My sister and I had gotten into the habit of going to the Ekashila children’s park by ourselves, in the dead heat of the afternoon. We were visiting our grandparents in the districts, which had a liberating atmosphere for us city girls choked with smoke, traffic and tiny apartments. The park was a short walk from our bungalow, with only one major street to cross. My sister was twelve and able to confidently hold a six-year-old me by the hand and lead me to safety, avoiding buses, scooters, rickshaws and hawkers, all seemingly going in random directions at the exact same time without order or reason, like ants scurrying out of an anthill.
The park itself was overgrown and large. You entered through a slotted iron gate that revolved, letting only one person in at a time. Designed to keep out goats, with additional anti-goat protection in the ground – a large rectangular pit covered with evenly spaced cylindrical bars that rotated on ball bearings – that I was always afraid that my tiny socked feet would slip right through and get stuck in it, perhaps like the slim hooves of a caught, dangling goat. I held on to my sister’s skirt tightly as we crossed. The park was covered by a thicket of trees that it muffled out all noise, like it existed in a vacuum and you did not know where the park ended and where the surrounding streets began. The adjoining temple was within view though a rusted gate on the left. Even the park’s play area – the swing set, seesaw, jungle gym and the slide – was almost completely shaded by looming hundred-year old trees – banyans, neems and tamarinds, with freshly shed dry leaves crunching on every surface.
The park was nearly dark, even in the tropical afternoon heat. There was a metal swing set in the middle; the two creaky seats were only gently rusted but we had to be careful when we sat in them, one wrong move and the jagged, rusty metal would go right through our cotton skirts and dig into our flesh. A tetanus injection would be inevitable if our mother noticed – and she would.
Afternoons were siesta time at home, like in most south Indian homes in the summer. People hid from the oppressive, pervasive heat in the safety of their homes – in their cool verandas and in front of watery coir-backed desert coolers, or under the ripening mangoes of the orchard. The park and its adjoining hanuman temple, as well as most local businesses, shuttered in the afternoons from noon to three, and all was quiet. The elders expected us to nap along with them. But being of a restless nature, the pair of us snuck out ever so quietly, being sure to return within an hour on any given day. My sister was the timekeeper since she was older and could read time. She wore a black Timex wristwatch on her right hand, and looked down at it every once in a while.
Since there were no other children to compete with, we grew bored with the swings soon, which surprised us, since swings usually had the maximum competition in any park, with other children lining up on both sides of the set, waiting their respective turns and burning you with greedy eyes until you were finished. After the swings, we went to the seesaws, again avoiding the chipped spots on the seats. Sometimes we went on the slide, careful to miss the large jagged hole at its bottommost part, the exact spot where you had maximum velocity. We jumped out of the slide and onto the ground at the precise last moment.
Sometimes we left the swings and slides altogether and the pair of us explored the park. Being completely alone amongst the patchy, overgrown forest-like grass and looming banyans, we felt like explorers. We hid in the trees playing hide and seek or hunted for green snakes – not always unsuccessfully. We took turns holding the triangular-headed grass snake, with its pale green body and creamy underside. As it wriggled, we were simultaneously repulsed and exited.
Often, we caught large bugs and observed them until we grew bored and let them go, or when it rained those copious Indian summer rains, we found the spots were the rain worms gathered in a huge circular mound, their juicy red bodies and countless feet crawling over each other, jostling for space. We poked a stick into the mound and lifted out some swaying clumps. We whispered to the worms: “Go purugu go, you are free”, while setting them far away from their friends.
Nobody ever caught us out of bed and even if they did notice our missing chaapas, we told them that we were in the yard playing, just outside. It was our little secret, my sister’s and mine. Sometimes we entered the temple through the adjoining gate and prayed to the monkey god. There was an iron grill around his inner sanctum which remained closed in the afternoons, and we supposed that he too needed little afternoon snoozes and prayed through the grill, holding our palms together and bowing our heads in respect before going home.
On one of those lazy days, we had just arrived at the park and were in the middle of our usual play at the swings. We spent the first fifteen minutes at the normally unobtainable swings before moving on to other things.
Then we heard voices walking in our direction – coarse, high-pitched words. We stopped swinging and exchanged glances, listening intently and with curiosity. A group came into view and stopped. We studied each other.
It was a group of girls more or less our age. Four of them, two tall ones standing ahead and two behind them. They wore battered clothes – skirts, pants and mismatched blouses, and their hair I thought was copper, almost red in spots, and their faces were covered in a fine layer of dirt. The youngest one was about my height, with snot smeared across her cheek and a green tube of it sliding down her right nostril. They had large, white polyester sacks strung across their bags, even the smallest one was bent over double, holding a sack that was more or less bigger than her whole body. You could smell them as they moved closer, like black phenyle and something inexplicable.
