Today is Sunday, our outing day. I usually take my five-year-old daughter Neha to the beach, and we spend our evening time together. We used to sit amidst the crowd, enjoying the waves touching our feet, slowly inhaling the scent of the salty breeze. Neha used to play with the partially wet sand, sitting next to me with profound attention, like a scientist experimenting in her lab. We used to spend our time till the sky turned dark and till the sea turned into a thin silver lining below the moonlight.
The long walk on the sand tends to leave us thrilled and energized. We used to return to our home with our heart contended, but only after Neha enjoys her favourite ice cream. It had become a ritual, Neha and her ice cream during our outing. They were inseparable. Like a flower and its scent. Like honey and it’s sweetness. Like seawater and its saltness. She used to hold the ice cream in her hand gracefully, and remove the wrappers delicately, like a goldsmith working on his jewellery. She treasures that moment and used to look like she is recording everything on her memory, like writing a diary to keep a track of her happy moments.
However, today she doesn’t want to go to the beach. Instead, she insisted that we visit the shopping mall. Not that she was bored of the beach, but because the mall was newly opened, and there is quite a lot of buzz going around the city about it. I hesitated. But she pleaded, making a face, like a puppy facing his master. Her innocent, large and dark eyes did some magic. It always did, whenever she asks for something and I knowingly fall for it, like a viewer hypnotized by a magician. Who could say no to that face? So, I agreed, and we set out for our new modified outing.
As we walk to the bus stop from our home, I slipped. Not that I was careless, but because of the slippers I wear. I look down at the pathetic condition of my one-year-old pair of slippers, which is begging me every day for its retirement. The initially whole black slipper had faded and had now turned into an untidy grey. It is blanketed with a shroud of dust, like an unused car abandoned on the road for several days. The plastic had worn out and had become rigid, like an aged wood suitable for solid carpentry. Like a hard metal difficult to mend. Like a black rock on the hills. The sole had been ripped and had almost reduced to half of its original size. The grip had become so feeble, and it makes me slippery even with slight wetness on the floor. Now my overused, energy drained slipper, is on the verge of losing its final breath. I could see the strap hanging loosely and attached to the sole only by a delicate thread, like a spider web. Neha looks at me anxiously and then at my legs puzzled.
“Appa, what happened?”, she asked.
“It’s nothing dear. Just the slippers”, I replied consolingly
I know that it’s time for my slippers to die and to be free of its hard-working labour. I should replace it today, or I will be forced to walk barefoot. I mentally calculate the money left in my purse. I am left with Rs.250. Rs.20 per ticket for the bus ride to the mall from our place. So, the round trip would cost me Rs.40 and along with Neha’s usual ice cream would cost me Rs.60. I could easily find a new pair of slippers for Rs.200 near the mall. But I would be still short of Rs.10, which I could manage with my bargaining skills.
We got down after our tiring bus ride at the destined stop. Neha was walking beside me holding my hand. As expected, there were several roadside stalls selling footwear. We walk towards one of the stalls, aiming to find a replacement for my slippers. I could see the seller busy, in trying to lure the passing customers. I picked one of the pairs and observed it. “Try it, sir. It will fit you”, he persuaded. I wore and realized that he was indeed right, as the pair fits my legs exactly, like a suit tailored to my size. Like a case made for a sword. My legs felt like its cushioned, relaxed, pampered and loved. I felt a sense of euphoria, like resting my body on a soft bed after a stressful day. The strain on my ankles and the constant numbness on my feet relieved in a moment. One could not really understand the peace of mind that a good pair of slippers could bring until he experiences it. It's like delivering a feast to a hungry man. My legs craved for it. Neha looked at my pleasured face and made a grin. However, I handed the pair to the seller and informed him that I will buy it on my way back. He snorted and grimaced as if he had listened to something awful.
“Appa, you could have got it now. Why didn’t you buy it?”, Neha questioned me quizzically, holding my hands on our way to the mall, with her eyes looking at the old pair on my legs.
