The needle pricked her finger when she suddenly flinched and drew back. She turned, letting the half-sewn blouse drop to the floor. The child had started again. Being naughty. Pulling away the sari’s dropping end from its grubby hand, wiping off the blood from the fingertip, she asked. “What do you want now, Renu?”
The child was angry. It stood there making whiny noises.
“So, you ran here because of this? Can’t you go and play downstairs? It’s not yet time for lunch!”
The child turned away. Now it tried to clamber onto the chair. Naughty! Soon, it’s going to bring down all the books. She leapt up to steady the chair that was wobbling.
“I am sick of this! Get down right now, you’re going to get a hiding, Renu! Where is Venu-ettan?”
When the child moved close to her and hung onto her sari, she picked it up and held it. She had lined the child’s eyes with kohl in the morning; it had smudged her face.
“Why did you cry, mole, my dear?” she asked.
The child toyed with her chain and raised its eyes to her.
“You won’t tell your auntie?”
Unexpectedly, the child sobbed.
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“Did Venu-ettan beat you?”
“No . . .”
“Did he scold you?”
“No . . .”
“Then what happened, Renu?”
The child pressed its cheek on her shoulder and lay there quietly. When her gold bangles brushed against her chubby little thighs, she asked, “Where are your knickers, mole?”
Lifting her short frock, the little girl said, “In the garden.”
“Didn’t Amma and Auntie tell you not to piss in the garden? You are a big girl now.”
“Venu-ettan took it off me.”
“Renu, what’s all this on your thighs?”
The fingers of tiny hands pressed on the little-girl thighs had made small depressions in the flesh.
“Venu-ettan pinched me....” The child’s eyes welled.
Reddish moons from fingernails on the rosy thighs and shiny little belly. A flash of lightning passed menacingly in her.
When she picked up the child and went downstairs, the little one writhed on her shoulder. “Don’wwant to play wi’ Venu-ettan!”
She let the child down. Venu must be still under the mango tree. What a boy!
Devu was drying firewood in the front yard. The sunrays fell on her red glass bangles and scattered. The wind had felled the children’s toy temple under the gooseberry tree.
In the banana patch—
Beads of sweat glistened on the firm, muscular arms and broad back. The length of the penknife tucked into the waist swung gently to the rhythm of the shovel rising and falling. Reddish down glinted on the ebony black of strong legs.
She leaned on the branch of the mango tree despite herself.
Suddenly, she noticed Renu’s knickers lying in the reddish clay bricks in the garden. Venu was nowhere there. He must have run upstairs by now. As she was climbing up the stairs, she saw him. He was trying to stick the filmy red paper packing from an incense-stick box onto his eyes with spittle to peer at the sun. Renu had stopped crying; she was sucking the edge of her frock’s ribbon and watching her brother’s antics. She held the railings of the staircase. It is so easy to go down in this world!
Standing on a wooden stool, Venu removed the paper from his eyes and held it out to her. “You don’t want these specs? The sun is so pretty!”
Spitting the ribbon of her dress out, the little sister held her hand out for it. “Can I look?”
“Will you cry again like that... without any reason?”
“Then why did you cry?”
“How come, Renu? Auntie wasn’t hurt?”
“Whe . . .?”
“When Velayudhan pinched her, she laughed. Loudly!”
“Yesterday noon, when I got on top to pluck the mangoes. It’s the truth! Velayudhan pinched Auntie on her legs and chest and all over!”
“It’s a lie! You were sleeping in Amma’s room, Venu-etta.”
“I got off the bed softly when Amma fell asleep. To pluck the mangoes. Amma won’t give us these specs if you ask her.”
“No, she won’t . . . and then?”
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“When I plucked the mangoes and threw them down, they ran, scared!”
The younger one pressed down her elbows and laughed.
“Also, Devu said that if you like it, you won’t cry. Don’t you like Venu-ettan, mole?”
Selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Penguin Random House India
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta