Mrs Sen’s palms felt soft and smooth and a little pudgy to the child as they cupped her face. It made her think of Pink Doll. She missed Pink Doll.
It had been busy at the intersection under the overpass, lots of big cars on the afternoon that she’d found the doll. The traffic light had started to flash before changing when a cotton-candy rainbow came arcing across the grey and landed on the road. She’d darted out from Poorvi’s hold, picked it up and run back clutching the woolly head accompanied by the other kids’ shrieks of ‘hurry, hurry’, only to have Raji snatch at the doll’s brilliant pink hair. ‘Let her have it, you cow,’Poorvi shouted and yanked Raji away. ‘Kid doesn’t have anything, not even a name. Let her keep the damn doll.’Raji let go but bared her teeth and jeered, ‘Anaamika’. The child didn’t care.
When she closed her eyes now, she could remember 666666666666666666666666666666WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO STAND IN THwhat irwhat what it had felt like to stand in the shadow of the massive concrete arches, hugging the doll to her chest. The sensation evaporated as Mrs Sen removed her hands, leaving a shallow vacuum.
‘Sangeetha, that’s what I’ll call you,’ Mrs Sen said. ‘Yes, Sangeetha, music, that will be your name. And I will teach you to use that voice of yours.’
The little girl’s hair, styled into a fashionable swirl at her nape was still intact, not a hair out of place.She sat stiffly in a corner of the room watching the others play. They were dishevelled and flushed with the excitement of unhindered playtime while their mothers drank wine and gossiped in the next room. Toffee wrappers, ice cream cups and crumbs of cake littered the soft, carpeted floor. Her stomach grumbled. Mrs Sen had forgotten to ask her to have her food, though she did not forget to introduce her to her socialite friends who had complimented her on her magnanimity.
‘Oh Mrs Sen you are an angel. Imagine having a street urchin at home, that too with your own daughters...’
The child’s ears burnt when she heard the soft tones of the conversation. She had stood there in her frilly green frock for a long time, then drifted to the next room where the other children were playing. Poorvi called her to join them, but she preferred to watch from a sofa. When Poorvi wasn’t fighting with Raji or taking a breather from the comics to which she was glued, she was kind to the child. Maybe because she felt a bond. She too was ignored by her mother, except when she was decked up for appearances like this, where they would be paraded as Mrs Sen’s daughters, ‘so well behaved and beautiful’.
Away from her mother’s surveillance Poorvi and even Raji spoke and acted like the maids who had been rearing them since their birth.
The child scrutinised the dolls on the high shelves lining the nursery from her sofa, deciding that none of them were as beautiful as pink doll who had been her friend ever since she had come to Mrs Sen’s house as an adopted daughter. She remembered the day when Grump the big Alsatian had entered her room and torn pink doll into pieces. She had sobbed the entire night holding onto the tatters but Susheela the maid had swept the pink and white fluff away the next morning. She had other dolls, the fairy doll with its white crystal studded gown, the prince with his small white horse ... but she missed pink doll.
Mrs Sen never cuddled her after the first day when she was bringing her home from the big yellow building where all the other children like her had been. They were all her friends, who begged with her on the streets. On a blazing hot day Shambu Dada, who set targets for them every day, (‘fifty Rupees for you, don't dare to come back without that...’), was arrested and all of them were escorted to the shelter by the policemen.
‘Come on, get up, mama is calling us,’ Poorvi shrieked in her ears jolting her out of her restless sleep. The party was over.
In Mrs Sen's sprawling bungalow surrounded by manicured lawns she felt lost. She longed to be back on the streets again with the other kids where she could be herself.She could sing then. She mostly sat mute when the music teacher came to train her at Mrs Sen’s behest. Whenever she attempted to sing the teacher’s ragas she did so badly that she shut up immediately.
‘This child can’t sing Mrs Sen, she is so besuri...’ the teacher had said before she left for good.
‘But I heard her singing the other day when we had gone to receive her from the rescue shelter...’ a confused Mrs Sen had mumbled.
During the school vacation Mrs Sen took the children to the hill station where her husband managed his tea estates. The child shrivelled up under the steady gaze of Mr Sen who obviously disapproved of her.
‘You and your quirks, Manaswini,’ he had told Mrs Sen in his deep gruff voice. Don’t hurt the child, that’s all I have to say.’
The child hated meal times when she had to sit at the high table with the entire family, silently listening to the prattle of Poorvi and Raji. An invisible silver thread of conversation and laughter bound all except her at the table into a family.
‘Where is this child, what will we do now?’ Mrs Sen’s frustrated voice reached her ears. The child was hiding behind a concrete bench outside the temple of Kali where they had all come to pray. It was the last day of the visit. She knew that the flight was at eleven and they wouldn't wait much longer.
‘Leave her alone, she will survive, just don’t talk about her. If somebody asks about her, tell them that her mother came to take her back. Come on get in, I can’t cancel the plane tickets, come on come on come on,’ he shouted.
From her hiding place the child’s large fearful eyes peeped out through the gap between the concrete slabs of the bench, while the jeep snaked down the mountain roads.
She stood up, took a deep breath and ran lightly towards the beggars who lined the path leading up to the temple.
She was humming a tune.
Indu Parvathi is a writer based in Mumbai. She is currently working on a novel.