“ONE LITTLE KITTEN, TWO BIG CATS”, wrote Mala ma'am in big, bold letters on the blackboard, reading her words aloud. The letters curled towards the right, in contrast to the upright letters of the words “HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY” written in bigger and bolder letters at the top of the blackboard. Rajaji Primary school was in its first post-lunch session on an unusually hot February day. As the students in class I-B repeated the words after her, Rishi suppressed a yawn and joined in at “..TWO..”, stressing the words in an unnecessarily loud and out-of-tune voice. His hands felt under the desk, grabbing one from the last few toffees left in a plastic cover. He unwrapped it as noiselessly as possible, surreptitiously popped the toffee into his mouth, and pushed back the wrapper under the desk.
“Psst! Psst!”. He turned around to the outraged pouts of Karan and Rohit, who were sitting behind him at the next desk. Their palms were outstretched, entreating him to share his toffees. His hesitation lost to their insistence, and he passed on a couple grudgingly. “SIX SAD SEALS, SEVEN SILLY SEAGULLS”, shouted his classmates as his mind wandered to the morning session. Rohit and Karan had taken alternate turns in accompanying him to distribute the toffees all around the school. He remembered nervously entering the fifth standard class room, where Anandhi ma'am was teaching Science.
“Come in, my child”, she said looking up from her book. “Ah Chocolates! Do we have a birthday baby here?”, she asked as he entered alone, unable to persuade Rohit to join him.
“I am g..going to have a baby next week, mam”, he stammered, doing his best to avoid eye contact with the tall, big seniors in the class fixated on him.
The complete class sniggered as Anandhi mam looked up in surprise.
“I am going to have a baby sister next week, mam”, he hastily corrected himself.
“Fantastic. A cute baby sister for a shy boy. What are you going to call her?”
“Nithya. Wonderful name! I believe it means everlasting. God bless her with a long life”, she said as she grabbed a handful of chocolates and stuffed them in her shiny red purse.
“TWELVE FAT FLEAS” continued Mala mam. Rishi concentrated on chewing the caramel toffee. They didn’t taste as good as those foreign-chocolates his dad had brought from Abu Dhabi a few months back. He missed his father, who stayed with Raju and his mom only for a month every year. He pictured himself riding on the bike with his appa, seated over the petrol tank, pretending as if he was controlling the bike. He longed for the sweaty smell of his father. His father had just left back to Abu for Dhabi work, and Rishi knew that it would be long before his father came back again for the next yearly break.
”You would be in second standard. A grown-up. Study well, and take care of your mother and the baby”, appa had told before leaving.
Rishi looked forward to growing up. He would ride around in his own bike, handling the bike with one hand while talking on the phone with the other, just like his father. His father had brought his mother an android phone last time, and he had promptly installed Angry Birds and Subway Surfers. Amma always sought his help to do this or that with the phone. But apparently, he was too young to have his own phone.
“Soon, Rishi. Soon!”, he told himself.
“FIFTEEN DONKEYS WITH FIFTEEN TAILS”, wrote Mala mam and turned around. She was interrupted by a noise from outside. Grateful for the distraction, the children turned towards the door. Rishi let out a short yelp as he recognized the tall bearded man in a blue shirt and jeans outside as his own maternal uncle. “Raghu mama!”, he almost exclaimed, and his face broke into a spontaneous grin. He eagerly watched as his uncle grimly passed on a letter to Mala mam. She glanced at it, and quietly motioned at Rishi to leave with him. Rishi grabbed his bag, stood up, took a step forward, realized he had forgotten something in his excitement, doubled back and pulled out the toffee cover. Half-a-dozen empty wrappers flew out of the desk as Rohit and Karan stifled their laughter. Rishi didn’t mind them though. He had half-a-day off, while Karan and Rohit would have to endure two continuous maths periods followed by an anxious English hour handled by the stern Simion Clark sir.
Raghu uncle didn’t like him sitting on the petrol tank; so Rishi had to sit behind his savior-from-drudgery and hug him tight. He momentarily released his hands to wave a goodbye to the friendly watchman anna, and had to quickly hold his uncle’s waist to regain balance as the engine revved up.
“Mama, where are we going?”, he shouted above the noise, asking the question for the thirteenth time since they had left the class.
The last time his uncle had relieved him from school this way, they had lied that their mother was unwell and gone to watch a movie starring Vijay in theatre. After the movie, Raghu uncle had treated him to a Softy cone ice cream. It had been great fun.
“Are you taking me to a movie?”, he asked hopefully.
His uncle shushed, and rode on silently.
After what seemed like a long time, Raghu uncle parked his bike before a large, concrete, morose looking building. A lot of people were moving in and out of the entrance, and a large number of them were nurses in white gowns. He read the board in front of the hospital with some difficulty: “Jeya Hospitals”.
Rishi hated hospitals. His mother often took him along for check-ups, and he felt uncomfortable seeing people hastening around. He was also scared of doctors, who wouldn’t think twice about using an injection on you if you annoy them. The last thing he wanted was to take half-a-day off from school and spend it in a dreary hospital. They walked past the reception to a waiting lobby, took the stairs to the second floor, and crossed a row of rooms to reach a door marked as “1906”. Raghu uncle knocked once, and opened the door. Rishi was surprised to see his paternal grandparents; his patti half out of the chair to open the door, and his thatha sitting as he always did, indifferent to the surroundings. Mom rarely got along with his grandpa and grandma. His mother herself was in the lying in the patient’s bed, craning her neck out to see the door. As soon as she spotted him, she ignored the protests of Raghu uncle and sat up on the bed with difficulty, extending her arms to him. Rishi held her, and she hugged him fiercely. The visibly embarrassed boy freed himself from her grasp. His features unconsciously started twisting into a frown of annoyance -- he had told her about a thousand times that he didn’t like her showing such affection in public – but he remembered that she was bed-ridden, and softened a little.
