those faces, Billi and Jyothi saw the comfort of having people that they can call their own. To these kids, it doesn't matter how well each individual dress. It doesn't matter what vehicle they rode, or how big a house they lived in. For them, to be recognized as part of a community is the biggest gift. Every time when someone smiles at them, they feel that they have a chance at life. They have heard kids in the public playground saying how they wish to be invincible. For them, being recognized is the most difficult part. They know what it feels to be invisible. It wasn't too much fun.
Once the boy has asserted that the man wearing the black coat has moved on to another compartment, he ushered Jyothi to get on with it. The coast is clear now. It was time to make money for someone.
The kids go to each and every passenger begging for money. When they see a parent with a toddler they linger on as that is what they are taught to do. It goes the same with people who are eating, with elderly people, when a young man travels with a girl, and people who wear sunshades or have their earphones plugged in. They look for signs and not the individuals when they are working. It's like they are following a set of guidelines.
The two go all the way in different paths and then trade places. Since some compartments are closed from the inside, they wait for the next station, so that they can get down and enter from the outside. The police usually don't give them any hindrance. It's just the man in the black suit who goes to each asking for tickets. The kids try to avoid him as much as possible.
When the station near the lake comes, they understand that it is time to go back to the starting point. After two more stops, they need to get off and take the next train back.
"How much did you get?" he asks. She takes out a belt made of cloth from her waist.
"It's almost half filled," tells Jyothi and gives it to him. Billi weighs his waist bag with her.
"Mine is heavier. You take mine, or else Anna (elder brother) will put you up with someone else." They exchanged the bags and got off at the next station, and got on the train that they usually take. This time they didn't beg. They just enjoyed the view of the different landscape and the setting sun.
"Move away from the door side!" said a stout man as he kicked aside Billi. The man then got down from the halted train and seemed perturbed. He looked here and there, and then finally decided to get back in. The kids quickly moved away as he made his way in. He got in the restroom and slammed the door. A moment of silence was broken by loud noises of flatulence. It went on and on to the amusement of the kids, who burst into a state of laughter. Then the train started to move.
"Look, the driver thought it (flatulence) was the signal for the train," said Billi laughing uncontrollably.
As they reached back. it was almost nighttime. They got down the station, walked through the city, admiring all the glitz and glamour of the urban world. The concrete jungle seemed too much for them to comprehend. They walked as fast as they can towards the alley nearby.
In the alley were houses all around. Most of them had only one room. Some of these houses had too many occupants in them. The kids loved to eavesdrop or peek through the window whenever they passed by. Some spoke in a tongue they did not understand. At times, it would make them chuckle. Especially when Billi imitated them.
"You are my sun, you are my moon. I will take care of you even if the earth crumbles and the heaven collapses," said a mother to her child. Billi and Jyothi saw her then kiss her cheeks. They then walked away from that window without saying much to each other.
As they approached their slum just under the bridge, they could immediately figure out that they were late. "Come, come," said Anna, who approached them. "Go stand in the queue and have some rice porridge." He gave them two bowls.
"I'll give you today's collection," said Billi.
"No, eat first. I'll count later." Few of the beggars were ahead of them. The queue advanced fast.
"Anna, you will get me in trouble. All the wandering around and this girl is still fair in color," said Suma who was serving the food. "I kidnapped this child from this state itself. What if her relatives identify her on the train?"
"That was 5 years ago! The child looks different now," he argued.
"Well, I can't go to jail. Cut her nose or something. Change her appearance. Or else, we will all regret it one day."
"What are you saying in front of the child? I have been doing this for years. Just serve the food. Everyone in this slum is my responsibility. Let her be. Disfiguring her could only bring in more attention."
The kids listened to this impassively. That is how most in the slum would react. No one ever raises their voice. It draws attention from the outside. The slum has never witnesses a bedlam. Those who break that rule never see the sunrise.
Jyoti lay beside Billi with a smile. Helooked for a star in the sky. As the city never sleeps, they hardly get to see those nowadays. "When will we grow up?" she asked him.
"I have heard that you need to eat well to grow up."
"Where did you hear that from," she asked with curiosity.
"I don't remember, but it is true."
"If that's so, how will we ever grow?"
Billi thought for a while. "There is a way." He looked at her and spoke in a low voice. "There is a way. We will make more money and buy milk and bread from the station when we return. We will eat it on the way and tell no one about it." Jyothi had a hundred questions in her mind. She trusted him so much that she didn't feel the need to ask.
"Okay," she said with a smile. They slowly drifted to sleep.
The next morning they went on the same train. This time they would work harder. No one will be left alone. They will plead and plead. If anyone were sleeping, they would pull on their shirt and wake them up. They will smile and beg for change.
