Like my Nani said many times during our summer vacation at her place in Jaipur—balls of fire rained from the sky. And our tiny two-room house defied the heat, with the cooler on full blast from the kitchen window. In fact, it was so cold that I remember my foot toppling out of the mattress laid on the floor and the cold surface sending a shock up my foot. But afternoons were for deep rest and my mother, my brother and I slept on the mattress on the floor, while my Nani slept on the single bed beside us. The room had many roles. That of my Nani’s bedroom by night, a living room by day and a guest room when we visited. In a corner opposite to her bed was a mysterious attache. At the end of every trip, my Nani flung out sarees after sarees for my mother take back with her. My mother would take one and deny others, as my Nani kept bringing out more unheeding the protestations and I hovered behind them trying to catch a glimpse inside the bottomless attache.
And like every other afternoon, that afternoon also our alarm rang through our deep slumber—a single ting of the kulfiwala’s bell. Immediately my annoying-little-cousin came running out of the other room where she was sleeping with her parents. My brother and I sat up and were immediately blinded by the sunlight that came crashing in as my annoying-little-cousin opened the door and ran out, as her feet struggled to hold on to the slippers. One of them is left behind and I picked it up as I ran out too. She was hopping on one leg while taking a kulfi from the pots as I put her slipper down by her. The kulfiwala was surrounded by the kids from the neighbouring houses and we all had one kulfi in our hand. Except for Motu who took two, as envy ran through our small bodies. The key was to quickly take a lick before our parents can catch up and return the kulfies back into the pots. That afternoon, all of us succeeded. Soon the parents followed, sighting at their defeat and taking us all back inside the homes, least we got prickly heat.
That same day around five, a strange call echoed through the neighbourhood. “Kaaaannn chidddwaaaloooo”. I remember my mother explaining to me that that was the person who went from house to house, to do piercings for people. I immediately wanted to grow up and have that job. But until then I decided to at least get another piercing on my ears and not let go until I convince my mother. Surprisingly, she said yes at once. My aunt decided to get it done too and so did my annoying-little-cousin with a self-assured grownup air about her, but was quickly turned down and sent into crying hysterics. My mother, aunt and I headed out and motioned the man over to our iron gate and sat down together on the cement floor. He lifted his huge basket from his head, on to the floor, my hungry eyes following its journey. For me, it was a treasure trove, all with instruments, liquids, cloths and a sea of earrings inside. I couldn’t take my eyes off it and so my aunt went first. It got over in a minute and she didn’t even flinch. I went next. First, he cleaned my earlobes with a golden liquid from the basket. He said it was a magical elixir so I won't feel any pain. My eyes had widened with amazement. Magic! He was right. I couldn’t feel anything except for the heaviness of the newly installed earrings. But my excitement had to wait as my full attention was still on his basket. He would leave in a minute and so I desperately tried to memorise as many contents as I could, to show off to my brother and annoying-little-cousin later. The man laughed, patted my head and said, “kaisi soni laag ri.” He then lifted his basket and my head moved with it all the way to his head. I remember thinking how lucky he was own such treasure. I went back inside feeling like an adult now that I had additional piercings—clearly only the two adults were allowed to do it. Inside, my Nani was chopping bitter gourd and my brother was pleading with her to not throw away the seeds and immediately I turn to mom and said: “karela nai khanaaa” - my adulthood abandoning me in face of the bitterness of the vegetable. My Nani remarked on my new studs to distract me, my brother tried to pull it out and was admonished, my annoying-little-cousin sulked, her already chubby cheeks looking even more swollen.
The heaviness of the earrings was the only feeling I was aware of throughout that day. Everything was set against the background of their heaviness—as I savoured world’s best shikanji that my aunt made, as I competed in hopscotch with the neighbouring kids, as I fought for my turn to play Mario, and especially when I slept, afraid to entangle them in sheets and hurt myself. Finally sleep took over. Next morning, I could feel two tiny lumps each growing from the back of the ears where the studs were pierced. I immediately resolved to go through it all—the blood, the pus and the pain—and claim to my mother that these were not to be removed. At lunch, I froze my fingertips against the cold curd bowl and touched them to my ears, hiding the action against my open hair. But still, I saw my mother notice it. I knew by evening I would be sent with my uncle to have them taken out. My annoying-little-cousin saw through me smiled her wicked smile. I tied my pony high, wore less flowy clothes, and my movement was restricted for the fear of hitting my ear against something if I was carefree. I felt caged. The shine of the new piercing and the ensuing adulthood was fading fast. But I was too embarrassed to accept defeat. Post lunch just as my uncle was leaving, my mother told me to take me and get my studs out. I was too shocked for the anticipated event to have happened too soon. My mouth froze open, my annoying-little-cousin started giggling, and my brother claimed her could remove them himself. As the shock passed, I cried, pleaded and created a ruckus asking for some more time. My mother reluctantly agreed. I slept deeply that afternoon exhausted of crying. And the kulfiwala’s bell was a respite more than anything else. I stepped out and saw the usual bunch of kids with renewed observation. My ears throbbed harder anticipating the pain if I brushed against any of the kids there. But I wanted the kulfi so badly. But not necessarily the piercing—I thought. I took a deep breath and walked into the jostling crowd of children.
The pain was excruciating. I was howling and feeling dizzy as the doctor worked on my ear. I saw the blurry colours of my mother’s saree, receding as the doctor took me away. I was scared. The idea was to get a minor injury so the studs could be removed. It then wouldn’t be my weakness but injury that would be blamed. But afterwards, more in my senses, numbed by the pain and a huge bandage on one of my ears, my adulthood had left with the piercing and was replaced by a sheer and utter feeling of silliness. I was taken home coddled and hugged—a spectacular demotion from my adulthood. My annoying-little-cousin would have a field day. But then, an idea struck. When we got home, the adults slowly dispersed. My brother, my annoying-little-cousin and I then huddled together. Where are the earrings? My annoying-little-cousin had mocked. Please grow up. Do you know how many stitches I have here? Three. The doctor said my ear was almost cut off. But I felt this exaggeration wasn’t enough. Actually now I remember, I have five stitches. Any child can get the ears pierced, but not everyone has injury marks. Silence ensued. At that moment, for the first time, my brother had a hint of respect in his eyes for me. I felt my chest swell with a renewed sense of superiority. I believed my own words and felt my sense of adulthood creeping back. Until my annoying-little-cousin raised her hand and pushed her hair back from her forehead. I fell off the ledge. 10 stitches. She said.