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Sorry

2006-07-13 23:22

  They had just arrived in Bombay. The schools were still closed, so when Mummy began going to office he stayed at home by himself. Of course Mummy was not happy to leave him alone, but what else could she do? After all, they had come to Bombay only so that she could go to office. And he also knew that for along time after Papa's death Mummy couldn't find any office to go to in the first place.

  Sonu explained to Mummy, “Look, I'm not small any more. I'm six. I can look after myself just like any grownup person.” Bur of course that didn't make his fears go away. In Delhi there were always so many people everywhere. Dada, Dadi, Chacha, Chachi, all his cousins. And all the neighbours.

  Mummy always said all sorts of things to him before leaving. “Beta, don't open the door except for Bai. And when she knocks, first find out who it is. Don't climb on anything in the balcony or lean out. Don't turn on the gas. Be sure to have lunch on time.”

  He would listen carefully to it all. And nod. And soon he began to say on his own as Mummy was leaving, “I won't open the door anyone. When Bai knocks, I'll ask who it is. I won't lean out of the balcony. I'll have lunch on time. I won't lean out of the balcony. I'll have lunch on time. I won't even go near the gas.” And they would both laugh a little.

  But he did feel terribly lonely. He watched TV for a while, or read in the balcony. Then he would look down to see what was happening below on the road. And then eating, and then sleeping! What else was there to do, all alone?

  A little after Mummy left, Bai would come. And when her work was finished the door would close after her too. Everything was silent next door as well. The people who lived there also went away all day.

  When Mummy returned in the evening, she would take Sonu for a walk. But she'd be too tired to answer his questions; she would answer one or two and then stop. And although Sonu would still have heaps of questions to ask, he would understand that Mummy was tired and become silent. One day Bai brought her little girl along. She said to her sternly, “Now stay there and not a word out of you.” Bai began sweeping and swabbing. The little girl crouched in her corner, silent. She was terribly thin, and not very clean.

  “What is your name?”

  The little girl only looked frightened.

  “Arre! Tell me your name.”

  Then Bai scolded her again. “Didn't you hear, the baba wants to know your name? Tell him at once.”

  “Rahiman,” she whispered.

  “Do you go to school?”

  She shook her head.

  “Why not? I'll be going to school soon. A very big one.” She only stared.

  Then Bai said, “How can she go to school, Baba? She does all the housework.”

  “The housework? But she's still small!”

  Sonu wanted to take her into his room and show her his toys and books, but she refused to budge. Finally Sonu brought some of his playthings to where she sat. At least she looked at them then.

  When Bai was about to leave, Sonu said quickly before he could feel shy, “Please bring her again tomorrow.”

  Bai only smiled and went to the door. But Rahiman turned back to look at Sonu. He waved. The door closed and Sonu ran to the balcony to say bye-bye properly. Rahiman was looking up and watching for him. But she didn't wave back.

  That evening Sonu had so much to tell Mummy! And he still said it all in one breath. Mummy looked at his excited face as if a new thought had come to her.

  On Sunday, when Mummy was home, she said something to Bai and after that Rahiman came with her mother every day. She no longer crouched silently by the door. Now she would come into his room and look at his toys and books. Sonu would tell her what was in the books or they would play with the toys. When they got tired of that, they made up all kinds of games to play with each other.

  Rahiman began to arrive in clean clothes. Her hair was neatly oiled and plaited. At lunch time they would eat together; Mummy was now leaving lunch for both of them. Bai would bring Rahiman in the morning and only pick her up in the evening after she had cleaned all the homes in the colony. Now the day flew by for Sonu; in the winking of an eye, it seemed, the day was gone.

  And what a lot he had to tell Mummy when she came home! She was always happy to listen, however tired she was. Sonu and Rahiman would talk to each other for hours. He told her all his secrets, how he was going to be an engine-driver, how his father had been the best in the world, and all about his lovely home in Delhi. Everything. “Do you know, Mummy, I am Rahiman's best friend,” he said. “And when I become and engine driver I'm going to give her rides all the time.”

  The holidays were almost over. On the first of the month, Mummy gave some money to Sonu as she was leaving.

  “Keep this carefully. When Bai comes, give it to her. It's her salary.” Then taking out some more, “And this is Rahiman's.”

  “Why Rahiman's, Mummy?” Sonu wanted to know.

  “Why? Well, doesn't she come here every day to play with you?” smiled Mummy.

  What!! Was that why Rahiman played with him every day, because Mummy paid her to? So she wasn't really his best friend? She didn't come because she liked him, but only for money? Sonu felt as if something had gone right through him.

