Noor had a fortunate face. There was something in the set of her eyes and the curve of her mouth which elicited spontaneous acts of generosity. Her usual pitch was underneath the flyover on the road to and from Delhi airport. Of course she was not alone, but the others had learnt that it paid to let Noor to the front when the small crowd of children pushed into traffic to beg.
She was small and she had to stretch her cupped hands upwards towards the car windows, which were invariably lowered to enable a few coins to be dropped into her palms. Noor always ensured that she made eye contact with her benefactors and would reward them with a smile of such beatitude that the recipient would be left with a lingering sense of well-being. She would watch the vehicle as it was swept away in the lurching tide of traffic, its occupants feeling somewhat reconciled with the city’s imbalance of wealth.
Noor would attempt to run back to her spot under the flyover unchallenged, but the money would be snatched from her clenched fists by older and stronger children almost immediately. Despite this, they would look out for her and allow her to keep a few coins at the end of each day, as they knew a good thing when they saw it.
Noor showed no sense of dissatisfaction, for she had mastered the art of presenting an impassive front to those who might look at her. She locked away all thoughts and feelings deep within for this was her private treasure which no one else might take. So vigilant was she that she would not allow a word to slip from her lips. Occasionally she might emit an involuntary sound, but she never spoke, and found a deep sense of comfort in this self-imposed silence.
Noor’s apprenticeship to the art of self-containment had begun many years before. When she was just a few months old, her mother would lend her out for a fee. She would be dosed, in order to keep her still and quiet, and then laid naked on the burning pavement of Connaught Square. The woman renting her would sit in huddled and bowed shame next to Noor’s tiny, prone body. This was such a shocking confrontation with abject poverty to the tourists milling around this vestige of Empire; that it tended to provoke a donation.
Noor meditated on the faces of those who dropped money into her hands; some with skin as pale as that of gods in paintings. They moved past her as though constantly in transit, while she lived her life on the side of the road. It was not that she dreamt of things being different, it just seemed strange to her that there were those who moved in a different sphere. She enjoyed that small contact in the exchange of coins, as though she were dipping her hands into another world.
Jack sat with his father in the air conditioned taxi looking out at India; Delhi, which only hours earlier had simply been a flat image, and now he was in it. James, his father, had been supplementing Jack’s education with expeditions to places away from the usual holiday destinations, for he believed it was important to expose his son to the rich diversity of the planet.
Jack was now 15 and despite James’ kindly guidance was showing signs of wanting to find his own way. His enthusiasm for this trip had been somewhat muted, and James felt a distance growing between them. He knew it had to happen, but this child had been such a gift, arriving at a time in his life when one would not be surprised to become a grandparent. He seemed to be losing possession and dared not consider what changes the next few years might bring.
James pointed out the things they had seen on the internet at home as they had prepared for their adventure. It was all real. It must be for they had travelled for many hours in the silver tube whose doors had opened and tipped them out into this strange place. There were cows ambling in the heavy traffic, monkeys sitting on the roundabout and, as they drew to a halt in the congestion, dark eyes and small hands held in an attitude of supplication at the window. The taxi driver tutted at this last and after sounding his horn jerked the car forward.
Jack looked back at the owner of the eyes and hands. A small child stood dreamily in the pathway of oncoming traffic, while other children moved as one towards a tuc-tuc, which had stalled. Jack looked with confusion at his father, and James felt a slight sense of getting it wrong; he had spoken to his son about poverty, but it was suddenly all too visible, and they would have to tackle the dilemma of whether to give or not.
Renu had waited 16 long years for this; she was taking her granddaughter home. This at least was the phrase she had used in each previous attempt to persuade her daughter-in-law. She had insisted that Serena must travel with her to meet her Naani and Nani and Maasi, before it was too late. However, now she had actually achieved this remarkable conquest and was back in Delhi after 35 years, doubt floated about her in bubbles, ready to be burst open with the slightest prick, their dreadful contents to pour down on her.
