I count the stairs on my way up. One by one. My new shoes clack harder on the granite than the old ones used to. I bought them just today. They’re red.
I know how many steps there are. But counting has become a habit. And you’ve got to keep your habits. My mother always said habits are like family. Love them or hate them, you’ve got to keep them. We were close, Aai and I.
It’s sunny today. It’s usually sunny in May in Bombay. Sunny and bright. Summer has always been good to me, right from the start. Baba always went away on camps in the summer – I never asked him where. I didn’t care. I was just happy to be with Aai. And she was happy to be with me. We were close. Best friends.
The staircase is dark. But my shoes still sparkle. Mehek will like them, I think. She likes high heels. She told me so yesterday. Eight-year olds these days say the strangest things.
I told her heels don’t suit me. I don’t have pretty legs, you see. ‘But didi,’ she said. ‘You have beautiful legs. I like them!’ When she speaks in that adorable voice, it’s hard to resist her. I haven’t told her yet that I’ve bought them. Thought I should walk up and down the terrace to practice walking in them before I show them off to her. I haven’t worn heels this high before. I wouldn’t want to trip when she’s watching.
I like walking up to the terrace. Baba asks me why I don’t take the elevator. I suppose I could, but how would I count the steps then? You’ve got to keep your habits. They’re like family.
Besides, it’s only a three-storey walk up. It doesn’t tire me out or anything. I walk up everyday just before the kids arrive – right after breakfast. It’s nice up there. I like to stand on the railing. You know, just to spread my arms and stare down at the city.
I took Malhar up there the other night. The little rascal’s legs started hurting half-way through so I had to carry him. We just sat there watching the moon. I told him a story. Stroked his hair with my fingers. He loves it when I do that. He has such soft hair. He fell asleep on my lap, so I had to carry him back down as well. He’s getting a little heavier these days. Kids do grow up fast.
Malhar likes red.
Another good thing about summers is I don’t have to go to college.
Not that I don’t like college. It’s good. Aanchal – my best friend – and I sometimes go to the movies together. Sometimes we just walk around the campus. Sometimes we go to a cafe. I like Aanchal. She understands me.
But Aanchal has other friends. Sometimes when we’re together, her phone beeps, and she says she has to go. She never tells me where she goes, but I know it is to meet her other friends. I don’t like them, but what can I do? I want her to spend all her time with me. I know I can make her much happier than any of her other friends can. But I can’t tell her all that, can I? Things like that ought to be understood. I don’t want to sound selfish.
Besides, it’s not like I don’t have a life without Aanchal. Whenever she leaves me alone for her other friends, I just go to the library. Or watch TV. Or paint something. Aai always said life is all about being satisfied with what you have.
I am lucky in a way. When I was in school I heard stories of girls being harassed in college. Teased; molested; raped even. But none of that happens to me. Boys in the college leave me alone. Not one of them has ever given me a second look. Which is good. Very good.
But Aanchal is not so lucky. She is taller. She is fairer. She is thinner. She wears clothes that are – different to mine. Whenever we’re walking down the street, she gets called by boys on the street. She doesn’t seem to mind, but it makes my blood boil.
I think Aanchal also likes being with boys. Most of her friends are boys. It feels like I am eating my own vomit when I see her with a boy. All that flirting and touching and laughing – ugh! But I can’t let her see it, can I? That would be selfish.
She was ragged by a group of seniors on her first day of college. All of them were boys. But in a week she had become friends with them. How can you be friends with people who have stolen your self-respect? How can you laugh around with the very people who have made a laughing stock of you? How can you be so devoid of dignity? Why does Aanchal need anyone else while she – while she has me? I don’t understand.
But I don’t ask her any of those questions. She is my best friend. And friends should be forgiven their little foibles. They are like habits. They’re meant to be kept.
Books are my other best friends. Aai always said books are the only friends that will never desert you. She told me a lot of stories when I was growing up. During breakfast; during dinner; before we went to sleep. We slept on the same bed, Aai and I. Especially when Baba was away. Sometimes we slept on her bed, and sometimes on mine.
Aai had a very loving embrace. Snuggling up to her made the world so safe, so free of all worry. She used to kiss me and tell me I was beautiful. She used to call me her treasure. She used to caress my hair. She used to hold me close to her. She used to rock me. Through the night, sometimes.
We were close, Aai and I.
After Aai died, we moved here. Baba said he wanted a change of setting. The first thing I noticed about this place was how many kids were playing in the courtyard. I have always been good with kids. I know how to treat them.
A talent like that doesn’t stay hidden for long in an apartment complex full of working people. Mr Khanna asked me first if I had time to babysit his son. Then it was Mrs Paranjape; Mr Nirankar soon followed. In less than a week after moving here I was babysitting twelve kids.
Summers are good in that way too. The kids don’t have school, so I get to see them everyday.
They call me Didi. They arrive at ten in the morning and leave in the evening – whenever their parents come back. I tell them stories; we act scenes from plays; we sing songs.
