When she walked into the huge fair she remembered holding her mother’s hand. Now when she looked around her mother was nowhere to be seen. She saw the legs of many people around her. She looked up to see their faces but none of them looked like her mother. Every time she saw her mother she thought it was someone else and stayed away.
Dust arose from the fair ground and settled on her dusky skin. Her mother had oiled her hair and made two tight pigtails with red ribbons. She was wearing a red skirt and blouse. She had two thin red bangles on her arms. She started pulling at them and began to cry. She clutched at the five-rupee note. It had become wet because her palms were sweaty. The kajal in her eyes ran down her cheeks. She wiped her cheeks over and over again. She did not want to be seen crying.
By the time she approached the balloon man she had forgotten her mother. Now she saw the balloons that swayed in the breeze. The balloon man made squeaky sounds with a tiny balloon he had in his hand. And he rattled another balloon, which she supposed was filled with tiny mustard seeds. She had once broken one such balloon and the mustard had spilled all over her skirt. She saw another girl about her size, holding a blue balloon and hopping away. As she hopped, the balloon suddenly left her hand and flew into the sky. Some people ran to catch hold of it but up, up and up it rose, disappearing behind the trees. Suddenly she did not like balloons. They seemed so temporary. It took only a tiny pinprick for them to burst. They were colorful when you bought them. They smelled like notebooks with too many erased drawings. When you kept them under your bed at night, you had to keep waking up to see if they were okay. Whatever you did, by morning they shrunk to half the size. Or they grew wobbly and loose like Jimmy’s tummy. Jimmy was her dog. She had found him on the roadside. He came to drink tea from her saucer. She had tied a black string around his neck, which he pulled off invariably. Nothing stayed in its place, the way it was supposed to. “How strange and disturbing!” she thought. Balloons were so much like grandfather too. Grandfather had been robust and healthy in the beginning. He used to pick her up and walk down to the corner store where he bought her peppermints. He made her run around the playground two times so she could be healthy just like he was. Yet slowly, grandfather had grown wobbly. He held on to the walls and doors while walking. Then he sat down all the time listening to music or playing his mouth organ. Or he read some old books his glasses placed precariously on his nose. He was not like grandfather at all. She thought he was Mr. Uncle man whenever he wore glasses. She could not see him as grandfather. She woke up in the nights to see him whistling and snoring. Eventually he shrunk so much, they took him into the far away garden where a new grandfather would be made out of him. That is what her mother had told her. Yet, the new grandfather would go to another girl not come to her. Since then she had started burying her balloon skins in the garden, hoping new balloons would grow out of them. Slowly, she ambled away from the balloon man.
There was a tightrope walker here. He walked down a rope as it swayed from left to right. She almost shrieked every time he was about to fall. She saw the drummer drumming, faster and faster. A woman was singing a shrill song in a language that nobody understood. The tightrope walker was getting to the other side. She was happy. “There… only a little more!” she thought. Her eyes had grown round and big. A big pink man was beginning to photograph her. She suddenly felt so shy, that she wanted to hide behind her mother’s knees. Her memory grew so confused now. Where was mother? She was crying again. She thought she would go to the ice-cream stall in the distance. Her mother would surely come there. Everyone came to the ice-cream stall. As she walked towards the ice-cream stall, she noticed the tightrope walker was walking back to where he came from. “This would go on forever!” she thought. How absurd!
Where was she now? She began frolicking now. She was jumping up and down. Look at all those bubbles floating in thin air – The colors that danced on each of those bubbles. The way they smelled like the white dhotis drying on a line at the backyard. One bubble settled on her shoulder. Even as she was watching, it popped. She knew they did this. She laughed at the stupidity of it. Yet she wanted more of them. Colorful free bubbles; flying up in the air like dreams; like thoughts that spilled out of a mind. Some bubbles attached themselves to other bubbles; some glided evenly towards someone and settled on their hair, some popped spraying minuscule drops.
Soap bubbles seller
Selling out dreams
Wrapped in a wrapper
Of shiny colored beams
She made a small poem in her head and giggled. Then she suddenly wondered if someone was watching her. She ran away from that place through the hundreds of tiny bubbles.
Where was she now? Who was this lanky man singing a song in his gruff voice?
Come grab your colorful watches
They won’t come back once they go
Time won’t come back once it goes
Come grab your colorful watches
She saw his lanky legs in a pair of trousers that seemed like it could accommodate another person. Upon looking up she found a dark face with gleaming white teeth. She was frightened. She backed off and looked up at the watch-seller. He was wearing a brown hat that looked like it had never been taken off his head ever since he wore it. He was still grinning at her. She was shy again. She began to giggle. And he said, “Come here, child! Where is your mother? Where are you off to on your own?” She blinked not knowing what to say. She tried to hide behind the tassels of cloth that hung in a shop nearby. His watches were colorful. He was wearing five of them in each of his dark hands. She found this very, very funny. She giggled, hoping he would not notice but he did. He beckoned to her dangling some of his watches in the air. There was a bright pink watch that she really liked. She clutched tightly to her five-rupee note. She slowly walked up to him and gave him the five-rupee note damp with sweat from her palm. He seemed very pleased. He took a bright orange watch from his bag and was about to tie it on to her tiny wrist. She shook her head vigorously, pointing to the pink one. He asked her if she liked that one and she nodded. So he tied it to her wrist. Though he put it on tightly it still seemed to glide up and down her arm. As she was about to hop away, he stopped her. He gave her two coins, worth two rupees each. She was very happy. She took the money and hopped away eagerly into the bustling crowds. He wished, she would turn around and smile, but she was gone.