Suddenly they seemed to lose interest in us and walked in the opposite direction, towards the pair of seesaws across from us, and we slowly went back to swinging. I was a little afraid of the group but my sister just watched them. They were a loud group and yelled at each other in coarse language, shouting abuses I had rarely heard before. Their copper hair flew in the wind as they went faster and faster up and down on the seesaw, egging each other on. I was afraid that they would damage our seesaws and pointed a finger at them with an annoyed look on my face, but my sister lowered it and put a finger on her lips saying, “Shh.”
So, I kept swinging higher and higher and stopped paying attention to the newcomers. The higher I swung, the more they were out of my field of vision.
Then there was a sudden absence of sound, the return of quiet and the sound of leaves rustling overhead. I noticed them only when they were on us. The tallest one was approaching. I panicked and dug my heels into the soft earth and came to an abrupt halt with such force that I was nearly thrown out of my swing seat.
She was talking to my sister, the tall one, and asking her for a turn on the swing and my sister obliged, telling me to give up my swing to the snot-nosed girl, who shot at me, wiping her nose and touching the swing chain in one runny motion even before I got out of my seat. She brushed her hand against mine and I withdrew it in disgust, then jumped out of my seat and ran to my sister.
“They are a group of ugly, revolting, stinking girls – let’s go home!” I whispered to her, pulling her by the hand, trying to get her to move.
“No. let’s go to the slide,” she said, walking in the opposite direction.
“What’s your name?” she asked us in dialect, the tall gang-leader one, who was now swinging quietly in the seat vacated by my sister. We turned around slowly. I kept quiet and my sister answered for us, “My name is Lakshmi and this is my sister Tara.”
The other two girls hugged the poles on either side of the swing set, letting the big girl answer for them like I let my sister answer for us. All of them stared at us.
“I’m Biju. These are Shanti, Boori and Kamala,” she said, not mentioning how they were related to each other like my sister had. The snot-faced one was Boori. She looked like a Boori, I thought, such a ridiculous name, and it rhymed with our maid’s name.
Again, I asked my sister to take me home and again she ignored me. Instead, she walked a little bit closer to them and stood amongst the grass patches, striking up a conversation.
I noticed that they were all barefooted, their feet covered in ashy dust and soles caked with mud. I took a step backwards at the sight of their mud-caked feet suspended in mid-air as they soared higher and higher. I hesitated and then took a few steps forward, next to where my sister was standing, talking to Biju.
“So, which class are you in?” my sister was asking.
“We don’t go to school,” Biju said. “Booli went till second standard.”
“Then what do you do all day?”
Biju told us that they scavenged, hunted through garbage piles and waste dumps, finding objects they could sell to the scrap-dealer. That explained the clinking sounds their sacks made as they walked. It must have been glass bottles. How many bottles? I wondered, and wouldn’t they break if you threw them down to play on a swing?
In their hurry to grab the swings from us, it looked like they didn’t worry so much about that. Since they mentioned it, I identified the inexplicable smell emanating from them as the sweet, sickening smell of garbage.
“Did you find anything good?” my sister asked Biju now, while the other girls watched the conversation almost as wearily as I did.
“Yah. Got some chappals yesterday. Good ones too. But big. So, we sold them.”
“Oh,” my sister said, nodding her head.
“Okay bye, we are going now.”
Our one hour was up, so I was thankful to go back to the safety of our home. The girls said “Bye” in English, with an accent that made me snicker.
I hoped not to run into them again. It was our park anyway. Our swing set. Our slide. My sister. Who were these beggar slum children taking our swings and talking to us as though we were their equals? Even our maid’s children were better dressed than these people. I was disgusted and did not want to go back to the park nor did I want to sit on the swing that Boori had sat in, rubbing snot.
But the next afternoon when my sister asked me to come with her, I did. In truth, she never let me play with her and if she ever asked, I would blindly say yes to whatever it was. She only had to ask. I craved for her to ask.
This time, we heard them just as we went through the goat-proof gates. They were already there on the swings, and this time Biju stood up and offered my sister the swing and ordered the other girl, Kamala, to give me the other one. Biju hung out with us while the others went to the seesaw. They thudded up and down while I swung haughtily. My sister and Biju talked. I followed every word, making sure not to swing too high and stay within earshot of their conversation.
Biju and her three friends lived in a slum nearby, a group of thatched huts close to the main highway that ran through the district. They took different routes to pick scrap and met up here and went to the dealer together, cutting through the park. It’s such a nice park, she said, no one is ever here, completely empty. In other parks, they don’t let us play, and the watchman throws us out, not letting us near the nice children.