But lately we’ve moved past that.
I think it was early last month that it happened for the first time. Ruchi and I were alone in my apartment. The rest of the kids had gone home. She sidled up to me and asked, ‘Didi, what does a kiss feel like?’ We’d enacted Romeo and Juliet that afternoon.
I remembered what it was like during those long summer nights when I was a kid. I told her.
She didn’t understand. ‘Can you show me, Didi?’ she asked, frowning.
I showed her. She liked it.
So did I.
Ruchi probably spread the word to the others. Soon all of them wanted to be shown.
I took Arpit up to the terrace that night. I was nervous because that was my first time with a boy. But I need not have feared. If anything, he was more willing to be shown than Ruchi was. And his nine-year-old body responded more readily than hers had. When we were done, he was a little confused.
His tired eyes looked strangely hesitant. Guilty, even.
I hugged him. ‘You will be okay, my darling,’ I whispered into his ear. Rocked him back and forth. He went to sleep in my arms.
Next it was Mehek’s turn. Next, Malhar’s…and so on.
Those twelve nights on the terrace, under the moonlight, I showed my twelve kids what it was like to be loved. To be held. To be hugged. Aai always said the love we receive from people during our lives is meant to be distributed to others. I did precisely that. Can there be anyone more deserving of love – Aai’s love – than my kids?
Sometimes they complain, like Mehek did last night. ‘It’s hurting me, Didi,’ she said. I told her a little bit of pain was good. She listened. She kept quiet and swallowed the pain. She’s a good, tough girl.
They always come back. Religiously. To sing songs, to enact plays, to hear stories, to be shown. They keep it to themselves too, the little dears. All they need is just a gentle reminder now and then. That their parents would be really angry with them if they ever found out. That we were doing nothing wrong. That it could all be our little secret.
Kids respond well to persuasion. You just need to know how to do it.
Twenty-eight…I open the door and walk out on to the terrace.
The sun is mercilessly beating down. I wipe the sweat off the back of my neck. It has become a habit now, showing the kids. Or is ‘addiction’ the right term? Is there a difference?
Giving love is a million times more pleasurable than receiving it. Not all the pleasure I received from Aai over all those summer nights could hold even the smallest candle to one night with one of my kids. Up here on the terrace. As moonlight our sole witness.
I ease myself onto the top of the railing. I look down at the bustle of the city.
Sometimes I hear a strange beating in my heart. I can hear it only here, on the terrace. Only when I am alone. See? There it is now!
There it is now. It starts low, but it soon becomes an unbearable thudding underneath my chest – as though something wants to break it open.
Involuntarily, I stand up on tiptoe. A gust of wind blows. My hair flies out.
How easy it would be, I think. How easy it would be to just – dive off the railing; how easy it would be to end it all, for myself and for the kids.
‘Jump, Didi,’ Mehek’s voice echoes in my ear. I close my eyes, hoping it would go away.
‘A little bit of pain is good, Didi,’ Mehek says. Stop!
‘Jump, Didi. Jump. Jump. Jump.’
I open my eyes and stumble back on the terrace. Somehow I manage to stay on my feet. My face is awash with sweat. This is becoming more and more common of late. It’s not always Mehek. Yesterday it was Ruchi; the day before it was Pradeep; and the day before…
They all said the same thing, in their sweet, cherubic voices: ‘Jump, Didi.’
It’s just a crazy day-dream. Dreams are just random signals in the brain that don’t mean anything – anything! My kids love me. They would never want any harm to come to me. They like what I do to them. They tell me so. They would never want me to jump.
No, they would never, ever want me to jump. It’s just a stupid game my brain is playing with me. It must be! There’s simply no other explanation.
I realize I have been gritting my teeth. My fists are closed tight. I am panting. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths, wrenching my jaws apart. My sanity returns.
I look at my watch. It’s five minutes to ten. My breathing slowly returns to normal. My body relaxes.
The kids will start arriving soon. I have to go. I will show Mehek and Malhar my new shoes. I will let them play with them too, probably. Maybe I can lure them on to the terrace tonight after the moon had risen; together.
I could tell them a story each, one after the other. Or I could do a play, and get all three of us involved. Or I could get them to tell each other a story while I sit back and watch. See how well they’ve been learning.
There is no rule, is there, that you’re allowed to love only one person at a time?
That’s what I love about kids. Isn’t every day with them a whole world of new experiences? Isn’t every sound they make – every word they speak, every story they tell, every song they sing – the very definition of divine music?
A couple of Dairy Milks each should help convince them to come. And of course, once we’re done, one of those gentle reminders. Just in case they forget.
Kids respond well to persuasion. You just need to know how to do it.
I have always been good with kids.
It has become a habit now, all of this. And habits are like family. Love them or hate them, you’ve got to keep them.
I count the stairs on my way down. Like I do everyday. Backwards.