You go downtown to buy yourself some books and beer. Yes, it’s an evening for vices and kicks (wisekicks?).
After gorging yourself at the Premier Bookshop, you’re ready for beer. You turn the corner and walk down Church Street. The evening crowd is beginning to thicken. As you’re about to follow the invite of the Carnatic music and climb up the stone steps into Coconut Grove, you’re stopped by a girl.
She’s pretty as the setting sun. Dressed immaculately in turquoise. Selling flowers. Speaks impeccable English. And, oh, she’s twelve or thereabouts.
It’s ten bucks to the rose, but you cannot refuse. Because you sense an urgency buried under her calm and pleasing demeanour, a quality that whispers like a distant waterfall. You ask her a couple of questions and learn a little about her life. She attends school in the morning and sells roses in the evening. She’s been doing it for many years now. No, she isn’t scared.
The last answer is given on the trot, for she spots another customer and hails him. A middle-aged man. Who puts an arm around her shoulder and caresses her. Makes her walk alongside. Bends to talk to her, till he’s a whisker away from kissing her. Meanwhile, his hands continue exploring. The girl neither turns away nor conveys alarm.
You watch, and beg your legs not to turn into jelly. The girl’s past-present-future flashes in front of your eyes. You turn away, walk up the stone steps. Beer. Need beer. A moment later, you find your jelly feet firming up, returning down the stairs, and walking towards the middle-aged man and the 12-year-old girl. You stop two feet away. You gaze at the man intently. He ignores you for 30 seconds, then asks, ‘Yes?’
‘It’s not right, what you’re doing,’ you say.
Your “insinuation” finally “dawns” on the man. He’s outraged.
‘Bastard and all that! How dare you? I’ve known her for years. Ask her,’ he shouts. Some people halt and watch.
‘Is that right? Do you know him?’ you ask the girl.
She nods-shakes her head. She doesn’t know which side to take. The man shouts some more, then seeing no response from you, ups the ante. He now wants to beat you to pulp if you aren’t careful. You ask him to back his claim. He sizes you up and decides against it. He walks away, but he’s still outraged. Such allegations against such a decent man.
The girl has also disappeared through the cracks in the confrontation. Her “Uncle” must have watched the scene from a short distance. Uncle has a busy job. He has to make sure the girl – and others like her – delivers profits every day. When required, he brokers peace with (or wages war against) troublesome stakeholders of the street: cops, rivals and busybodies like you. He ferries the young girls and boys from distant suburbs every evening, and ferries them back late in the night, once they’ve sold their entire clutch of flowers. And from all accounts, he doesn’t mind the occasional groper amidst the public. Such folks indirectly train the girl for what lies ahead, her true calling, which could begin – why! – next summer.
These details, you’ll learn later. For now, you’ve borrowed outrage from the middle-aged man. You want to do something. You think this must be featured in newspapers. That would change the situation, huh? So you call this Page 33333333333 newspaper, which is situated right around the corner. You’re patched through to the beat journalist. She listens to your story, but only till you’re into your third sentence.
‘Oh yes, the rose girl in turquoise. I know.’
‘Will you, er, do anything about it?’
Not possible. They’re fine. It’s a benign operation run by that nameless Uncle. No need to worry.
You call friends with a more proven ability to feel outrage. Fifteen minutes later, you have the number of three NGOs and the Child Helpline. The latter is not available (after hours). The NGO representatives are sympathetic, even, yes, outraged. But, in direct and oblique terms, you’re told that you (and they) have no locus-standii. They would, of course, fare better than you when reporting the incident to a cop. Only slightly better. And with preparation, proof and all that, they could actually get custody of the girl. But it won’t happen in a jiffy. Not tonight. Not without a prolonged fight.
You slap the back of your head. Hard. You live in a country where even the father does not have locus-standii vis-a-vis his daughter unless the mother’s happy with him. You must shed your illusions. Fast.
Beer. You need beer.