Hearts and Stones
Mansi came to live with us 4 years ago, a day after my 8th birthday. We used to live inside the college campus then, in a roomy house on a small hillock. Ma was the warden of the girls’ hostel and Mansi was the chowkidar’s daughter. He brought her to us because her step-mother hated her and also because, now that she’d attained puberty, she was trouble till he could marry her off. Her arms, I saw, were ugly, the skin mottled with burn marks. The burns looked like the ones Ma got sometimes when she fried fish. “How much fish does she fry at home?” I wondered then.
Ma had just had a baby and she said Mansi was a godsend. She was 10 years old, with plump pink cheeks, with hair that fell to her hips like silk. I was skinny, with hair full of knots and skin burnt brown from playing hopscotch in the school yard too often. All the hostel bas’ squeezed Mansi’s cheeks and said nice things about her hair. Ma bought her two new frocks. When she wore the frothy pink one, she looked like a princess. Even my baby brother stopped crying when she picked him up. Ma did not even ask me if it was ok to give her my old bag to take to school with her. It wasn’t.
I did not let Mansi anywhere near my things. I bawled when Dad said she’d be sharing my room. I did not let her dust my table. I did not let her make my bed. I forbade her from walking me to the school bus stop. When she sat on my bed, I shrieked and kicked her. Once, a guest asked ma who Mansi was and before she could reply, and because I knew what she would say, that Mansi was like a daughter to her, I butted in and said, “She’s just a servant you know.”
My heart was filled with spite and I constantly plotted how I could get her into trouble, spilling milk on the bed and saying Mansi did it, breaking all the new chalk pieces dad got her for her school slate. I gave her my Thailand hair band to wear and then told ma she’d stolen it. Sometimes she did get scolded but only a little, never enough. I wanted to chop her hair off when she was asleep. I wanted to rip her pretty pink frock to shreds. Twice I pushed her down the front steps. But the steps were few and she never even cried. And this was why I hated her, more than anything else. I could never make her cry.
My baby brother had learned to walk with a wobble, but we used to take him to the front path and let him down, Mansi and I holding either hand. This did not mean that we’d become friends. I came along because he was my brother. Not hers. That day, I told her I’d walk him alone. She needn’t come. I warned her not to. She stood watching as I put my brother down and let him walk without support. My brother fell backwards, and his head hit the gravel path. Later, there were little spots of blood on the stones. That night, after my brother had got nine stitches and had been put to sleep, my parents called both of us. I knew that when the truth came out, so would the esaari, that bamboo reed that made a whipp whipp sound just before it fell flat on the skin. Only one other time had it been used on me, when I’d thrown a plate of rice to the ground in a fit of anger. I felt my ears go hot and my feet cold. But Mansi told them the baby had fallen out of her arms, that it was her fault. My parents forgave her. It was, afterall, an accident. The next morning, I let Mansi walk me to the bus stop…
Mansi taught me how to suck the nectar out of certain white flowers. She showed me how to thread garlands with grass. She also oiled my hair every other night so it was no longer short and frizzy but could be pulled into a plait. She picked nits out of my hair. She taught me how to make a sanitary pad from strips of cloth for when I would need it. Once, I learnt that Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India at 82 and he regularly drank his own pee. Drinking pee sounded like a magic way for living very long and becoming the prime minister. So, we tried it for a whole week until ma found out.
I was quite bull-headed when I was smaller. When the adults warned me not to do something, it kept tickling somewhere inside until I did it. There was a tree near our house with red and black seeds that both our grandmothers had called poisonous. My grand mother said it caused humans to turn into goats and Mansi’s one said you would turn red and black yourself if you ate it. So I ate it. “See! Nothing happened!” I said happily. “What if the poison works slowly? What if it happens tomorrow?” she asked. That night, neither of us slept. The moment I’d drift off, I’d hear her calling, Asa ne? Asa ne? The next morning, after we’d both taken a good look at me and found that nothing had changed, I ran to the loo. She stood outside the door and when I was done, I called her and showed her my product. There it was, that dreaded seed, like a raisin in a sponge cake. We stared at it till we were certain that it was indeed what we thought it was. Then we held each other and cried.
Mansi had been with us for two years and she hadn’t gone home even once. A week before Bihu, her father came to take her home. Her grandfather was perhaps dying and he wanted to see her again. We’d made many plans for the Bihu holidays. We’d go to the Science museum to look at the moving dinosaurs. We’d go on a picnic with the hostel bas’ who hadn’t gone home. We’d watch movies on cable channel. She also had a new salwar kameez with sparkles that she planned to wear to the Bihutoli. She didn’t want to go home. Ma said that it was alright. We would have so many Bihus together. Only this time she must go. I wanted to tell her to stay, but then I thought of her sick grandfather…so I only said goodbye..
Bihu was over. And the month of Bohag went too. But Mansi didn’t come.
One day, on my way back from school, as I walked up the slope to our house, I saw her standing in the doorway. I held my breath and ran till my muscles burned. And when I got to the front door, my voice caught. I stood there, catching my breath, leaning on Mansi’s shoulder. She didn’t even look at me. Something had changed. I could only make out bits of conversation through the noise of my heart. Her father “You have been so kind to her baidew….I had to force her to come with me today…her grandmother has turned her head…sold her to you? Why would I baidew? You treat her like a daughter. How can she not understand?… And ma “Sit inside, Mansi…atleast come and take your books..your clothes…will you not drink some water even?…
What had happened in two months that she couldn’t even bear to look at me? I went to our bedroom and took a stone out of the drawer. It was the size of my thumb, with streaks of gold. We found it when we were digging under the banyan tree where ghosts lived. We promised each other it was magic. I gave the stone to her. But she did not even look at it. I placed it near her feet and ran to my bed and sobbed till I fell asleep.
When I woke up some hours later, the sun had gone down. I looked at her bed, her books and clothes were tidily in place. I looked in all the rooms. I ran to the front door, hopeful, my heart in my mouth. There, where she had stood, where I had left it, was the stone. I picked it up and threw it away. It wasn’t magic anyway..
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