The jingle announcing the morning news emanated from the radio in the teashop. Though the shop was at the entrance of the colony, the owner kept the volume high enough to pierce through the walls of all houses in the small locality. Rani’s little hut, a mere ten steps away, caught it clearly without fail every day. It was the signal for her to wake up. She sat up yawning and stretched her arms above her head. As she did so, she remembered that she did not have to rush to madam’s house as usual. Today madam would come to meet her. She glanced around. Rajan was still asleep and only the small form of Baby was visible on Amma’s bed. Rani looked towards the door. It was half-shut. Her mother must have gone out. Slim beams of light streamed in through the gaps on the door made of rough wooden planks. In the dim darkness of the two-roomed house, she could see dust motes dancing in the air without a care. Normally Rani would spend some time watching the show, but today she was too excited. She pulled the door open, darkening the muddy arc on the floor.
Rani walked towards the teashop. The usual gang of old men sat on the low bench in front of the shop, sipping tea and gossiping. A few women stood together comparing their schedules.
Rani looked around, but Amma was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Amma?”
One of the women answered, “Oh Rani, she’s gone to the main road to buy flowers for you. Today is the day isn’t it?”
Rani smiled and nodded her head. The women gathered around her, “Will you be getting dressed from here or from her house?,” one of them asked.
“Madam told me to get dressed and to meet her at the school.”
“Which school, ours?” This was from Amma’s best friend.
Rani nodded again.
“But today is a holiday isn’t it, will it be open?” She continued.
Rani said, “The principal and some of the teachers come even on Saturdays, so it will be open.”
“Oh ok, get dressed and go. We are all proud of you.” Amma’s best friend drew a semi-circle in the air in front of Rani’s face with her hands to ward off the evil eye. The other women followed suit, patting her on her head, shoulders, pinching her cheeks, blessing her.
She went back to her house. As she crossed the threshold, her eyes automatically went to the photo of her father hanging on the wall opposite the main door. It was the first thing everyone noticed after stepping in, the photo with a thick garland over it. Made of sandalwood shavings and pressed rose flowers, the respectful decoration did nothing to lift the tired air of their house these days. But when it was first put up a year ago, it had warmed the confines of their home, cocooning them within its soothing fragrance.
She stood beneath the picture now and looked up at the smiling face of her father. The slight curve of his lips, the permanent crinkles at the corners of his eyes ― the effect of squinting against the perpetual glare of the sun ― made it seem as though he was amused at something. And that’s how she remembered him. Appa never lost his temper, she could not remember even one occasion when he raised his voice or lifted his hands unlike most men in their colony. Even now his last words to her resounded in her ears, causing her eyes to fill up,
“Your job is to study, complete your tenth and then you can go for DTP or some computer course, you’ll then get a job in an office. I don’t want you to end up as a housemaid like your mother.”
“Appa, I’ve been sitting in class eight for the past two years now. I would rather earn some money and help the family. I want to try for a job in the supermarket on the main road.”
“Who told you they’ll employ you at the supermarket? You need to complete your tenth class even for that job.”
“Rajan and Baby can do the studying Appa, at least think about it. I have to sit with children younger than me…”
“And whose fault is that?”
“…all my friends are in the tenth class now.” She even squeezed out some tears expecting him to relent. He pretended not to notice.
“No, you go to school now, I’m tired of this argument, I don’t want to hear it again. Finish your schooling, do a short course and then look for a job. Stop wasting my time. It is getting late for me.” She saw him get on his cycle and pedal away. How many miles would he have pedalled in his life? First the ride from their home to the gas agency, then two rounds of transporting and bringing back gas cylinders on a tricycle from the houses on his beat, after that the ride back home on the cycle again. But that day he did not return. When he did come back the next day, it was in an ambulance.
“Rani, here, I’ve got jasmine flowers for you.” Amma stood at the door clutching a folded banana leaf. Pearly white flowers peeped out, injecting a whiff of cheer inside their home.
“Amma why did you buy this, madam did not tell me to put flowers on my hair.”
“It’s ok, she’ll like it. Hurry now. Go take a bath and eat your food. You shouldn’t be late.”
Rani tied the thread of the salwar and slipped the kurta over her head. She traced the raised violet and green flowers spread out on the fabric. A brand new dress for no reason, an embroidered one at that, she wished Rajan, Baby and Amma too had new clothes.
Rani sat in front of her mother with her back to her. She pulled out the red ribbon from the clear plastic wrap and caressed its smoothness. “Don’t bend your head.” Her mother rapped her head as she divided the hair, “Keep the ribbons ready, when I ask give it to me immediately, otherwise the braid might loosen and your madam will not want to take your picture.”
“Amma, I think you are more excited than me,” Rani giggled.
“Of course, my daughter’s face will appear in magazines and papers, I’m very excited.”