  When Rahiman arrived, Sonu said in an unfriendly way, “Take it. The money you earned.” But it was Bai who quickly grabbed the money from his hand.

  That day Sonu did not speak to Rahiman or play with her. He went off with his books to his own corner, and when Rahiman playfully tried to snatch his book away, he flew at her.

  “Leave it alone. You can't read or write, stupid!”

  Rahiman gazed at him with all her soul in her eyes. She said nothing. When Mummy came home in the evening Sonu wouldn't speak to her either.

  The next day was Sunday, and Mummy had specially asked Rahiman to come on that day. She wanted to take both children to the beach, because Sonu had to go back to school in a couple of days.

  Sonu was still angry. He walked ahead of Mummy and Rahiman without saying a word. There was a cool breeze blowing, and the waves roared in the background. What a lot of water! Sonu thought. The sand was shiny, and everywhere there were children playing in the sand. Some were making sand castles.

  “Go on, why don't you make sand castles too,” said Mummy.

  Both children settled down on the sand and each began to make a separate castle. Soon Rahiman's castle was ready. It was beautiful, Sonu had to admit to himself. And strange. It had all kinds of shapes carved on it, big and small domes and arches. And as for his own castle, even the walls weren't built yet.

  “Shabash, Rahiman! It's really lovely,” said Mummy.

  Sonu's half-made castle remained unnoticed.

  First she takes our money, thought Sonu. And then Mummy praises her, not me. His anger boiled over.

  He got up, ran towards Rahiman's castle and stamped on it. Rahiman gave a loud sob of surprise. “Oh, he's gone and broken my beautiful house!”

  Sonu felt dizzy with anger. He began to jump about on her house as if he had gone mad. “There, there! There goes your beautiful house. See?”

  There was a fight of course. The two children scratched and hit each other. Mummy pulled them apart. After she had calmed them down she took each quietly by the arm and led them home. She tried to get them to make up, but neither Sonu nor Rahiman would listen to her.

  That evening Mummy wouldn't talk to Sonu. She didn't give him dinner, and she didn't eat either. The next morning, when Sonu saw that she was in the same mood, he began to mutter.

  “First she takes our money. Then you praised her house. And you didn't give me dinner. Now you won't even talk to me!”

  He felt he was going to cry any minute. His throat was aching with the effort, but somehow he managed not to cry.

  When it was time to leave for the office, Mummy came to him and said, “I am going to Bai's house to tell her not to bring Rahiman here anymore. You are not her best friend, you are her enemy.”

  When he heard Mummy's tone, the tears finally came.

  He was howling now, and mummy was caressing him in her usual way. “Sonu! Why did you behave so badly? What did Rahiman do to you?”

  And now Sonu began to shriek, “I thought she was my best friend. But she only comes here for money. She doesn't really like to play with me!”

  “That's not true.”

  “It is. You gave her money.”

  “I want you to do one thing, Sonu. Come with me and see Rahiman's house. Come on. I won't go to office today. Go and wash your face and hands.”

  Sonu didn't understand what all this was about. But Mummy spoke in such a voice that he could not ask any questions. So he washed his face and hands and got ready to go with her.

  They went to a cluster of huts right at the end of their lane. It was terribly smelly. Everywhere you looked there was garbage lying around in heaps. Crows packed at it, mangy dogs sniffed it, cats chased rats around it. There was a single water-tap and a crowd of thirty or forty women around it. Mummy, stopped. “Where is Rahiman's mother?” she called to the women. Bai suddenly came out of the crowd, looking amazed when she saw her memsaab. “Where is Rahiman?” asked Mummy, and soon they were entering a tiny house.

  It was so dark inside that they could hardly see. Then they saw a small figure at the stove in the smoky corner. It was Rahiman, in torn, filthy clothes. She got up slowly and looked at Sonu. Her eyes were red.

  “Rahiman! Sonu has come here to say that he's sorry.”

  “No, no, no. Where's the need for that?” Bai quickly broke in. “Children are always quarrelling and making up.”

  “Nobody minds a few fights between friends, Bai!” Mummy said. “But when people start hating each other - it is just like poison.” She looked at Rahiman and said to Bai, “From tomorrow Sonu will be going to school. Rahiman too can go now, can't she?”

  “Yes, memsaab. We'll use the money you gave to buy books and get her uniform stitched.”

  Sonu turned to Mummy. Mummy was smiling, her eyes on the little girl's face.

  Then Sonu went to Rahiman. He put out his hand and touched her shoulder. And though he whispered, all of them could hear him say, “Sorry, Best Friend!”

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