The house felt strangely empty as Priya tiptoed through the large hall into the verandah. The usual patter of busy feet, the loud voices of the adults raised in mirth, or indignation, or teasing superiority, did not grate in her ears any longer. She didn’t miss them. She couldn’t hear her cousins and their friends; they were probably outside, playing in the dust, doing exactly what they had been forbidden to do. The only thing she missed was the kindly, reassuring presence of her grandmother.
Her grandmother was the only person who always took her part in those never-ending quarrels with her older cousins and against all the grown-ups who constantly seemed to be laughing at her weird ways. She had taken seriously ill in the night, and been taken to hospital in the city. Her parents, her aunts and her uncles had gone along, taking with them their little children. Thankfully. She wouldn’t have wanted to baby-sit a couple of sobbing, incoherent, messy toddlers. Of course, one of her older cousins would have been asked to do so, not she, but then the bullies that they were, they always palmed off any responsibility they were entrusted with onto Priya. In her little, limited world, she was the butt of all ridicule. People thought she was crazy because she had imaginary friends, and talked to them whenever she was alone. Even in a house as big as this, with all the people living in it, privacy was a precious commodity, much sought after but extremely difficult to get. Priya resented it whenever her cousins spied on her and told the adults about all her role-play and soliloquy. They would shake their heads at her, tell her she would be put in an asylum before she was fifteen, and then go about their own business. Her mother and her aunts would dress up early and be ready to regale all their friends who dropped in for a chat at all hours of the day; her father and her uncles were perpetually frowning over a little money lost in some transaction. The house held no joy for her; her ten years had been spent in solitude mixed with wistfulness.
The only silver lining in this cloud of childish gloom was Priya’s grandmother; a cheerful, considerate lady who understood the needs of the most insignificant creature on the earth. It was in her company that Priya found solace. But the guardian angel of the house, and indeed, the locality, that the popular lady was, Priya didn’t have as much time with her alone as she would have liked.
Priya stood in the doorway, watching the dust raised from the dry ground by the slippered feet of the children- her cousins and their friends. The dust was everywhere- it floated on the sunbeams, lay thick on the limp leaves drooping from the trees, coated every single wall and pillar. How she wished one cool shower would wash everything away! That would bring her some comfort, now, because nothing else seemed to. Her elder brother and his friends never let her play with them. "You’re too young for our games! We need strong people, not scrawny kids like you." In the beginning, Priya pleaded with them, even ran little errands so she would be allowed into their circle, but she gradually realised how futile her servility was, and assumed an almost hostile attitude towards all these pretentious ‘grown-ups’ who populated her world.
"Go play with the kids! They’re your age," Anant, her brother, would say.
"They’re not! They’re much younger. And they are playing with little utensils. I don’t want to play those silly games. I want to play with you."
"No, you cannot. We play rough games, and you’ll end up going to Ma, crying because you’ve hurt yourself."
"I won’t! I never cry." Even as she said this, tears would start up in Priya’s eyes, and Anant would turn away, a cruel smile curving across his hateful, pasty face, as it seemed to his sister.
Sometimes, one of the girls, in an unexpected fit of kindness, would intercede on Priya’s behalf, but the proposal would be promptly nipped in the bud. Priya knew then that she was unwanted, and through some bitter lessons, came to accept the reality without protest. Her pride wouldn’t let her play with the ‘babies’, as she called them, and she would retreat into her shell, seeking solace in her imaginary world.
Priya watched the group this afternoon, her heart anxious for her grandmother, seeking some kind of encouragement. The other children were absorbed in play; the games, with their propensity for keeping childish anxiety at bay, had successfully rid their minds of any worrying thoughts. Priya did not know the nature of her grandmother’s illness, or its magnitude, but she felt almost sure that she would never see her only friend again. Childhood often magnifies fears, especially when they are not fully understood. So it was with Priya. She wished she could do something to forget the pain for a while.
As Priya watched, Anant came towards her, accompanied by Nita. Had she done something wrong? She’d just been watching. She cowered into a corner as Anant pushed the grill open and stepped into the verandah.
"Do you want to play with us?" he asked, without any preamble.
Priya gaped in astonished silence.
"Do you, or do you not? We don’t have all day."
"Come along then."
Nita, who had followed him in, spoke up. "Now, Priya, you must understand that we play tough games, and if you want to play with us, we’ll have to do something different. We can’t play our regular games. So you choose. What would you like to play?"
"I…I have dolls."
Anant snorted impatiently, but Nita nudged him. She turned to Priya patiently. "Look, the boys can’t play with dolls, you understand that, right? Think of something else. But be quick, because I think it’ll start raining sooner or later, and then you can’t play."
"Why are you asking me to play today?"
"Because you’re alone."
Priya thought hard for a while, and then said, "I have a top that my grandmother gave me. She gave it only to me, to nobody else, because she played with it when she was a little girl, and she knew I’d take good care of it."
"She gave it to you because you threw a tantrum," Anant cut in. "Priya thinks it’s a precious family heirloom," he smirked.
Nita glared at him fiercely, but softened as she turned to Priya.
"Bring it, Priya. We’ll wait for you outside."
Priya rushed into the house and opened the desk where she stored her little treasures. Her little breast was aflutter with excitement and anxiety- it all seemed so strange! They were actually asking her to play with them. But something didn’t feel quite right. She did her best to ignore that feeling, pushing it to the remotest recesses of her mind, and clutching the sturdy top to her chest, ran into the afternoon sunshine, feeling wanted for the first time in days.
Anant grabbed the top from her and disappeared into a group of boys.
Nita appeared beside Priya and put an arm around her. "Don’t worry, he is just showing it to the others. You know it’s really old. He wants to show it off. He’ll give it back to you after a while. Then you can play with it."
"But you said we’d play together."
"Look, Anant will give you the top back after we are done playing with it. Don’t complain. Nobody forced you to bring it out." Then, followed by the other girls, Nita joined the raucous group.
Grey clouds began to gather overhead. They massed together, coming together in one angry bunch over a group of children, watched from the fringes by one lonely, bereft girl. She tried to push her way in, but was elbowed away. Anant wasn’t even bothered about what was happening to her. Bruised and hurting in more ways than one, Priya retreated to the shade of a tree. She would get her top back. It was the only thing of grandmother’s that she had. Then an agonising thought struck. Did it really matter, now that she might never even get her grandmother back? Tears pricked Priya’s eyes. She watched through her tears as the clouds opened up simultaneously. The rain wasn’t as comforting as she had thought it would be, a little while ago. It fell in big, heavy drops, and they stung.
As the children ran around the spinning top, it suddenly toppled from the slippery surface into a culvert nearby. The heavy rain that had fallen for ten minutes had turned the culvert into a little river, and as Priya and the others watched, it was carried away in the eddies of the brown water, amongst other pieces of rubble and dirt.
It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Priya went back into the house, impassive. She wanted her grandmother.
The other children went in another direction, in search of fresh game.