“Only if she wins, Amma.”
What would Appa have said? Would he have approved? She shook her head, if he were here such a situation would not have come about at all.
Rajan woke up. He raised his bony hands over his head and stretched, “Ohh, your big day today, eh Rani.”
He limped over and whistled, “Looking nice, tell your madam to take my picture too.”
“No picture for you, get ready for school,” Amma said.
“Oh Amma, today is Saturday, have you forgotten?”
“Ah yes, I forgot, you go and get some idlis from the shop for yourself.”
Her mother finished braiding her hair and turned her around, “You look very nice, shall I put a black dot on your chin.”
Rani rolled her eyes, “No, Amma.”
Amma sighed, “Ok then let me put the flowers on your head.” She first put it on one side. Then she kept it on the other side. She clicked her tongue and repeated the exercise. Finally she decided to bridge the braids with it, a curved string of pearly fragrance that covered the lower part of her head, its ends lapping against her twin braids.
“Take blessing from Appa.”
Rani stood under the framed photo of her father with her eyes closed, hands joined together. Forgive me Appa. You wanted me to finish school but I could not do that. You were right, I did not get a job in the supermarket, but after you went away, Amma couldn’t manage on her own and I had to take up this job. But my madam is going to make me famous, please bless me; I hope I will not make any stupid mistakes today.
Rajan came over and hugged her as Baby sat in Amma’s arms and watched with wide eyes. “Give nice poses ok,” he said with a grin.
Amma nodded her head and smiled, “Go, you have my blessing.”
“I’ll be back only in the evening. After the photos are taken I’ll go to madam’s house, finish the work, and only then will I come home.”
“Wait then, take your ordinary clothes, don’t do the work wearing that pretty dress,” Amma ran to the corner and yanked a faded blue kurta and white salwar from the clothesline stretched in the corner of the room.
“Not my old uniform Amma,” Rani cried.
“The other dress is not dry yet, I washed it only last night,” Amma put the dress in a plastic bag and gave it to her. “Fold the new dress neatly when you take it off, don’t just shove it in the bag.”
Rani rolled her eyes again, “Ok, shall I go now?”
She walked in through the gates of the school. It was strange to enter the place again. She used to come here wearing the uniform, giggling with her friends. Now she was entering the place wearing a new dress, carrying the uniform in a bag. Things seemed to have changed for the worse from what she remembered. Many of the vertical bars on the gate were broken, a few more and the lower part would separate totally. The paint on the walls that had been a pale yellow earlier was now a patchwork of bleach white, jaundice yellow and mould green. The shifting light of the sun sketched shadows of the buildings on the sandy ground of the school.
She heard the sound of wheels grounding to a halt outside. Rani turned and saw madam closing the door of the car. Almost at that instant, the principal who was earlier the English teacher also reached the gate. Rani saw them both shaking hands. Then they started walking towards her. Madam was saying, “I took a picture of Rani and sent it to a competition organised by an international child rights organisation called WellChild. The winning photo would be the official poster of the organisation for a period of three years. Rani’s photo made it to the shortlist, one of the five shortlisted in fact.” Her pink lips parted in a smile.
Rani saw the principal smiling. He said, “Oh that’s wonderful.”
Madam continued, “For the next round I have to send more pictures. I thought the school would be the perfect setting.”
“Yes yes, definitely, you thought right,” he turned to Rani, ““Rani so you’ve come back to school eh?” He smiled. Looking towards the madam he said, “This girl hated coming to school, we had a tough time with her.”
Rani stole a look at madam, her eyes were relaxed not scrunched up as it usually was when she spoke to her. She was smiling now though she did not turn to look at Rani. Instead she addressed the principal again, “I want a room with plenty of natural lighting.” She raised the black glasses hiding her eyes and rested them on her head. It now seemed like a crown, a black headpiece, sparkling in the light of the sun.
The principal pointed to a room, “That room is well lit, you can go there. It does not have a door though; I hope that’s not a problem.”
Madam swung her face, her hair rustled and rearranged itself. Rani stared. If she did something like that, her folded plaits would come loose, the flowers would fall; in short, it would be a disaster.
Rani climbed the low steps to the narrow verandah running through the length of the building. She followed the principal and the madam into a room at the far end. As she entered she saw a paper stuck on the wall proclaiming it to be the classroom for ninth standard. She paused at the threshold and looked around. This would have been her classroom if she had continued studies, if Appa were still with them.
A smattering of tears welled up and she blinked. The principal was saying, “OK then. Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be in my office. Rani knows where it is,” he looked at Rani and smiled, “Rani you are a lucky girl, do exactly as she says, she’s going to make you famous.” He lifted his hands in farewell and walked away.
Madam opened her bag and took out her camera. She asked in a low voice, “Why have you put flowers on your head?”
