I counted all chapatis. There was enough for everyone. I dropped all the eggs in the tomato curry. Boiled and kept the milk aside. I quickly took a shower, changed to my kurtis and sprinted towards the door. I was eager to pick my son. I was more eager to meet his friend.
As luck has it, the moment I stepped out, it started to rain. Heavily. I had wanted to use my new purple umbrella with the lacto-king candy wrapper designs. As I walked counting all the puddles which Ethan would later jump in, I rememberd my childhood when I felt embarrassed to use any umbrella that wasn’t black. I had the most gorgeous red umbrella with black polkadots which always remained in the school bag, because people always used black umbrellas. Anything attractive made you an out cast. I grew up in a rural area.
I looked eagerly at every auto that had passed. They were all busily heading somewhere. Two of the them nodded no. Others stared at me. One toothless, grinning driver was kind enough to allow me to board his palace-on-wheels for an extra 15 bucks. So I would be off 55 bucks very soon, which meant I would buy a packet of biscuit for my son, instead of the mass-produced overly-advertised candy bars.
The children walked slowly towards gates, drivers, parents in a neat line. As I walked towards the reception I could hear the bellowing of teachers and volunteers. My eyes scanned for Gauri and Ethan. A mum was pulling out a notebook from her son’s bag. She caught a glimpse of something and turned to the son like a snake about to attack. Suddenly, two tiny very loving arms wrapped around my waist. Gauri’s forehead was painted with chandanam and kumkumam. She had lost one more tooth. Her toothless smile was more attractive. Ethan patiently waited beside her. I wondered if he felt bad. But he didn’t seem so. He pulled me to where they had been sitting. We collected bags, rain coats, umbrellas, rain caps, water bottles, pieces of crayons, buttons, half-eaten biscuits; and carefully placed everything in its compartments, when Gauri’s eyes lit up with an idea.
She pulled out most of her books. She searched for something. She wouldn’t say. She kept saying, “oh did I forget? Did I forget?”. I turned to check if her auntie had come to pick her. There were many pretty things inside her bag. She asked me to hold two pink buttons. She promised to give those to me for keeps later. Ethan shrugged his shoulders and went to sit on the verandah. He wanted to help Gauri, but she wouldn’t let him. Gauri pulled out her broken snack box. It was the fifth snack box this year. The vegetable sandwich had got spoiled and it stunk of mayonnaise. Why couldn’t they let her have four biscuits, I asked myself when I turned to check my son who was getting chubbier. May be kids should eat healthy.
“Oh my God. Got it”. Gauri beamed.
She pulled a copy of “Guess How Much I Love You”. All edges were dog eared. The book was really really old and over used. “It was our favourite book”, Gauri opened her pendant and showed me her mum’s photo. I wondered where her mum was. I took a closer look at the photo. Gauri had her mum’s eyes and wide smile. Gauri stared deep into my eyes. “Amma is not well. The doctors won’t let her come home yet”.
“Teacher says we should all pray for Gauri’s mum”, Ethan joined in. Questions flooded my mind.
“I’ve got the same book”, Ethan said, and reduced the tension that was building up. Gauri frowned. Then she pulled my bag and gestured to sit down. I bit my lips. Was I supposed to read? I liked the idea. But may be in my home. The place was flooded with all kinds of parents. Ethan swayed his body and shrugged again. Gauri’s smiles started to dwindle. I couldn’t and wouldn’t disappoint her. It was just a book. May be her parents or auntie or nan was running late.
We three sat down at the verandah. Our feet were getting wet. But that was okay. Gauri’s hands remained wrapped around my bag. She sat beside me with her chin on my arms. Ethan observed every move and sat beside her. I opened the book and started, “Guess How Much I Love You, written by … Sam McBratney.” For some reason, I started to well up. A proper trickle went down while we reached the second page. Gauri noticed the tear drop and turned to look at my eyes, wiped it and gestured not to cry. What did she understand? I heaved a sigh and continued. Ethan suddenly jumped up. “Amma, read it like how you read to me”. “But Ethan, I can’t be loud and dramatic now”, I explained. “No. The arms.”
He pulled my arms and wrapped it on Gauri’s shoulders. Gauri giggled. The toothless giggles. I wanted to hug and kiss her.
The story got almost finished. I wondered if I read it right. Suddenly, a woman came and pulled Gauri away from me. She spanked her with her hand, mildly, but embarrassingly enough, and yelled, “where were you? Weren’t you supposed to be near the fish tank? Where is your bag?” Gauri kept her lips sealed. She didn’t cry. She didn’t smile. She didn’t answer anything. The woman started to walk towards the steps, saying, “mad like her mother!” Gauri pulled the bag and dragged it along with her. She gave the pink buttons to me. She took the story book from me. She turned to look at the woman who was a few feet away, and then us, and spiked it hard on the puddle. Ethan rushed to get it. Gauri started to cry. I stood helpless. The woman came and spanked her again. She grabbed the book from Ethan and tried to pat it dry and said sorry. She had thought it was ours. Gauri was pulled away. The woman ripped off a piece of our heart with her. Ethan and I both stood speechless. We took the book home.
I didn’t scream at Ethan that day. I gave him an extra piece of cake. I added more sugar in his milk. After homework, at bedtime, I read 6 story books. As a special treat we went through “Guess How Much I Love You”. We read till the end. In the last page somebody had scribbled the words – “to my very special baby. Your kicks make me very happy. No force will ever take you away from me. Come to me soon. Amma will always always always always always love you.” I felt a chill down the spine. I switched off the lamp, and played a lullaby, and walked out of the room. I started to weep uncontrollably. I went and turned on the blender. I grinded my teeth and kept cursing someone. When the bowl had gotten really hot, I turned off the blender. I took a deep breath and turned to see my husband standing at the door. “She is a really really rich girl. She has two nannies to take care of her. I know the father. A nice guy. He comes in our train. But … he prefers to stay away from the family. His. And … Gauri has her grandparents living with her”. I stared at him as if blaming him. “Oh-kay”, he smiled and walked to our room.
I calmed down. I took out the empty bowl from the blender and drank a glass of water. I heard the father and son discussing Gauri. She always got spanked at school. The teacher always told that it was her achamma’s orders to spank her. She shouldn’t turn out like her mother. Gauri’s shirts were always dirty. She ran around the whole classroom when the teacher tried to get hold of her. If she didn’t like the lunch, she threw it all out. Some times she forgot and received spanking. She sang a sweet lullaby. She asked to keep it a secret. Ethan giggled every time he mentioned something about Gauri.
Gauri had a special place in my heart. She was my Gauri. The girl who always ran to me and hugged me tight. The girl who gave me plenty of buttons that almost filled a bottle. The girl who would save the last piece of biscuit just for me. The girl who wrote the sweetest letters just for me. The girl who made me a better mother.