“Dear, if I get it now it will be difficult for me to walk with the new slippers”, I lied. She nodded as if she understood. But the truth is, returning after some time, will allow me with a greater scope for bargaining, as the seller will assume that I am not desperate. A trick that I use when I buy things. To act, as if I am not desperate.
As we entered the shopping mall, I noticed it was overflowing with fashionable people, a striking contrast to us and our poverty-ridden clothes. Neha was holding my hand, and I could sense her grip tightening on seeing the crowd. She slides closer to me as she walks, like a puppy sliding towards her mother when it senses danger. The air inside was cold and it hits on our faces, like a cold breeze on a chilly winter night. It smelled with a mix of perfumes and air fresheners. I looked at Neha, who was keenly observing the opulence of the mall and trying to assimilate several things at once. Her eyes gleamed with earnest eagerness and her eyelashes moved, like the slow flapping of a butterfly’s wings resting on a flower. I looked at her perfectly black hair neatly platted, handwork of her mother.
She looked like a life-size doll in her frock, which is ready to spring to life when switched on. After several steps, she relaxed and we continued walking aimlessly, passing several shops, toy stores, and clothing outlets, covering all the floors. How could I explain our poverty to her little heart, and tell her that we couldn’t afford any of the things displayed extravagantly? Was it a mistake taking her here? Will she think that her father is a loser who could not afford her anything she wishes for? She is only five years old, still young and fresh, unadulterated by the differences in this world. My mind wandered with the thought of a meaningful explanation if she questions me. But I know its inexplicable. A strange fear rose to my throat whirling inside my stomach. But Neha never stopped.
She continued walking, enjoying the slightly cold air and the brightly lit shops. Her face glowed with the reflection of several colours of neon lighting kept outside the stores. She was thrilled about seeing the escalator for the first time. Her eyes gleamed with excitement and her hands trembled with a slight tinge of fear. She carefully climbed, savouring the moment, like she used to enjoy her first scoop of ice cream. We rambled through the mall till our legs ached and our energy drained.
After an hour of our endeavour, we finally stopped in front of an ice cream outlet. There were huge displays that will make anyone’s mouth watery. The colours were displayed so naturally, and one could see different flavours neatly arranged inside, through the glass windows. It had a bright billboard hanging outside, informing the passerby about its ongoing offer of Rs199 for two scoops.
The last and mandatory ritual of our outing day is still pending. Neha and her ice cream. Like Adam and his Eve. She hadn’t abandoned her ice cream ever in her outing. And I don’t want her to do that today. I know Rs.199 is what I have left with me. If I buy her the ice cream, I couldn’t afford my slippers. But I am ok with that. I know the feeling of sacrificing the simplest of things, as low as ice cream, just because one could not afford. I don’t want my daughter to go through that. She is still young to feel resented. She stopped in front of the outlet. There was a faint grin on her face looking inside, so subtle that it's too hard to notice. But she didn’t turn to me. Instead, she continued walking, as if she hadn’t noticed the display of ice creams.
“Dear, do you want to have ice cream?”, I asked, walking beside her
“No appa, it doesn’t look good”
“Are you sure?”
“Appa, I am sure. I don’t want ice cream today”, She said firmly
My heart raced and ached simultaneously. What doesn’t look good? I was searching for an answer. Her large eyes were deep. She looked at me through a corner of her eye, with a sly smile and thousands of meanings.
“Dear, what else do you want?”, I asked her
“Appa. I don’t need anything. Let us leave and get your slippers”
I stammered with my words and slipped on my walk. I realized the meaning for her “not good”. She is sacrificing her ice cream for my slippers. But how could she possibly know that? I was perplexed. I looked at her. Her face was calm and composed. She doesn't look like a 5-year-old anymore, who holds her father's hands. Now, it's my turn to hold her fingers. I held her fingers tightly feeling the warmth of her skin. I looked at her walking beside me with her shoulders straight and her eyes bright with pride.