She loved her new watch. Her mother would really appreciate her for such a beautiful watch. Yet, where o where was mother? She looked at her watch. There were two green needles on it. They both stood still. There was a small key to the right, which could not be wound. It was a fake. She had seen her uncle’s watch. There was a third needle that used to keep moving around on his watch. Her watch had nothing like that. Suddenly she felt greatly disappointed. Yet she remembered that her uncle’s watch was a dull gray color whereas hers was bright pink. She knew that her watch was the best watch in the world because it stood still and it was bright pink. Why she thought, “Who would not be happy if time stood still?” She laughed to herself and hopped on.
She suddenly remembered that she was on her way to the ice-cream stall to look for her mother. O! What a lot of distractions she had had! She now began running towards the ice-cream stall. Before she could get there what should distract her but her own favorite glass bangles! So she stopped on her tracks. Her eyes grew wide looking at so many bangles at once. There should be a hundred she thought. That was the biggest number she knew. Hundred was a lot. How sorry she was when she knew she was not as tall as the bangle vendor’s cart! She trying standing on the tip of her toes and peering at the bangles. She jumped up and down to see what she could. How she missed her mother! Her mother would have lifted her up gently and showed her all the bangles there ever was. Her face grew long. There were bigger women trying on bangles. She looked up at them hoping one of them would lift her up. Nobody seemed to notice her.
She was angry now. Hmph! Stupid bangles! Who wanted them! She would go back home and then her uncle would take her to the town on his cycle and buy her rainbow-colored bangles. Still she stood watching the other women try them on. She was grinning at times when one or two of them tried on a dozen of really beautiful bangles. Then she climbed on to a small boulder nearby and stood clutching the cart. There! She immediately knew the bangles she wanted – The little red ones with gold glitter. They were simply lovely. Why she should have waited here so long only to have those! She called to the bangle seller. “Uncle! Uncle! Please give me those red colored bangles” He did not hear her voice at all, over all the other noises. She was shouting now. “UNCLE, UNCLE!” “UNCLE! UNCLE!” “UNCLE! UNCLE!” She stopped to swallow a bit. “UNCLE! UNCLE!” She went on screaming. And then her small bobbing head caught his eye. “Arre! What are you doing there? You’re going to break something! Come here you naughty little one!” he called to her. She did not move. She pointed to her red bangles. “I want them!” she said. He came over to her side, wondering where her mother could be. Then he made her get down from the boulder. He picked up the red bangles she wanted most, caught her hand deftly, sliding them onto her wrists, two at a time. She counted them one by one with her fingers,”1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6″ and for the other hand, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” He said it would cost her two rupees. She gave him both the coins she had. He returned one of them back to her and patted her on the cheek. He said, “Where is your mother? Did you run away from her into the crowd?” She shook her head meaning she did not. Then he assumed that one of the ladies buying bangles should be her mother and went back to his business.
She made such a lot of noise with her bangles. She liked doing something with her hands just to make them go “clink clink clink” The watch also seemed to be competing for attention with the bangles. Overall, she loved the idea of her well-decked hands. She knew how careful she had to be with the bangles. They would break with the slightest jostling. They were fragile. She remembered how she had broken some earlier once and had cried for a long time. At that time, she did not have the slightest idea that they would break. She banged them together for no good reason and they all broke. She felt very stupid and sad. Almost all the bangles were broken except three of them. She put these three onto Chumki’s hand for fear of breaking them too. Chumki is her doll. Her father had brought Chumki from the town. Now her father was not with them any more. He had fought with mother on one occasion and left them behind. Since then mother had been buying her everything. Oh no! She is digressing again. It is time she walked to the ice cream stall.
And finally she found herself near the ice-cream stall. She had only one coin left. She looked up at the ice-cream man. The man had a stoop almost as if he grew a stoop so he could look down to see all the children surrounding him all the time. He had a grin and only a few teeth here and there. His hair was scraggly like Jimmy’s hair. She imagined how many ice creams he would eat in a day. “Maybe a hundred!”, she thought. He could eat ice creams whenever he wanted, a hundred times. She wished she could grow up to be an ice-cream man. She would eat a hundred ice creams everyday. She gave him her coin. He gave her two coins in return. A one-rupee coin and a fifty paise coin. He asked her what color ice cream she wanted. She said “Blue!” He laughed and said he had no blue ice creams. She could have yellow, pink, white, green or orange. She said “Pink” without batting an eyelid.
The ice-cream man gave her a pink triangular ice-cream stick. She started licking it before he could give it to her. She held to it tight and sucked at it with relish. Its cool sweet taste made her very, very happy. Soon she had ice-cream running all over her hand. She licked at the droplets and tasted her salty skin along with the warm ice-cream drops. Now ice cream was dripping down her elbow. She wiped her elbow on her blouse. It was a mess. She bit into the ice cream but it was way too cold. Her teeth hurt. Her tongue grew pink. She put it out and looked at it down her nose. She put her tongue out and compared colors with the other children. One boy had a green tongue. It was very funny. She giggled so much that her ice cream grew all shaky and flaky. It was falling to the ground in tiny pieces. She tried to eat as much of the ice cream as she could. It seemed to be melting faster than time. She had forgotten all about the balloons, the bubbles, the tightrope walker, her bright pink watch, her glittery red bangles, her uncle, his cycle, Jimmy, Chumki, her angry father and her missing mother, even as she stood licking her single pink triangular melting ice-cream stick in the middle of a noisy fun fair at twilight.