Serena had only a vague understanding of her Indian heritage. It was her father’s mother who was Indian, and she now saw him only irregularly. Every summer she would spend a week in Leeds with her fussy grandmother and taciturn grandfather; the man who had won Renu’s heart and taken her away to the land of dreams to live happily ever after. Although the reality had not quite been that, they had muddled along well enough. Renu kept up an annual communication with her family in India, but there had been bad blood. The truth was that the whole family loved to argue, but what had begun with the enthusiasm of a game, ended in violent fury. There was also the family trait of stubbornness. No one would make the first move towards reconciliation and Renu’s failure to present him with his great grandchild was held up by her father as further evidence of her incompetency.
But all this was to change. The family had demonstrated some sympathy towards Renu, as she was now a widow. Her husband had died shortly after a devastating diagnosis and she felt the need to be close to her remaining family, as her immediate one had dispersed. All this coincided with Serena’s completion of school examinations and her acquisition of a boyfriend. All parties, apart from Serena and her beloved, agreed that this was the correct time to make a pilgrimage to the ancestral home.
And so the visitors occupied their time in Delhi.
Jack accompanied James to Old Delhi market, the Red Fort, and the Garden of Five Senses. They visited temples, drank tea in road-side shacks and paid homage at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial. They attempted to barter, ate paan and rode on the metro. They made the journey to that slovenly town, Agra, at whose centre is the sparkling, marble jewel, the Taj Mahal. They acquired Delhi belly, prickly heat and sometimes gave to beggars.
Meanwhile Serena lay on her great grandmother’s bed with her Nani beside her singing in her soft shaky voice and stroking her hair. Serena looked at the strangely beautiful images in carved wooden frames hanging on the walls, she breathed in the sweet scent of sandalwood and would have been soothed by the soft thrump-thrump of the fan spinning overhead, if it had not been for the raised voices in the other room.
Five days of shouting is more than enough for anyone to bear and Serena was not at all surprised to find herself prematurely in a taxi heading back towards Delhi airport, her grandmother trembling with anger beside her.
The road was grid-locked, even at this unearthly hour. As Serena turned in response to the tap-tap on the window of the car, she found herself looking into the eyes of a small child. Serena wound down the window in order to consider Noor further. Without a word between the two she emptied her purse of untouched Indian money into Noor’s palms. The child gazed at the older girl solemnly; then smiled her radiant smile. Serena reached out and held her hands over Noor’s, closing them tightly around the money, ‘Good luck,’ Serena mouthed, and quickly pulled her hands back into the car as the traffic jam inexplicably sprang into movement. She watched through the rear window as Noor ran to the side of the road and was held by one boy as another snatched the money from her hands. Noor dropped her arms to her sides and seemed to be looking at Serena as the car moved away from her. Noor became smaller and smaller, until they rounded a corner and she disappeared.
Passengers were assembling in the departure lounge at Delhi airport. Jack was feeling worldly wise after his travels and was more than a little bored with the company of his father; so he took his courage into his hands and attempted to strike up conversation with the attractively sulky girl in converse trainers.
‘You flying to England?’
Serena looked at the dusty boy with disdain.
‘Obviously. We all are. This is the departure area for Heathrow.’
Undeterred Jack tried again, ‘Been on holiday?’
He took her hesitation as further evidence of her aloofness, but the truth was Serena was uncertain what she had been doing in Delhi, did it even have a name?
‘I’ve been visiting relatives,’ she eventually replied.
‘Cool. Done much sight-seeing?’
‘No. None, in fact.’
James had overheard and shook his head. How could anyone come to this wonderful country and not make an effort to appreciate it?
Serena and Jack sat in different areas of the plane on the long flight back to England, each next to a gently snoring adult.
Serena looked into her mind’s eye and saw the coloured glass bangles on her Nani’s thin, brown arms and heard them jangling as she lifted her hand again to stroke her head.