She sat outside the hut, on the barren ground, with books scattered around her. They were meant for kindergarten kids, but she couldn't make any sense out of it.
Malli enjoyed looking at these picture books. She tried to decipher the words printed below the pictures, but they remained a mystery. This was her favorite pastime.
Although her parents were construction workers and could not afford to get her educated, 10-year old Malli had big dreams. She was unlike the other kids of her clan who had resigned to their fate. Malli seldom helped her parents in the constructions. She loved wandering through the streets, playing in the children's park and making new friends. Malli was a simple girl, but despite the tattered frock and unkempt hair, she had a beauty of her own. Her brown eyes sparkled with infinite joy and her short, wavy hair was carelessly plaited. She flitted in and out of the building like a colorful butterfly.
All her life, Malli moved from one place to another, building houses and moving on.
"When are we going to build our own house?" she often asked her parents, but they looked away furtively and mumbled something incoherent.
Making friends came easily to Malli, irrespective of social status. However, when she came to Bangalore, the swanky malls, high rise apartments and sophistication left her overawed initially.
But soon, she made friends at the local park and often got the old books of these kids. Of course, some parents shooed her away, considering her to be a bad influence on their children, while some snobbish children were downright rude to her. But these were exceptions and Malli, with her radiant smile and pleasant chatter, managed to win over most people.
"I'm off to the park" Malli said to her mother and skipped her way to the park on a Sunday morning. Seeing a group of kids of her age, Malli sensed an opportunity to make new friends.
"Can I join you?" she asked with a shy smile. The group exchanged surprised looks and were unsure of what to say. They appeared to be from affluent families.
"I'm Malli. I want to play with you" she said, venturing further.
The children didn't want to upset her, but they felt they couldn't include her either. Before they could say anything, the mother of one of the boys in the group, seeing Malli among the children, arrived there.
She eyed Malli suspiciously and asked her sternly, "Who are you? What do you want with these kids?"
Malli was rather nervous, but said, with all the courage she could muster "I'm Malli. Can I play with them?".
"You want to play with them? she said scornfully. Malli was stunned and went pale. She had never felt so humiliated. She suddenly noticed that all the kids were dressed in clean clothes while she was clad in a worn out tunic. The five children looked away uncomfortably.
One of them hesitantly said "Maybe.. she can play with us..".
"Anmol, No." said the mother firmly.
Malli did not want to hear anymore. She turned away, her eyes swimming with tears, and ran back to her hut and cried.
For the next few days, she she did not venture near the park. On her insistence, her parents made a Jhula out of thick rope. So she contented herself with swinging from a tree branch all day long.
Malli and her parents rose early and after a hard day's work, they went to bed early. Although they were busy and spent little time with Malli, they loved her more than anything else in the world and she knew this. She never complained or sulked about their poverty because she knew they worked hard for a living. Some nights there wouldn't be much to eat, but they made sure Malli never went to bed hungry, even if it meant they had to.
In the same street, there were several children, but they never came out to play. There were two boys of her age, three girls slightly older than her, a three year old boy and two college girls. She liked to observe them and imagined what their world would be like.
One day, one of the college girls smiled at her. Malli, after her experience with strangers, was a little wary. She returned a hesitant smile. But soon, she was at ease, for Aditi seemed to be a nice girl and they quickly became friends. Every afteernoon, Malli waited eagerly for Aditi and the two girls chattered about their lives; Malli about her lifestyle and Aditi about college and studies.
"Aditi, I want to read books. I want to learn to write. Will you teach me? Please" Malli asked her with such eagerness that Aditi was touched and readily agreed. From that day, Aditi taught Malli for twenty minutes. Malli's dedication inspired Aditi and she was pleased with her pupil's progress.
As the days passed, Malli mastered the language under the tutelage of Aditi. One evening, when Malli, slowly, but confidently finished reading an article on Thomas Alva Edison, Aditi watched her student with quiet pride.
"Aditi, what does ambition mean?" asked Malli.
Aditi thought for a moment and then said "Ambition is something you want to achieve as an adult. For that you will have to work hard. What's your ambition Malli?"
Malli replied instantly, "I want to become Aditi".
Aditi was puzzled. "Explain", she said.
"Yes, I want to become like you when I grow up. I want to teach other girls like me to read and write. That's my ambition" she said with childlike innocence.