She asked questions about us, about where we went to school, and what classes we were in. She pronounced school like “eeschool” and I laughed at her. My sister shot me a rancid, oily look, like the one she normally gave me when we were with her friends back home, which meant, “Don’t embarrass me.”
Biju complemented my sister on her straight black hair and her fair skin. “How white you are,” she said, “and what nice shoes you both have.”
“There is this shop called Hollywood back home in Hyderabad. You sit on a long sofa with other customers and a boy brings you different shoes to try.”
“How many?” she asked.
“As many as you want. Till you like one.”
By this point the other three girls were crowded around us, following the conversation intently. Boori looked at me with hunger, following the half-moon trajectory of my swing, her head swaying back and forth. I got off the swing and offered it to her. My sister too, gave up her recently acquired seat to one of the other girls and the three of us, Biju, my sister and I, sat in the grass nearby. We imitated the adults, like a group of simple housewives gossiping after a hard day’s work. Again, Biju complimented my sister: what a nice bindi sticker you have on your forehead, how white your shirt is, how straight your teeth are, how nice you smell, and so on. When we went home, we felt like celebrities. Petted, pampered and whose name everyone wanted to know.
The following weeks for the rest of the summer, we went back to the park each day, the same time in the afternoon. Each day, they were there, becoming our playmates. We left the swing set and the seesaw and the slide and instead played games with each other. Police-thief, hide-and-seek or chain-cut. Chain-cut is similar to police-thief in that there is one designated police that is supposed to catch the rest of the thieves, and when they catch one, both of them become the police and have to hold hands while chasing the others, never breaking the chain. The police chain repeatedly catches thieves till it becomes a three-person chain and eventually there are no thieves left. I ran like a deer, trying to dismantle the chasing chain. Then, when they caught me, I had to hold hands with Booli.
It began with my sister bringing things from home. Small treats for Biju and her friends – like a packet of colorful bindi stickers that she distributed amongst them, letting them choose one of their favorite color or design and placing it right in the middle of their foreheads, then adjusting by moving it slightly to the left or to the right, until it was perfectly centered. Another day, she snuck a box of sandalwood face powder out of the house. She slipped the circular, beige and gold box with the matching face puff into the pocket of her denim skirt as I kept watch. I was scared my mother would find us, but we could have easily explained it away as playing dress-up or that we were play-acting a beauty parlor. She slipped another pack of bindis into her other pocket, the plastic wrapping crunched as we crept past our snoring grandfather.
At the park, we sat at our usual grass-less spot, and the girls took turns sitting in front of my sister. I noticed that she also brought along a pocket comb and some hairbands. She combed their sun-dyed rusty hair, working through the knots carefully, slowly and painlessly even though none of them seemed to care. Then she braided their hair into plaits, one on each side for the youngest ones and a single one down the back for the oldest ones, Biju and Kamala. She powdered their faces, dipping the puff in the round powder box and touching it to different points of their face joining each point to the other like a star map and blending it into their faces. The girls sat quietly, patiently. They passed the gold-embossed lid of the powder box amongst themselves and admired it as they waited for their turn with my sister. They looked nervous and did not talk in their usual coarse manner. They were hushed, reverential and somewhat afraid, as though anxious that my sister would suddenly stop, grab the powder box and march home if they behaved like their normal vulgar selves. Finally, she produced the new bindis with a flourish, making their faces light up. When she was done, they were thrilled, and began admiring each other while taking turns looking into the small mirror that came under the lid of the powder box. Biju looked markedly differently. I looked over her shoulder while she stared at herself in the little mirror. Her twilight face looked luminous under the powder, framed by the bottle-green leaves behind us, while the blood-colored bindi stood out like a third eye over a pair of translucent hazel eyes. Even I told her that she looked nice.
On other days, my sister taught them a few English phrases like “Hello” or “Good evening”, and the right way to say “school,” and they took turns sounding out the words and saying things to each other, giggling at their own attempts. The things my sister brought from home each afternoon increased as the summer passed. A broken comb once. An old pair of slippers no one would miss. A dried-up bottle of liquid tilakam made new by adding water, shaken and applied into any pattern on their foreheads.
On one of the last days of summer the weather began to cool. The sky occasionally dropped a few coin-sized raindrops, a small sample from the skies before the monsoon deluge began. The girls weren’t there. Maybe it’s the rain, we thought. Another no-show the next day. I was happy that they weren’t there, since I didn’t have to share my sister. We went back to playing our old games, although my sister looked distracted and insisted on waiting out the rain under the tree.
