Budhiya isn't sure of how old she is. She looks up at me with a half smile and clear, light-brown eyes. Hazel? Amber-hazel? Her brows are exceptionally fine. The other girls have been using her for class-practise, I realise. (They are taught a beautician's work).
I ask, "But you must have some idea. 10? 11? 8? 9?"
She tilts her head and thinks this over, before settling on 9, for some reason. She looks closer to 8 or maybe, 7.
We do the usual preliminary background of questions.
"I come from Gargaon. I'm the second of five sisters. I played with other people's kids. Ma took the money. Don't know how much I made. But I got food there. I worked 5 am to 12 noon. They didn't beat me. But they did yell at me. Once, when I couldn't make the daal properly...."
I asked, "What were you doing making daal? I thought your job was to 'play' with the kids?"
"Oh yes. But I also cooked and washed dishes."
I looked at her, only part-believing. Can this little mite cook? What?
"I can cook aloo baigan, dal-bhaat."
Budhiya doesn't know where exactly she worked for over a year. But she is very glad to be at the children's ashram. "3 months ago, Manohari brought me here."
"She's an activist. She lives in Ranchi. She brings many kids here."
"Don't you miss home?"
"Home? No. Papa would beat me at home... sometimes. I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I already know my tables. And counting, adding, subtracting."
She begins rattling off the tables in Hindi. Two ones are two; two twos are four.
I stop her. "What is the best thing about being here at the ashram?"
This time Budhiya does not hesitate at all. "Daal, aloo, chana. That is the best thing here."
I looked into those clear amber-hazel eyes, not knowing whether to smile or cry. "You like chana very much?"
"Yes, I like chana. And I like fruits. They give us fruits here."
And I think, Budhiya is going to be very beautiful young girl some day. What a pity, her father won't know.