As the young woman in the Bodi bus stand shuffled through the crowds, people pulled away and stared. Her hair was cropped and filthy and her faded nighty was torn, leaving her legs exposed. The cloth was felted with grime and sweat. People leaned from bus windows and pointed. The woman would growl and mutter, arguing with characters only she could see.
Rajakumari had never noticed her before. She and Tamil Arasi had come to the bus stand with hot meals for the homeless as the Blue Mango women usually did on Fridays.
It had been their own idea, women who know the sting of poverty, giving of their own income to cook food for the desperately poor, the mentally ill of the streets.
“She can’t be much older than my daughter,” Tamil Arasi said. “I would die if people stared at Inbumathi like that.”
“I wonder where her family is,” Rajakumari said. “Why don’t they protect her?”
“Maybe she committed a ‘chinna thapu’ and they threw her out. She’s obviously pregnant.”
“Or she’s so mentally ill, men have been doing asingamaana things. Let’s try to feed her.”
“What if she attacks us? Some of these types bite.”
“Well there’s only one way to find out.”
Rajakumari led the way to the young woman who was fiddling with her nighty sleeve while talking to a cinema poster.
“We’ve brought you some food, pa. Are you hungry?”
The young woman seemed to look right through them. She turned her face to the side, then drifted towards the opposite side of the parking lot.
A green RMTC bus roared into the bus stand, scattering the pedestrians and narrowly missing the young woman. She hardly seemed to notice. Passengers climbed down from the bus while others jostled to push up the steps. A conductor in khaki with his worn leather money pouch scolded them.
“What is this! Let the people off first. Theni, Andipatti, Usilampatti. Hurry up. Bus leaves in five minutes. Theni. Theni.”
Rajakumari turned to her assistant. “You start feeding that old woman over there. I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“We can’t just let that young woman walk around looking like that. I’m going to buy her a new nighty.”
Rajakumari pushed through a group of schoolgirls in purple uniforms and left the bus stand. She hurried past the line of yellow auto rickshaws. The drivers had learned from experience that you don’t heckle Rajakumari.
She passed the Kali temple near the fruit sellers, skirted the statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar in the main intersection, and walked into the nearest cloth store.
The owner, a somber man in his sixties, was sitting at the cash desk. The display cases were lined with bolts of colored fabrics and saris of all descriptions, from cotton plaids to silks garnished in gold.
“Sir, I need to buy a nighty right away. The problem is, I haven’t brought any money. Here’s my cell phone as collateral. I’ll pay you this evening. Can I borrow a scissors.”
He looked at her curiously.
“I’m from Blue Mango Woman’s Program and we were just serving some hot meals to the homeless in the bus stand.”
“I see. I see. Very good.”
Rajakumari described the state of the young woman and how the only way to remove her nighty would be to cut it off.
“Imagine how she must shiver in the winter air the minute the sun goes down. And the way people stare. Poor thing’s pregnant. Paavam.”
The owner asked his shop girl to bring Rajakumari upstairs to the ‘ready mades’ section. Rajakumari selected a nighty and held it up to her face. The fabric was soft and smelled like sunshine. She brought it down to the owner who wrapped it for her in newspaper.
“I’ll return these scissors within the hour,” she said. “Is it OK to pay you by 7:00 PM? I’ll have to go to the ATM after work to withdraw money.”
He looked at her with a kind expression and returned her cellphone. “Take this nighty and just give it to the woman. I don’t require any money.”
Rajakumari held her palms together. The shopkeeper placed his palms together too and bowed.
“Thank you madam, for allowing me to help in some small way.”
Rajakumari strode back to the bus stand and joined Tamil Arasi who had just started serving a thirty-year old woman.
When they were done, the Blue Mango women found the young woman sitting near a trash heap by a rough brick wall. A lactating mother dog with cream colored ribs was licking sour curry from a plastic bag.
“We’ve brought you a new nighty, dear. Come.”
Rajakumari took the young woman’s hand and brushed her fingers against the fabric.
“See how soft it is? This is yours. We’re going to help you put it on now.”
First Rajakumari gently put the garment over the woman’s head. No tightening of the muscles. No pulling away.Passengers gathered quietly to watch as Rajakumari andTamil Arasi helped slip delicate arms into the sleeves. People nodded their approval as the emaciated woman was enveloped with fresh color. Rajakumari gingerly inserted the scissors through the loose openings and cut away the smelly rags.
“It’s time for lunch,” Rajakumari said. “Sit.”
The woman settled on the pavement and folded her legs beneath her. Tamil Arasi poured water so she could wash her wash her hands over the drain. Rajakumari then spread a clean banana leaf in front of her and dished up a hot rice and sambar meal. The woman began to feed herself.
“When I see her, “ Tamil Arasi said, “I’m so happy Inbumathi is doing well in nursing school. After my husband died, I used to lay awake at nights paralyzed with the thought that I would suddenly die too. What if my daughter and son ended up like this?”
“I’ve often thought about that as well,” Rajakumari said. “At least my Jeyanthi finished teacher’s training and has a job. She was only a sixth grader when my husband collapsed and they carried him home dead.”
The breath seized in Rajakumari’s chest.
She steadied herself, then poured clean water into a plastic cup and offered it to the tiny figure who was gobbling up her meal. The young woman looked up into Rajakumari’s face.
A moment of clarity. A little nod.