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A chance meeting and life changed forever... A frail little thing, rich dark brown eyes, messy hair that still fell on tiny shoulders with grace, a smile that you

couldn't help but respond to - that's how I'll always remember Neetu. Behind her innocence, was a dark world which made mine look like heaven. Soon I saw her everyday - rain or shine; good days or bad. I looked forward to seeing her. Over the years we became silent soulmates.

I first saw Neetu when I was in class five. I was in the school bus and we had reached the crossroad, where my friend Tina gets in. As usual she was late and the driver was grouchier than ever. Just when Tina got in and the bus moved, I heard a scream and a screech. Scared that we hurt some little puppy. I frantically looked out of the bus to see a sight that will remain engraved in my mind forever. I saw frightened eyes brimming with tears, a twitching mouth and tiny hands that reached up to wipe a tear off, before you could see it. Her head held high, she stared back at all the clean crisp uniforms that glared at her filthy appearance in disgust. Except for one pair of eyes - mine. Strangely, what she wore didn't stop me from seeing what was beyond. I saw a girl of my age, who had obviously nearly had an accident but was too proud to let people see that they were capable of hurting her. Before I knew it, the bus moved away and all I saw were her shaky legs just managing to carry her lithe body.

Next morning, while the bus awaited Tina's leisurely arrival, she appeared again. I had dropped a bag of sweets that Ma had given me. I looked at her and she at me. With a few graceful steps, she picked it up and stretched her hand high up to pass the sweets to me. I stretched mine and when our hands touched, I felt a bond between us that at that point I couldn't comprehend. Before I could thank her, the bus moved on. I began to hate Saturdays and Sundays because I didn't get to meet Neetu on those days. Each day, we spoke a sentence or two. All she had to do was smile and I felt as though I had a true friend. I didn't know where she lived or what she did. All I knew was that something in that girl's eyes intrigued me and told me to get closer to her.

A year went by, then two and then three. Our unspoken silence grew into a friendship where we communicated only through our eyes. When I looked at her, I saw a soul that struggled but had a sense of strength, of being, while I stood behind the bars of my window, a tame animal who had never learnt to fight for survival. I never told anyone about her because no one would understand how I felt and why. She was like a part of me that I had lost or rather never had. She might have looked like a street girl to others, but to me, she was a girl who had discovered what it was to be in touch with her inner self. In my eyes, she grew more beautiful by the day. Then one day, she didn't come. In four years, she had never missed the bus before. A whole week went by but I saw no Neetu. I finally told Ma all about her. Ma cried, knowing that it was from people like Neetu, that she had tried to protect me all my life. Neetu and from pain, hunger and poverty. What she didn't seem to see was that she was also protecting me from being human. Whatever I said seemed to have an immediate effect because Ma picked up the car keys, put her arm around me and moved me towards the car. We drove to the crossroad and halted on one side. I looked all over but couldn't see Neetu. I did, however see the girl Neetu spoke to often. I approached her with Ma. Ma asked her about Neetu and all she said was "Woh tho gayi" - she's gone. In that split second, I felt my eyes fill up and my insides churn. I had heard all I wanted to. I ran for the shelter of the car. I saw Ma's eyes follow me. She spoke to the girl and came to me with a grim look


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