Bhoomi was my childhood ayah's daughter. She held up one hand with all her fingers extended when you asked her how old she was. She was tall for her age, though the red velvet dress she always wore hung loose on her tiny frame. A thin gold necklace and matching studs stood out on her dark skin. Everyday, I asked, kem che, and her head jerked to the side, just once, responding that she was fine, thank you. Her lips pursed, but didn't form a smile. Every morning for about three hours, while her mother, Chatra, cleaned the house, Bhoomi sat on the balcony and looked out towards St. Anthony's School next door. She watched the children hustle into classes, swarm the canteen at recess, and make their way slowly home at mid-day. In the quiet hours in between, she sat thinking, I felt, about the world and how she would one day take her place in it.
I asked her if she went to school and it lit up her face, though she still did not smile. Any day now, she said, as soon as her mother went to talk to them, and she jerked her head once towards the school.
Returning from some errands one afternoon, I saw through the window Bhoomi's head above the plants that lined my aunt's balcony. I went out and after the requisite head jerk that she was fine, thank you, I remained squatting beside the plastic garden chair. Students' voices floated out of the white school building as they chanted after their teachers. A handful of girls walked across the school yard. I asked Bhoomi if her sister, who attended that school, was among them. She jerked her head, no.
I sat on the ground, slipping off my sandals and enjoying the feel of the cool cement. We watched the girls make a lazy circle of the yard and I asked why they weren't in class. Head jerk; Bhoomi did not approve. Did she have friends who went to this school? She sat forward. She had two friends at this school and they also lived in her compound. She lived behind this building, just over there. Her hand snaked through the air mapping out the way. Dia was her best friend. They played chhum-chhum together. Like this, she said, slapping her palms against mine, this way and that, up and down. I showed her my variation of the game. She nodded her head sagely. Yes, there were many ways of playing chhum-chhum.
Her voice was soft, raspy. She had a hint of a lisp that made her upper lip curl and her tongue flash out to meet it. Her Gujarati was different than mine and I had to strain to keep up. Her older sister, she continued, had a friend too, in their building only. Her brother and his friends all played cricket all the time. Her mother always shouted at him to do his homework first. Her dad used to shout at her mother a lot. Gaali after gaali he shouted at her, swearing at the top of his lungs.
He used to shout at us all, she said. One day, he burned my foot,the bottom of it, here. He used a fire. After that my mother left him. Her voice remained the same as when she described chhum-chhum. Now, she said, it's just the four of us and life is good again. Her head jerked once and as she slid back into the plastic chair, she smiled.