Sarayu skipped down the road from the bus stop. “This year, I’m going to decorate the last padi, the last step of our golu!” “You are! What are you going to do?” Jaya asked Sarayu.
“My amma and paatti are going to arrange the other eight steps. I’m going to….” Sarayu stopped in midsentence. The two girls walked silently past a mound of sand. There, behind the sand, a little girl in a crumpled uniform stood looking at them. An old book bag filled with books was on the ground. Women were piling bricks onto the basin while the men were building the wall. The new building was going up fast!
“Why does she always stare at us?” Shanthi whispered.
“She is using my old book bag. I think she wants to play with us.” Sarayu whispered back. But neither of them said a word to the other girl.
Jaya and Sarayu were neighbours. They did everything together. They went to the same school, they were in the same class, and they both liked to draw. Do you have a friend with whom you do everything? These two girls were like that—you can call them best friends, I suppose!
Sarayu’s mother was waiting for them at the gate. “Girls, come in and put your things away. Yes, Jaya, you too. Your amma has gone out. Go wash your hands and feet, and I’ll get a snack for you two.”
“Yeaaaaa, we can’t play some more!” squealed the friends. What an unexpected treat! Who doesn’t want to spend more time with their friends, right?
A little while later, they sat in the verandah feeling refreshed after a wash.
“Sarayu, How are you going to decorate the golu step?” Shanthi asked with her mouth full. Those pakoras were crunchy!
“I want to build a park. Patti said that if we soak mustard seeds, the small seedlings look like grass. She used to do it as a little girl. I’m going to do that too. Amma said if I cover the seeds with a wet towel, the seedlings will grow well. “
“A park? But how will you make it into a park?” Shanthi couldn’t see it in her mind.
“Patti is going to teach me to make benches and slides and even a swing. She already has the beads and the wire for it.”
“Hey…Look!” Shanthi nudged.
Sarayu turned to see the other girl just outside the veranda, listening to them. She was still in her crumpled uniform. And she was smiling at them!
“Vaamma, Vaa! Come, child. Would you like some pakoda?” Sarayu’s amma saw the girl as she brought more pakoda. “Sarayu, this is Mala. She is going to live near the new building while her parents work there. You girls should take her to play with you too.” Amma gave Mala some pakodas and went back in.
There were lots of noises then. The cars and motorbikes on the road, the crows cawing, the buzz of the ceiling fan, and the crunch crunch of the pakodas, but not a word slipped from the mouth of the two friends. They just pretended that Mala was simply not there in the same room. Mala’s smile faded. She took the remaining pakoda from her plate and walked away.
Again, the two friends pretended. This time they pretended that they were fine! They ate the pakodas, talked more about Sarayu’s plans for the golu, giggled about school, and made more plans to play the next day.
Two days later, Sarayu walked home by herself. Jaya had already gone out of town for the Navratri vacation. A loud giggle startled her, and she turned to look. The mound of sand looked smaller; the workers sat in front of the half-built wall watching a little child. Someone her age was pulling on a small matchbox tied to a string. “Is that Mala? Yes, it is! What does she have there?” Sarayu looked again.
The sand had been spread out evenly. Broken bits of bricks were arranged in a circle. The floor of the circle had sand spread out. Little clay benches with fat stubby legs, trees made with biscuit boxes and old newspaper, a swing made out of thread and matchbox… Sarayu took a step forward and stopped. The noise of the footstep on the sand made Mala turn around. Her hands went to her hips when she saw Sarayu.
Sarayu walked away before anyone said anything. She couldn’t forget the little child’s smiling face as her sister showed her how to play with the matchbox swing. She was quiet all evening.
“Do you miss your friend?” Amma asked as she sat next to Sarayu’s bed.
“Do you want gulab jamun for lunch?” Amma again.
“Mmmm…Gulab Jamun! Amma!” a surprised Sarayu pulled the sheets away from her face.
“What is the matter?” Amma rubbed her forehead gently. Sarayu’s troubling thoughts came tumbling out—about mala, the way she and Jaya ignored her, about mala’s park and her little sister’s joy and her own regrets.
“It sounds like it was hard to let someone new join in your group.”
“I don’t know…she just stood there, looking at us…her uniform was crumpled, and she had my old book bag….”
“Mmmmm…so, she was dressed differently….”
“She had made such a nice park with all the rubbish you find, Amma!”
“It sounds like Mala was very creative with what she had. Hmmm? Here’s what I feel. You think about how to make it right. If you want my help, let me know, but you decide how to set it right.”
By the time her eyes closed, Sarayu had a plan.
Amma was ready when Sarayu got home from school the next day. She held amma’s saree pallu tightly as they walked to the construction site. “ Vani,” amma called out. A tall woman came toward them. She seemed to know amma well. “I’m taking Sarayu to the park. She wants some ideas for the golu. Would Mala like to go with us?” Mala’s peered from behind her mother’s saree. Sarayu knew that she had to speak up. “We can play and look for ideas for our park. You’ll help me make the park, won’t you?”
Mala let go of her mother’s pallu and nodded shyly. “Maybe we’ll keep our park even after Navratri is over. Then Shanthi can also join us,” Sarayu said. Mala nodded again. Navratri was going to be so much fun this year!