August 9, 2002

vanishing children: london’s anathema

“you will blow this whistle when you are lost. and you will do it loud and clear so i can hear you and come to find you. do you understand that?”

at the hemel hempstead station waiting for my silverlink train to london-euston, i couldn’t help overhearing a mother repeat these instructions to her daughter and older son, as the father watched quietly. hours later the same the evening, as i walked back home, a girl in her late teens, three studs on her brow, approached me.

“do you have a pound on you that you can spare?” she asked. holding her hand was another little girl of about four or five, a rag-doll clutched to her chest. the two girls did not seem to be poor at all…both wearing bright jeans studded with little stones, while the little one wore a pink striped t-shirt and a red skirt. “i need to get her home to her sister”, the girl continued, pointing to the little one, “and i have run out of change for the bus.”

my instant reaction was to give her a pound, but as i searched about in my handbag for loose change, i wondered if she was telling the truth, and then i wondered why she would be lying. i noticed another man around us now…bearded, stout and scruffy looking, he almost looked like an egyptian crook, and i remembered seeing him watch the girls from a distance just minutes before the girl stopped me. when the man saw that he had been spotted, he walked past us at the footpath where we were standing, and stopped by a bend in the road just a few yards away. had he not turned back to look, i would have put away the doubt lurking in my mind, that somehow he was connected with the girls.

hemel is a small old town, with ducks and swans that laze around in the water gardens surrounding the town, shops that shut early for the day and buses that don’t ply after five in the evening. it was for that reason that i was walking home and so, i asked the girl if she would find a bus at that hour, and where she was going. she said she would and added “why don’t you take out all the money that is inside your purse so we can see if you can add up the change for me.”

that did it. something inside me said not to trust this girl, or the man (who was still waiting there), and i showed her the 15 pence that i (deliberately) managed to find. i lied to her that i had just used my change for the bus myself and so i cannot find any. “can i keep that then?” she asked sweetly, looking at the 15p in my hand. yes you can, i said, and dropped it in hers.

three years ago at commercial street in bangalore, i was faced with a similar situation. i was looking for a little bell-string and stopped at a bedspread store to see the intricate designs the storekeeper had. amid the moving crowds outside, i saw a woman looking at me across the narrow road. she had a kind face but she looked like she was lost. when i came out of the shop, she came to me and smiled, asking if i could understand kannada, the language spoken in karnataka.

“yaenn aaitu?” (what happened?) i smiled back and asked. somewhat relieved, she hurriedly narrated that she lived very far, and that she’d forgotten her wallet at home when she went to drop her kids at school. she had tried to walk back all the way but it was getting late and in two hours her kids would be waiting for her at school. finally she stammered what she really wanted, and i could see the moist humiliation in her eyes when she blurted out “10 rupees kodteeya?” (will you give me 10 rupees?)

i knew she was telling the truth, and not wanting to make her feel any more bad for the money she had to ask from a total stranger, i nodded yes.

no. i finally told myself as i walked away from the girls…i wasn’t feeling guilty for not having helped this european girl today. she wasn’t telling the truth. was the little girl accompanying her really her sister? i will never be able to find out.

it saddened me to think of what they must have been up to. i wondered if they were in some kind of trouble, and if i had made it worse by not giving them any money.

the pied piper is not dead.

what is it about the children in this country that some of them just disappear? we hear of teenage children missing, abducted or raped almost once every two weeks, and these are just the reports that have reached the bbc. the disappearance of 13-year-old milly, or amanda dowler in march this year perhaps was the rare case that received a lot of media attention…and it helped. even though she’s not been traced yet, her pictures still haunt in the form of posters everywhere, reminding every parent to take care. even so, the missing-children files in the uk is only increasing. the most recent one being the double disappearance of two ten-year-old friends — jessica and holly.

“if they haven’t done nothing bad, they are not wrong are they?” said a visibly shaky classmate of two girls over the evening news today. it really is heartbreaking. apparently the school had warned children and their parents just two months earlier, that a suspicious-looking couple had been lurking around the school grounds, and to be extra careful.

i suddenly recollected seeing a similar couple stand behind a bush outside the moss hall nursery school that i come across on my way back from office. i was curious why the duo were hiding behind a cluster of creepers to watch tiny children play football in the mud. then i had thought perhaps they were parents of a certain child and were simply watching him/her play. i shuddered to think if they were the same suspicious-looking couple the newsreader was talking about.

how would children be able to know the difference between a ‘good’ person and a ‘bad’ one i thought, if grown-ups themselves could not. little wonder then that the soft toys children normally carry around, are being replaced by shrill whistles.

the next afternoon, as part of my training projects at my new workplace, i had been laying out the story of the pied piper of hamelin for children in the hindi language. i secretly wished he were still alive and had moved to london. and that he would play a ‘reverse’ tune that would bring all the missing children back.

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