It’s hot. It’s always hot. It makes it so difficult to concentrate on the sums on the sheet in front of me. My collar feels like it’s choking me, and I stick two fingers down it and tug to make it looser. Staring down, I have to blink- hard, to stop the numbers from blurring and mixing together. Numbers are something of a foreign language to me but for some reason today was even worse.
Someone might have said my name.
I looked up and took a deep breath, blinking again as I stared through the haze at Mr Valerian Lobo. He strode towards me and knelt down in front of my recycled wooden desk, pushing his glasses up his nose. He pressed his hand to my forehead and sighed, tired and maybe sad, because he frowned and his lips turned down.
“I think we’ve got another one,” he said, very quietly, then louder: “Salila can you hear me?” I nodded but didn’t reply, it felt like too much effort to actually say anything. “I’m going to take you to Ramji, okay Salila? Can you walk?”
I nodded yes again, but as I slowly stood up my knees went wobbly and I fell onto them. I was eye level with Mr Valerian Lobo but before I knew it he’d stood up and scooped me into his arms. He might have said something about being back in a moment to the rest of the class, who were so unconcerned that it verged on bored. This had happened many times before. The noise level definitely picked up as we left, and that was the last thing that I noticed.
“Mama?” I muttered, there was a hand on my head as I opened my bleary eyes. There was a face smiling down at me, and a bright blue sari fluttering gently in the breeze that lilted through the window.
“Salila,” Mama breathed, sounding relieved. “I think it’s time to go home, dear.”
I sat up abruptly and my head spun, Mama rested her hand between my shoulder blades in case I fell backwards, but I didn’t.
“What’s the time?” I asked, “I was supposed to be taking Sahaj and Amila home today, it’s my turn.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Mama soothed, pushing my thick black hair back from my forehead, “not today it’s not. Inesh was happy to do it, I’ll walk you home today.” She took my hands as I swung my feet from the school’s rough sick bed. I leaned my head around Mama and grinned at Ramji, who looked after the ill kids.
“Sorry Ramji,” I said, feeling sheepish.
“Ah don’t worry, you’re a rainy baby Salila, not a sunny baby.”
I frowned a bit, unsure what he was talking about, but mum was already hauling me off of the bed, thanking Ramji and pulling me through the corridor, her hand wrapped tightly around mine. There was something squeezed between her hand and mine, lumpy and smooth like fabric.
“What’s this, Mama?” I asked, prising my hand from hers. A white ball dropped onto the dull concrete floor and I swiftly scooped it up.
It was a ball of paper, crumpled and spread flat so many times that it no longer had any sharp edges. I smoothed it out; a letter. I slowed to read it.
The time has come, I think, for us to meet again. We have been our separate ways for so long now that I feel I barely know you and especially Salila. I don’t know her at all. Suffice to say I have forgiven you, but I think you owe it to Aafreem to…
We burst out of the school entrance into the blinding Mumbai sunlight, and the letter was tugged from between my fingers. The last word I saw was Krish before it was tucked safely into Mama’s sari.
“You shouldn’t have- Salila- Not for your eyes,” Mama mumbled shielding her own eyes from the sudden sun.
“Mama… who’s Aafreem? Who’s Krish? When will I meet them?”
“You will- Salila, please. I’ve had a busy day. Mama is tired.” The last word was drawn out and exhausted, so I nodded and allowed Mama to hug me and guide me through the labyrinth of hotchpotch houses and teeming crowds beyond the school.
We found our own shanty house after a half hour long weave through the transit camp, to a small, bright building that Mama and I shared with a family of six. It didn’t feel like separate families though, I felt like I had a sister and three brothers, two Mamas and a Papa who all loved me as much as their own flesh and blood.
“I’m going to rest, dear,” Mama said, already starting to peel off her sari, “before the Patel’s get back. Dhvani especially is growing up into a little hyena.”
Dhvani was the youngest girl, and my favourite; she wasn’t too old to play games yet.
“That’s alright, Mama,” I stood up on my tip toes to kiss her on the cheek. She was down to a spoiled, dirty underskirt and a choli now, like she had scraped away some of the beautiful blue of a sapphire, which was now puddled on the floor. Mama smiled, her eyes full of tiredness, and walked into the cramped sleeping space that she had all to herself (a privilege).
I looked down at the sari, and there was only one thought on my mind, The Letter.
The time has come, I think, for us to meet again. We have been our separate ways for so long now that I feel I barely know you and especially Salila. I don’t know her at all. Suffice to say I have forgiven you, but I think you owe it to Aafreem to meet her, I find it difficult to explain sometimes, what you did. But you were young, not yet grown in the mind. I was not as surprised as I should have been.
In short: What I would like, Parvati, is to see my stolen daughter.
Affy and I will be visiting Mumbai, not long from now, and I pray that you will come and see me, if not for me, then for Affy, she deserves to meet you, and for Salila, she deserves to meet me.
We will be at the Dolphin Cyber Café at noon on the 3rd of August. It’s cheap.
I hope to see you and Salila soon,
It was all a bit of a blur after ‘my stolen daughter’ and I felt my head spinning and my knees threatening to give way, so I leant against the hard wall (another privilege) and stared up into the donated bottle of bleach and water poking through the ceiling, emitting a bright white glow, staring at it until my mind stopped reeling.
Then I shouted like a child, which I’m not proud of.
The supposed meeting was tomorrow, and bile spilled up my throat, held back with a hasty seal of the lips and a cover of the hand. I swallowed, hard, and shouted again.
“Oh, are we shouting?” Dhvani had just tottered through the door, with her mother at her heels. I could feel my eyes bulging from my head, the way that my lips pulled slightly back from my teeth like an animal. Of all the secrets to keep…
I ignored Dhvani and shouted to my mother again. It sounded as though something had been knocked over in her room, and then she was in the ‘living room’, looking concerned and frightened.
Dhvani had started screaming gleefully and Taruni, her mother, calmly shushed her whilst my mother and I regarded each other. Mama’s eyes drifted to the letter in my hand, and then she crumpled onto the floor.
Taruni rushed over to her and wrapped her arms around her shoulders, whispering words I couldn’t hear. Dhvani was screaming again and I was standing against the wall, silent and in shock.
Mama looked up at me, tears streaming down her face, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I didn’t want to- to-”
At this point I would have liked to have said something derisive, but I couldn’t find the words.
“I didn’t want you to know how awful and selfish I had been. I was a horrible mother, a detestable wife, and even though I was sad when I left I thought I was in the right. I was seventeen, Salila, and I am so sorry, I am so sorry.”
I felt a surge of guilt for Mama and took a wary step closer to her, the letter slowly crumpling in my hand.
“Can we… can we meet them, please?”
Mama nodded, then dropped her head back into her hands and wept, as though all of her unpleasant memories were crashing down on her like fierce waves, and perhaps they were.