Naina Rai, Assistant Professor of Counselling Psychology, was in a cab and on her way to her first lecture of the morning at the Willingdon College when she received the call. She didn’t recognize the number but she took the call anyway. A harsh voice spoke in her ear, ‘Naina Rai?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. For a few seconds, she listened to what the person on the other end said to her and then hung up with a cursory ‘okay’. A frown crinkled the large, round vermilion teeka on her forehead. Her velvet brown eyes had a determined expression in them, and her full lips—usually adorned with a broad welcoming smile—were pressed tightly together, making them seem almost bloodless. She tapped the cab driver on his shoulder and said, ‘Bhai saheb, please turn the taxi towards Ballard Estate.’
‘But, madam, you said that you wanted to go near the museum!’
‘Yes, I know, but the plan has changed. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you the full fare.’
Reassured, the taxi driver turned on to P.M. Road and made his way towards Ballard Estate. Under instructions from Naina, he drove to a small chai shop on Kumtha Street at the back of Ballard Estate. Naina got off the taxi and the proprietor of the chai shop, who was sitting at the counter near the entrance, looked up to see the upmarket lady enter his humble establishment. He was even more surprised to see Naina walk directly to the back of the shop, towards the kitchen. Before he could say anything, she had walked into the small open space behind the kitchen where a scrawny young boy was scrubbing large copper utensils. Naina walked up to the boy and threw the utensils aside with a loud crash. The boy looked at her, shocked. ‘Madam, I’ll lose my entire month’s salary!’ he squealed.
Naina replied, ‘Raju, my name is Naina. I’m going to get you out of here, don’t worry.’ She held his arm and signalled him to follow her into the kitchen. The chai shop owner and a cook had gathered their wits by now and blocked Naina’s path to the front door. The incredulous owner enquired, ‘Madam, where are you taking him?’
Naina fixed him with a steely stare and said coldly, ‘Under the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, Raju is not supposed to be working here. You are committing a crime.’
The chai shop owner didn’t back down. Instead, he got into a heated argument with Naina. Inside the chai shop, two men sipping their chai at a table shook their heads in disgust. The older one of the two said, ‘These NGO people, tsk, tsk…’ The younger man nodded and said, ‘The young boy was earning his keep. Now he’ll rot in a remand home.’ A little while later, when they realized that tempers had really flared to an unmanageable degree, the two men got up from their table and went towards the kitchen. They tapped the chai shop owner on the shoulder and introduced themselves as police constables. Naina turned her ire towards the policemen. Scolding them, she said, ‘Why do you people always arrive late?’
The two policemen looked apologetic. ‘Madam, we were just finishing our tea. This is our first cup since morning.’ The older cop handcuffed the indignant chai shop owner and began to lead him out of the shop. But as the owner passed him, the younger policeman whispered in his ear, ‘You will be back by the evening. Don’t worry.’ Naina, however, didn’t hear what he said as she was busy escorting the bewildered Raju out of the shop.
Out on the street, a small crowd had gathered hearing the commotion in the chai shop. Naina ignored the crowd but she turned to Raju when he managed to gather courage and ask a meek question, ‘Madam, what am I going to do now?’
Just as he asked this, a matronly woman in a white and blue starched cotton sari stepped out of a van, the side of which read ‘Child Protective Organization (CPO)’. ‘Don’t worry, Raju. Mrs Malthi here will make sure that you have a bright future. You will be in good hands with her team.’
Mrs Malthi gave Raju a beaming smile and Raju smiled back. ‘Go with her, Raju. I’ll look in on you from time to time. Call me if you need anything.’ Raju reached out and gave her a tight hug. ‘Thank you so much, Naina didi. I hope I can pay you back some day.’
Raju got into the van with Mrs Malthi and left. Naina hailed a cab with a proud smile that lit up her face.