Jyothi would even beg to other beggars. At one point, an elderly woman and the kid were begging to each other at the same time.
Billi too was so caught up in the moment that he hardly realized that he was in the vicinity of the man in the suit. The man stood in the aisle near the restrooms and watched the kid go from one person to another. Soon, he collided with the man. Billi wanted to run away at first. Then he thought of Jyothi.
"Please give me something," he begged. The man in the suit was taken aback. He put his hands on the hips. Then he took some coins from the pocket and gave him.
"Don't come again, understand?" said the man and walked away.
After some time, the boy realized that the station he usually gets off has passed by. He gets off at the next station and ran towards the compartment where they usually start from. As he reached there, he found that Jyothi wasn't there. He searched for her and found her still begging. He got hold of her and told her that they need to get off at the next station. So they went towards the doorway and waited to get off.
The kids have never been so far. They got off at this station, where no one seemed to be around. Hours went by, but no train to the way back seems to stop in the station. It was getting late into the night. They were famished and exhausted. They almost fell asleep when a train arrived. As they embarked it, they felt a relief like never before. They still feared what Anna will have to say about this. He might even split the duo from now on.
Billi decided that he will hand over all the day's collection to him so that they could stay together. The girl thought this could work. Then they realized the train was almost empty. It was as if this ride was entirely for them. This made them really happy.
They ran around the train and sat on different seats, where they remember seeing certain passengers sitting. They imitated to be college students, office workers, spoke gibberish, and pretended to be husband and wife.
"What's going on here? Honeymoon?" asked one of the two men who approached them seemingly drunk. The kids were petrified. They looked around. No one was around. "Say, does child marriage still exist amongst the beggars of India?" mocked the man to his friend. "Billi noticed a police shirt that was wrapped in a paper held by the man. They sat beside the children in a way that they can't run away. "So tell me. What do you know about marriage?" The kids were trembling.
"They sure seem to know everything. These days kids learn everything about lovemaking," said the other man.
"Really? Do you?" asked the man to the kids. The kids were breathing heavy. "It seems they don't know much. What is your name, boy?"
"What kind of a name is that?" he said, laughing with his friend. "My name is James. This is my partner, Vineeth." He then picked up Billi and moved him to the other side of the seat, drawing him closer to Jyothi. James caressed her cheeks and smelled her hair. "She smells like rotten tomatoes," he commented. They laughed boisterously.
"Listen, girl, when are you planning to become a mother?" asked Vineeth.
"How is that possible? Billi can't even blow a whistle. How do you expect him to make a child?" James remarked.
"Well, then we should help her have a baby. One more child means better business, more sympathy."
"What on earth are you saying, Vineeth? She is barely old to conceive."
"Really? That is sad," said Vineeth.
"I mean, I'm not sure. Why don't you try?" Vineeth concurred. James turned to Billi and held his arms. "Don't worry. We will help you become a father."
"Listen kid, you should understand something. If we want something, we take it. At least, we are being nice about this. Do you know that in this country nobody cares about all these? This happens to even small girls of good families. It is the new law of nature. Most of the parents don't even complain. So just take it easy. At least we are considering you despite being rotten beggars."
"I will tell on you. If you do anything, then you will have it!" shouted Billi. The men laughed. James slapped him across the face. He fell hard on the ground.
"I just told you, even if she dies, nobody cares." Billi lay motionless. They then turned to Jyothi. "Don't worry child. Just take it easy," he said trying to lift her skirt. She resisted and tried to push them. They tried again and she did the same. James got angry and choked her all of a sudden. "It doesn't matter whether you are alive or dead. We will have our fun anyways."
Billi jumped on them and poked at James' eyes with his tiny fingers. James throws him with pain temporarily blinded. This causes his elbow to hit Vineeth's nose. He too fell back. Billi was quick to get up and take Jyothi's hand and tried to escape with her. They ran from one compartment to the other. There was no one in the train. They couldn't advance further as the passage was shut. The men who came running behind them have now approached them. They stood in front of them.
"No more running. Just come to us. All we have is love for you," said James. Billi looked at Jyothi. She looked back with teary eyes. He felt helpless and heartbroken. He knew he had to do something.
"I will take care of you if the earth crumbles and even if the heaven collapses," he said. She smiled at him. He smiled back and kept gazing in her eyes. Billi then pushed her out of the doorway. She fell out of the train as he looked on. She got sucked in right under the moving train. Billi saw that with his own eyes. The two men were shocked to see this. They got scared and pulled the chain to stop the train. They then ran out of the train before anyone approached.
Billi sat on the footboard outside the doorway. He didn't cry. He looked above at the sky. He could see the stars now. One of them appeared to be twinkling. "Jyothi," he called the star in his feeble voice.