“It’s not that much rain,” she said. “We can stand under the big banyan.”
“No,” I said. “I’m getting wet. We can come back tomorrow. What’s the big deal?”
That evening we sat with our mother in the drawing room chatting. We were making paper boats out of old newspapers, regular ones as well as double-boats and sword-boats. We were all set for the incoming monsoon rain, ready to race boats under raincoats as the water rose in the streets. My mother looked at my sister with interest, as though reading a book and pausing to decipher the meaning of a word.
“Where are your earrings?” she said, her voice rising.
My heart froze. I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I recognized the tone and the tooth grinding. I knew what came after that. I was familiar.
“Earrings!” she said. She came closer and held my sister’s white lobe between her fingers and pulled downward with force.
“Yes, earrings! What else? The new ones your ammamma gave you for Dasara?” Amma said. Now she held my sister’s chin and flicked her face sideways, as though checking inside her eardrums to be sure.
I shrank away as unobtrusively as possible, taking my boats with me. The earrings I knew well. Our granny had given them to my sister for the Dasara festival. They were made of pure gold and had a perfectly circular sphere which hung from an engraved flat disk; the gold earring had shimmered when she moved her head. I had wept bitterly when she got them and asked for an identical pair. My mother told me that I was too young for expensive things, and that I was too careless and could not be trusted yet. But I knew better, that it was because my sister was more beautiful than I was. And because everything looked better on her, even the things I owned looked better on her. I had pushed my sister’s hand away when she offered them to me to try on.
“I don’t know,” my sister said now to our mother.
Amma twisted her ear and shook her whole body with that ear, asking again, more loudly. Again, she got the same answer. My sister was too fair and quickly turned a shade of pink, which normally meant that she got slapped, pinched and hit less than me. This time though, my mother did not stop. I did what I normally did. I looked away to make her feel less ashamed, just as she always did for me. Amma shouted at her about being careless and loosing expensive things, being a curse on her and so on and on until the noise attracted our granny and aunt, closely followed by our uncle and grandpa, who swooped down and rescued my sister, pulling her out of our mother’s clutches and cradling her as she cried. My granny wiped my sister’s eyes with her cotton sari and my aunt massaged her red skin, while uncle and grandpa shouted at our mother for being too harsh.
“I can’t understand,” Amma said, “she is home all day. They are both home all day. Where will the earrings go? Oh! they were so beautiful, when will we ever buy such a nice pair again? If they fell anywhere in the house, the maid would have found them while sweeping.”
“Do you think the maid took them?” Uncle asked, patting my sister’s head, which was bowed in shame.
“I don’t think so,” said his wife. “She is a trusted-person. Worked for us more years than I can count.” My aunt had brought the maid with her from her native village after her marriage and always defended her as though she was a relative.
I made a mistake then. I tried to leave the room, pretending to play with my boats. My mother stopped me. My mother could read me like she read a book, except there were no words that she didn’t understand.
“Do you know anything about them?” she asked me now. “You are a good girl. Not like your sister.”
She drew me closer and planted me on her lap. The nylon of her sari felt smooth against my skin. My mother felt warm to the touch and I did not move away. I glanced at my sister who was still staring at her feet while Amma continued to heap praises on me. She said that I was the best daughter ever, that I was careful with my things, that I was intelligent and always got first rank in class and so on. Then she asked me again if I knew what happened.
“The park,” I said.
Tears slid down my sister’s face. Thick blobs went down one by one, settling into the crook of her neck while granny kept wiping them away.
“The park next to Hanuman’s temple.”
“Did you take them to any park, Anna?” she asked my uncle who shook his head and said that there is only one park next to hanuman temple and that it had been closed for repairs since the past year.
“Are you taking your sister and going to the Ekashila park?” my uncle asked my sister in alarm. “When? I have never seen you do.”
“In the afternoons,” I said.
Then my sister looked at me. Like I was a disgusting cockroach. Like she felt repulsed by the sight of me, sitting in our mother’s lap.
“Only once,” I quickly corrected myself. “Yesterday afternoon. We won’t go again, double-promise.”
Amma then slid me off her lap and proceeded towards my cowering sister. A constellation of people immediately blocked her – granny, aunt, uncle and even grandpa. It’s okay, they said, we will buy her another pair just like it. Let bygones be bygones. What’s the use of thinking about things that are over? Let’s go search the park tomorrow.
The park was completely deserted while the adults searched the next afternoon. With some luck, maybe we can find at least one, they said. It was dark. The approaching monsoon made it eerie and terrible. They brought us along to help and we pretended to search. After an hour, we gave up and went home. My sister’s bare earlobes glared at me and she did not again ask me to go to the park with her.