Pihu crouched close to the earth watching the flies walk in circles, closer and closer to the jaggery. It was a hot, languid June afternoon, and save a distant spectre in the southern sky there wasn’t much for her to hold on to. Every Monsoon, she would run to the municipal yard by the canal and twirl her wrists high above her head under the clouds. But it still was long before the first showers of the year, and her wrists were too tired in waiting.
Slowly the flies, a couple of them, gathered the courage to walk onto the lump of jaggery. And she watched them suck on it through their tube-like mouths. At once, she felt something hit her head, and when she turned around, she saw Hari hurling chana peas at her.
“Stop that!” She hurried and chased him to get hold of the chana tin, but he sprinted to the banyan, and teased her as she struggled to catch up. Her tattered calico skirt ripped against a sharp jut of wood right where she’d done the rafoo the day before.
“Pihu slow! Pihu slow!” He laughed, turning and throwing the peas at her. And in his blindness, he tripped over a root of the banyan and fell into a bog with a scream.
She leaned over the edge and saw him smeared in muck, holding the empty tin.
“Get out by yourself now! I told you to give me the tin.”
“Sorry. Hari sorry!”
She stood watching the eight year old struggle for a while, and then ran to the house to get some rope.
They climbed the hill on their way back home. The fields were dry and cracked. In the distance, they saw a man look at the earth with his dark, bare back glistening in the sun. They couldn’t tell who he was, or what he was up to, but then they saw him walk under a banana tree wiping the sweat off his face. She looked at Hari, he was quiet with the empty tin in his hands. His lower lip jutted forth and quivered in petulance, as if deliberating his next mischief.
“Are you happy now?”
And he tried hard to muffle his giggles. She grabbed him by the arm and slapped him across the face a couple of times, but he wouldn’t understand. He wouldn’t understand why. All he knew was laughter and hurt.
As they approached the house, she was mindful to be quiet, and she asked Hari to undress and sit under the tap in the backyard. And she scraped the dirt off his face, and his little arms and his legs. Now and then, she would hush him and run her fingers through his hair.
She washed the tin, and tossed his dirty shorts and shirt into a pot of boiling ash.
“Pihu! Pihu? Where are you? Are you still asleep?”
She heard a familiar voice slur in the distance. It was almost dark. The crickets were out chirping. She rushed to the threshold, looking for Hari. But he was already at the door, mumbling some drunken gibberish. “Pihu, Pihu I’m hungry. Get your father something.” He stumbled onto the mud-plastered veranda and brought a bright orange bottle to his lips. “Hurry!”
And she walked indoors clutching the tear in her skirt, while she looked through shelves of empty tins and baskets. When she came out, she saw him trying to feel his face.
“What’s this? Dry rotis? What has it come to! What has it…” And he broke into a whimper.
All this while, she stood stiff and quiet as her father sobbed.
“Come here child, come to your old broken father.”
He grabbed her arm, “Not there, come, sit in my lap. Yes, just this way. Just this way…you know? Your mother was beautiful…never made me feel small. She never made me…loved me. You know? Beautiful, just like you. What’s wrong? Why do you flinch? You don’t like the toddy on my breath? Ha! It’s the only thing I have now. The only thing besides you and that little monkey! Where is your brother? Hari! Hari!”
“Hari’s asleep, father.”
He got hold of her skirt, “What’s this? What happened to it?”
“By the banyan, father.” She was almost in tears.
“Oh, poor child! My poor daughter! Your father will get you a new one…a new one – “
He turned his head and threw a loud gusher. Bits of vomit splashed onto her feet. “Forgive me…I’m sorry. It’s just. Your father is sad. Your father is sad…won’t you kiss your father? Is he too disgusting for his little Pihu?”
She kissed his scraggly cheek, shaking.
“That’s like a good girl! Now come on. On the lips! On the lips! Yes, that’s my daughter! Ha ha! That’s my daughter.” And he slid his hands under her blouse and felt her flat chest, “Soon enough, you’ll be beautiful like your mother.” And he kept kissing her, “Why? Why’re you crying? Am I hurting you?”
“You think I’d hurt you?”
“Then come closer, come closer! Let me see your eyes. They’re just like hers. Just like hers.”
He held her face in his hands and caressed her cheek.
And with a loud thud, he passed out on the floor. His hands were still on her skin. She stayed like that, not moving for a long while. She knew the rains were far away.
The next morning, a municipal van was on the rounds. Pihu’s father was leaning against the veranda post with his eyes half-closed when he heard the man on the loudspeaker. He steadied himself and broke into a cough. “Pihu? Hari?”
He rubbed his face and felt his unruly stubble. “Pihu! Hari! Where are you?”
He stumbled to the closet and dressed himself in a clean shirt and a pair of slacks. And he worked a lather on his face with his fingers, shaving in short, jagged scrapes. He saw Pihu walk towards the house with a pot of ash, “There you are! Did you hear them? They’re enrolling men for some project. I’ll have work now! Everything will be fine again!”
And she smiled. “Do you need some tea father?”
“Pihu! Pihu you won’t have to do all this again, I promise! Look at your hands, dry from the ash! Your father won’t fail this time. He won’t fail this day. Maybe they’ll pay me today after I enrol myself, you know? I’ll get milk for the kheer this evening. Don’t worry! Don’t you ever worry again!”
He wiped the lather off his face, and walked out in the sun, away.
She stopped to look at her hands. They were dry and blistered. She walked to the closet, and picked up the razor, and drew little lines on her palm with the sharp edge. She popped the blisters, and water mingled with blood.
Just then, she heard Hari run to the banyan.
“Hari!” She called out to him, “get your clothes from the line! They’re dry now! Don’t run around naked!” He turned around and laughed at her, making faces.
That night, she lay in her father’s arms once more, looking at the sky. There never was any kheer, and the rains were a long way.
Maybe this monsoon, she wouldn’t give herself another year. Maybe he was right – someday, she would be beautiful like her mother, and maybe she needed it before she could go. But her skirt still had the tear, and there weren’t any Jasmine blooms for her hair yet.
She looked at her wrists, still tired, still waiting.