He lied to his mother’s “did you eat your lunch properly?”, whilst inserting both his hands into his pant pockets. His uncle had always chided that gesture as being adult like, and Raju wanted to handle this like an adult would.
“And how are you, patti”, he asked turning towards his grandmother.
“What did the doctor say?”, Raghu uncle cut in loudly.
“The latest scan results have confirmed it. It has been like this for f..four weeks”, his mother’s voice broke.
“They have arranged for the operation on 29th, day after tomorrow”, his grandmother added.
The room drifted off into an uneasy silence. Seeing his mother lying dormant on a bed caused an uncomfortable feeling in Rishi’s stomach. Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t remember a day with his mother not standing at the door of their house, anxiously waiting for him as he walked home from the school bus. Her first question would always be, “did you eat your lunch?”. She would then open his Spider-man tiffin box, and berate him when she found the left-overs in it.
She didn’t check his tiffin box today. Instead, she asked him if he wanted to lie down. He protested, but Raghu uncle had already started clearing the spare bed to make space for him. He also made a makeshift pillow using, appropriately, Rishi’s books; covering them with a towel. Rishi lied down, and soon drifted off into a nap.
When he woke up, it felt as if he had slept for many hours. He was surprised to find himself on the hospital bed, and it took a while for him to register why he was there. He slowly sat up. His mother was asleep, his grandfather was reading the latest issue of a Tamil magazine, and his grandmother seemed to be murmuring silent prayers.
“Where is Raghu mama?”, he asked.
He had overestimated the strength of his voice, and the words fell flat at the foot of his bed. He tried again.
“Patti, where is Raghu mama?”
His grandfather opened his eyes wearily. His grandmother starred at him blankly before answering him.
“He has gone to the airport.”
“What why? To pick up your father”, she stated with an air of obviousness.
“WHAT!? Is Appa coming home?”, shrieked Rishi.
Forgetting his resolve to act like an adult, he leapt out of the bed and started going around in circles play-acting a bike ride. “Drrr..Drr..dududududu.. Durrrrr”.
The noise woke up his mother.
“Keen Kin! Keen Kin! Keen kin! Drrr..dudu dud dud du”
“Rishi, stop!”, his mother had to shout in anguish to make herself heard.
“Nithya is dead. Your baby sister died inside my stomach. They are going to operate me tomorrow to take her out”, she said.
Rishi stopped abruptly, without bringing the gears of his bike to neutral. He had looked forward to playing with Nithya. He had imagined showing her off to his friends, teaching her to wear a sticker pottu and protecting her from Rowdies like his favourite movie heros. He had wanted to teach her to play Subway Surfers, and had visualized her watching him with amazement as the high scores tumbled. What will he say to Anandhi madam when she asks him about his cute sister? What will Karan and Rohit say to him? Would they tease him as if it was his mistake? Had he distributed so many chocolates for nothing? That reminded him, and he quickly glanced at the unshaped chocolate cover which protruded out of his backpack, reassuring himself with relief that it was still there.
It then occurred to him that he had bunked his school. Would Clark sir ask him to stand up on the bench tomorrow? He imagined standing up on the bench, when that bespectacled Raji pointed and laughed at him. The idea made him profoundly sad, and tears poured out of his eyes spontaneously. His mother noticed his anguish, and beckoned at him.
“Oh, don’t cry dear child! Please don’t. I love you so much. I thank God for you! Please God, don’t let him cry.”, she hugged him once again. This time, he let her.
After being held for a few minutes, he tentatively tugged at her saree.
“Can I have your phone?”
His mother hesitated, and gave him a weak smile, asking him to carefully take it from her green handbag lying on the spare bed, and not to disturb anything else from the bag. “Or else, better still, bring me the bag and I will get it for you”.
Rishi occupied himself with the mobile phone. He didn’t know how much time passed, before someone knocked the door of their room. Everyone looked up in expectation. The door opened inwards, and a tall muscular figure wearing an old jeans pant and a gray shirt stepped in, its disheveled hair blocking the numerals ‘1906’.
“APPA!”, Rishi shouted excitedly, jumping out of the bed and running towards the door. His father responded with a weak smile, and offered his hand as a greeting. Rishi hung on to the hand and tried to climb up. His father almost lost his balance, and his patti reproved him for his mischief.
“How are you, my boy?”, Rishi’s father asked tiredly.
“I am fine dad. How are you?”
“Did you bring those cracking chocolates for me? And the remote controlled helicopter? Where are your bags?”
His father looked at Rishi, and tears welled up in his eyes. Raghu -- who had stepped in behind him -- gripped his shoulders, and patted him on the back, whilst meeting Rishi’s eyes with an admonishing stare.
Rishi was baffled, and his face fell. He understood that he won’t be having a baby sister, and he had wept for it too. But he had never seen his father cry. Was his father not glad to see him? He never understood these adults and their mood-swings. He wished he could grow-up soon, and be like them. Nothing would make him happier.
Or so he thought.
Soon, Rishi. Soon.