“Amma thought it would look good …”
A melody floated as madam clicked the camera open. “Take it off immediately. And what’s inside that plastic cover…” she clicked her tongue and continued “… place it on the floor outside the classroom…it might appear in the photo without us realising it.”
Rani stammered, “Sorrry madam … I’ll keep it outside.”
Madam looked at her, tiny lines were beginning to form at the corners of her eyes, “Do exactly as I say ―you have taken the flowers off ― good, now stand near the blackboard and write some numbers. When I call you, look back over your left shoulder― I do hope you know your left from right,” Rani started to stammer, “Yye…” But madam continued without pausing, “it’s this one,” she tapped on Rani’s left shoulder.
Rani walked over to the board and did as instructed. Madam spoke continuously to her, softly, without raising her voice, “Rani look up … Rani look at the light … Rani sit on the desk …”
By the time they finished, the glow of light had weakened, allowing patches of blue to make an appearance on the sheer white sky. It was over finally. Rani picked up her plastic bag from the floor while madam placed the camera back in her bag. As they walked towards the gate she recited a litany of instructions,
“Take the key from the usual place. Make chappatis and vegetable korma today, buy potatoes, peas and capsicum from the shop, I’ve kept the money on the table. And for heaven’s sake make sure the chappatis are perfectly round, not in different shapes. And yes, I’ve soaked rice for idli, grind the batter,” she paused, “god I’m so thirsty, is there a supermarket somewhere here?”
Rani said, “Nearest supermarket is on the main road,” she hesitated and then said, “my house is nearby … if you want we can go there …”
Madam looked at her for a moment then shook her head and said, “Nnno…I don’t want to trouble your mother,” she sighed, “I’ll get something on my way.” She turned to go, then called her, “You did well, Rani … now let’s hope we are good enough.” When she smiled, Rani felt faint, she could not believe it, was madam actually happy with her?
When the phone rang one evening, three months later, Rani did not rush to pick it up. Madam was at home, she would attend to it. A few minutes later, Rani almost dropped the glass she was washing when she heard madam calling for her urgently,
“Rani, Rani, come fast…”
Rani tried to remember if she had forgotten to do something—she had checked for water stains on the granite floor after mopping, the glass top of the dining table was so well polished that you could see the silhouette of your face if you peered at it—she came out of the kitchen, thoughts trapped in her chest, her heart beating fast.
“I won, I won … Rani … Rani …we won. Rani your photo’s been chosen. Now your face will be seen by people in America and Australia and Dubai and Singapore, the whole world … isn’t that great?” A delighted smile spread across Rani’s face and she sagged against the wall. She hadn’t done anything wrong. And, she was going to be famous.
She hurried back to the kitchen. She couldn’t wait to go home and share the news. She still had to make the chapattis and vegetables for the night. She took out the cauliflower, peas, onion, tomatoes and busied herself, madam wanted Rajma curry and vegetables in white sauce today. Just as she was kneading the dough the phone rang again. Rani heard madam talking, her happiness a tinkle inside the still air of the apartment.
She came into the kitchen her eyes shining, “Rani, the news people are coming to interview me now. This is so great,” Rani couldn’t believe it, TV people were coming? Amma, Rajan and everyone would see her on the news. She wondered if madam would allow her to go home and get the new dress.
Before she could ask her, madam continued, “They’ll be here soon. Haven’t you finished yet?” She stood chewing her lips for a while, and then said, “I don’t think you’ll be done before they come. Do one thing, keep the door closed, I don’t want the smell to get to them. Understand?”
Rani nodded her head. After a while, she heard the sound of the bell ringing.
Rani fought the temptation to see what was going on and busied herself in cutting the vegetables. After some time, she couldn’t bear it any longer and opened the door slightly. She peeped through the thin sliver of space. Madam was sitting on the sofa in maroon coloured top and black pants. She was smiling and talking to a young girl holding a mike, sitting on the sofa to her right. A man stood in front of them with a heavy camera, adjusting it, calling out instructions now and then.
“What is the inspiration behind this photo?”
“I am pained by the plight of children in our country. I wanted to lend a voice through the medium of my work; that is my inspiration.”
“What about the model in your photo?”
“Oh she lives in a slum nearby, I see her almost every day. I wanted to help her in some way…”
“In what way will this win benefit her?”
“I am planning to put half of the money in the bank in her name. I also want to donate a portion of the remaining half to an orphanage. The rest I’ll use to buy myself some good equipment. ”
“That’s very generous of you.”
Rani closed the door and went back to the stove. She stirred the rajma curry and sprinkled a smattering of coriander leaves. Madam loved contrasting colours, even in her food. She hurriedly took out the circular stone to roll out the chapattis. She hoped to finish it by the time madam called out for her.