Let the street kids eat cake

Instead of giving coins to the begging street children, I decided that next time I went to Bombay I would give them part of my breakfast.

It was the 1980s, and I was flying often from Bangalore to Bombay.

The early flight meant I'd rise earlier than usual for a predawn walk and a good breakfast, both designed to prepare me for the challenges of a day in the big city.

My wife would insist on what she called a "light" breakfast: a mug of ragi porridge, two slices of bread with an egg, sunny side up, and a banana. "This will fortify you and set you right for the day!" she'd say. My protests that the airline served breakfast fell on deaf years.

"I know you won't be eating again until late afternoon," she'd plead. "So please eat whatever they serve you on the aircraft."

"I'll try," I'd say, to spare an argument.

On the flight, my mind would be far from food. I'd be preoccupied with such things as export shipments and foreign exchange rates. When the breakfast service came with croissant, omelet, and fruit, I'd politely decline. That is, that's what I did until I saw something en route to my Bombay workplace that changed my routine.

On the Western Expressway, near the old Bahar cinema, I would be waiting for the traffic lights to change so that I could turn right and drive past the new international airport and beyond. I would often be arrested by a sight that made me ponder poverty and state planning.

Street urchins with ragged clothes and scraggly brown hair would come up to the cars stopped at the traffic light. Pressing their noses to the car's windows, they'd beg with outstretched hands or beat their tummies, indicating they were hungry. They seemed oblivious to the risks involved in darting in and out of rush-hour traffic.

These children, I observed, spoke a peasant patois that was a mix of Urdu and Telugu. They seemed to be from a community of migrant laborers that had made their homes in nearby roadside shanties.

On this particular morning, instead of getting me down, the encounter gave me a bright idea. Instead of giving coins, next time I'd give them my unconsumed in-flight breakfast.

In the beginning I saved up my croissant carefully and gave it to the saddest-looking child I encountered. Holding aloft the crescent roll in its plastic wrapping, the little girl said in joyous wonder, "Cake! Cake!"

Later, I found more hands reaching out for the single croissant. It was a clear case of demand far exceeding supply. So I asked nearby passengers on my morning flight if they wanted to donate their unconsumed croissants.

This necessitated a larger briefcase on my part, but it also made for a happy arrangement. Instead of the rolls being thrown away, they were being put to good use. But there were always more mouths to feed.

I stumbled on an even better solution one morning when the passenger next to me, a matronly Parsi lady, heard of my "mission." She was most understanding, even apologetic about the croissant she had already consumed.

"Don't worry, dear, I will help you," she said.

Without much ado, she stood up and marched down the aisle, seat to seat, collecting leftover rolls - or in some cases, I suspect, rolls that passengers were getting ready to consume. She seemed to be a lady possessed.

She not only collected croissants but also little tubs of butter and jam. She stopped a stewardess and got a large plastic bag in which to carry the loot.

That morning when I came up to Bahar and I saw my young brood, I told my driver to pull over. I quickly got out of the car. It was December, and I must have looked a sight: Brooks Brothers suit and Gucci tie, carrying a large plastic bag, and dodging speeding vehicles to get to the traffic median that the pesky urchins used as a working base.

On spotting me, the group came alive with delight. I heard squeals of joy and excitement. My efforts to control the crowd or even to get them to cross the road at a safer spot didn't get very far. I was caught in the center of the melee. To this day I am surprised that the efficient Bombay traffic police didn't arrest me for disturbing the peace.

I handed over the croissants. Being a sharing community, the children lost no time in summoning every Ramu, Shyamu, Karim, and Suji from across the street to come and get it. "The suit-boot man is giving out cakes!" they cried excitedly, "He's brought lots and lots of cakes this time. Come quickly!"

Didn't the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, famously say that if the peasants had no bread, that they should eat cake?

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