The magic between children

At a busy street corner, a fair distance from home, there are nearly always a bunch of street children hanging around, doing cartwheels for anyone who may want to tip them for it, coming around to the car windows and pressing their noses against the glass, shielding their eyes from the strong mid-morning sun and trying to peer in to gauge the possibility of getting some money.

Many years ago when the spot used to be part of my daily trudge to work in the centre of Delhi, I had become a known face. A young girl would always come up to have a chat about what she felt like eating on the day and I began carrying fruits for her. She wasn’t usually impressed by my wares – usually bananas or oranges – wanting chips or biscuits instead but was eventually satisfied if not pleased to take whatever it was I had.

Little T began noticing these children when she was about 2 years old and used to lunge and hide behind me or mum while wanting at the same time to take a peek.

When she was able to say what she wanted to – a couple of months ago – she asked what they were doing there, why their Mamma wasn’t around and why they weren’t wearing shoes.

I told her what I could and said there was no reason to duck and hide – that they meant no harm. She wasn’t entirely convinced but has tried since then to remain seated and more or less in the same position when the children come around asking for money.

One time, a particularly cheerful girl came by and nearly lunged her hand in to ask for money which absolutely terrified T. But when the little street girl noticed the effect what she had done had had on a fellow child (T) she cringed, tried hard to make eye contact with her and once she had coaxed T to look at her, broke into an impromptu jiggle to make T laugh.

For her sake, the lights didn’t change for a while or the row of cars in front of us didnt get to budge much keeping us stationary for quite a while. And it was only when this little girl saw T relax and smile back at her did she stop her theatrics, pleased to have broken a barrier, to have established between them the fact that she had meant no harm, especially not to T and that the two of them were after all, although separated so horribly and unfairly by so many privileges and inequalities, children first.

The memmory of that episde still brings a smile to my face – the series of expressions on that girl’s face – at first the embarrassment and sorrow for having turned off a child and then the glee and gratitude when the child she was trying to connect to yielded – and eventually generously – with the biggest smile.

In our daily race of living, it is so easy to not have the time to notice the special people children are. If only we could provide more and more of them the kind of space that that little anonymous girl on the street had created, by herself, for her and T, we would make this a better place for them and us.


The smell of freshly fried fish fingers at a cosy little elementary school in Rome.

The strong, pungent smell of garlic bread fresh out of an oven just beneath my parent’s one room flat on Via Panisperna.

The romance between Peter and Mauri on the winding stairs down from ours to the office below.

My gawking at them when they kissed wondering how they didn’t tumble-down the stairs while doing so.

The ancient, clunky lift in the well of the ancient building housing my father’s news agency and our flat above.

The sight of my father, thickly bespectacled, with scores of newspapers before him, and a cigar or cigarette perennially lit between his lips, impatiently turning the pages of what he was reading while smiling benevolently at me when I went by, on occasion, to hang out at his office.

My love of the sights and sounds of a busy newsroom.

A thick yellow light drenching my father and his colleagues. Their always seeming to be talking unnecessarily loudly in order to be heard above the din of typewriters, always clanking away in the background.

The wonderful smell of apple shampoo in our tiny bathroom.

The bubbles it made – fragrant and huge.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee from my mum’s little kitchen.

The noisy arrival of my father, his protegé, Peter, and other hanger-ons up the stairs, into our little flat, their heavy collapsing into the few pieces of furniture that we either rented or owned.

Long leisurely lunches filled with conversation and laughter often ending with someone or the other knocking down nearly empty wine flutes.

Peter playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Lennon and Genesis.

My father playing Ravi Shankar whom I distinctly remember he didn’t much care for, back home.

My playing for hours on end, behind the door leading to the small sitting room, with an immense and colourful UNICEF puzzle that consisted of putting a group of children’s hands correctly into each other’s, as they stood half-smiling at me.

The noise of Rome’s vegetable markets. The smell especially of celery.

The stink to my nose of its various meats.

The beautiful and delicious pastries down the street from home.

The numerous ice cream cones my mum and I devoured after she picked me up from a school bus-stop.

The dark, deep delight of chocolate.

The one time I travelled on the school bus with my classmate Peter to his home when mum wasn’t at the bus-stop.

His mother being so kind and attentive to me.

The game machines, rudimentary back then, in the ‘corner stores’ where I played and won small trinkets – which were always surprisingly appropriate to the desires of an eight year old girl – hairpins, rubber-bands, scented erasers.

The gorgeous stationary.

The Italian Pablo and the Spanish Pablo gifting me handcrafted leather-bound sets of colour pencils and deliciously thick crayons.

The tall, cold glass of milk at school.

My best friend Bianca so eager to learn English from me.

My embarrassment at being ‘too attached’ to my mother in comparison to her seeming independence from her own mammy. Feisty, bright-eyed, sun-speckled Bianca.

My insisting on wanting to see Venice as part of school ‘field work’ on Marco Polo.

The pigeons in Venice: so many, so tame, so willing to be fed.

One sitting on top of my head.

The wonderful way my father’s colleagues loved my mother. The open home she kept, the delicious food she made, the lovely saris she wore, the way she always made it seem as though working hard was fun, enjoyable and deeply satisfying.

The larger than life, Indian intelligence officer who loved to see me giggle when he drove us around, at great speed, in his always immense automobiles, always nattily dressed, always smelling of cigars and strong, manly perfume.

My mum getting drunk once. Really drunk. At an Indian embassy party. Her crying. My crying. My father trying to console us.

A window in the sitting room at home out of which I saw clothes flapping on lines tied between our building and the one next to it.

The easy banter between neighbours.

My speaking Italian easily, fluently. My becoming my parents’ translator.

People on our street calling out to me, ‘Ciao Bella! Indiana Bambina!’

My wanting to have ‘bangs’. The high-end barber at the end of our street turning red with embarrassment when my mum offers to pay for what he says ‘izz not, NOTTT a hair cut ATT ALLL!’

Visiting the British Council library and feeling at home in the midst of English language book titles.

Sensing, without being able to describe it, how ‘un-Italian’ the staff were.

The way the most ordinary streets were full of extraordinary beauty.

Door knobs, flights of stairs, water fountains, shop windows.

The way children were always ALWAYS heard and seen and loved.

The visit to English Vic’s Italian family.

The delicious pasta his large, gentle, bespectacled mum-in-law made. Ripe tomatoes, abundant garlic; the warm sun, the beautiful, golden Laura, then Vic’s wife. My little friend, with golden locks for hair, Lorenzo, their son.

Going out with Peter and Mauri in their car to the sea.

Riding on Peter’s back as he swam out, me shrieking in delight, him proud and happy like a young father.

Our returning late.

My worried parents.

A late meal at home. My falling asleep in the midst of it – listening to their conversation.

My writing a stupid letter to the Queen of England and handing it to Peter whose mum worked for the Queen!

My receiving a reply from her office thanking me for my wishes and my wonderful drawing!

And yet despite all this, a nagging longing for home.

My missing my aunts, the smell of earth, the rains, the trains, the people, the sounds.

Our journey back with Michella, my Italian speaking doll in tow.

Her ‘talking’ button accidentally coming on in the airport making for some embarrassed apologies from my parents and eventual joviality among the airport staff.

The flight home. Alitalia. My loving the way the word sounded and looked. So many A’s, all perfectly placed.

The memory of my aunts receiving us.

The feeling of time well spent in a magical world. Happiness at getting back.