A slum area in Saidapet.
Two girls in black hijabs lean against the gate of a small house. Curious but friendly looks. They greet me in English. There is something proud in the way they wrap their mouths around the words, learnt painstakingly.
The inner room.
Hajira Begum, 17. Lively eyes behind glasses and an impish grin. She comes to learn tailoring so that she can work at home to earn money. Her family will not allow her to go out.
Except to the Arabic college where she learns “religious things” and here, because another relative accompanies her. She sounds matter-of-fact about it. But suddenly, a grin that is almost an appeal. “I want to learn English,” she says, screwing up her nose as if she has said something naughty. “I want to be a doctor.”
I have no words for her.
The outer room.
Saraswati. Thin with cinnamon-coloured eyes and a smile that is surprising in its vivacity. Another woman slaps her on the shoulder playfully. As if she has done something silly.
They are talking about the thick band of frayed skin on her neck. Grey smudges on brown. It is the mark of the rope, they tell me. She tried to hang herself two days back. Because her husband “scolds her” and beats her. I touch her shoulder in helplessness.
Outside on the street.
I am almost in the car. A group of children at my door, bright-eyed, grimy, insistent. “Akka, photo, akka.”
As I get out, more join the group. Shrieks of joy and thrill. They crowd close to the camera. I tell them to stand back so I can get them in the frame. “Stand back,” they repeat after me as if they are learning new words, new concepts.
Afterwards, they throng around to see the images, their tiny faces in the digital screen. They squeeze my arms in delight, clap their hands. A cheeky girl pinches my cheeks and says: “Thanks akka.” Their little hands wave as I leave.
I wish they could see the images in their real size. On a computer.