Excerpts from Happy Birthday by Meghna Pant


happybirthday_meghnaWe enter a narrow muddy path with jhopadpattis on both sides. Lalit apologetically turns his head towards me; the car can move no further. Seven or eight dusty children in ragged clothes surround our car, their noses pressed flat against the windows, their teeth white through the tinted glass. If we leave the car here they’ll scratch the silver-grey paint, sit on the hood or steal the rear-view mirrors, so I tell Lalit, ‘I don’t trust these slum people. I think you better stay in the car.’

‘Memsahib, I can take you to Mary’s house,’ he says gently.

‘How would you know the way around this kachra place?’ I ask.

‘I live here,’ he says, and our eyes meet in the mirror.

I look away and croak a reply, ‘Wait for us here.’

He nods his head slowly as Sara and I squeeze through the small space between the car and the corrugated iron wall of a jhopadpatti. The children scatter.

‘Now what?’ I ask Sara, for Mary has given Sara her address in three simple words: Ask For Me. I see Sara looking around the slums in a daze, as if nothing has prepared her for this reality. I realize that I’ll have to find Mary’s house by myself. I spot a group of women scrubbing pots in a giant cement drum filled with blackish water, their feet coated in mud. A lone woman is squatting next to a water pump, holding her bare-bottomed baby under the empty tap. I walk up to her, carefully tiptoeing around the piles of dirt, and ask her in Hindi (though, I do speak Marathi, the language she’ll be more comfortable with) for directions to Mary’s house.

She looks at me disapprovingly, as though I’m the reason there’s no water in the tap, before saying, ‘The Mary who’s mute or the Mary who wears shorts?’

‘Shorts.’

The woman’s expression changes immediately and she points straight ahead to rows of pink chawls sprouting up like weeds.

‘Which one of them?’ I press, and suddenly she’s standing up with the baby in her arms.

‘I will take you,’ she tells me, and starts walking. We follow her down a path strewn with polythene bags, crushed plastic bottles, packets of chips, bits of slippers and bicycle parts. The woman doesn’t stop talking. No slum-dweller has spoken to me at such length: in Sara’s presence—a white woman—I must seem less intimidating.

‘What is she saying?’ Sara asks, when the woman takes a break to breathe.

‘She’s telling me about the time The Agnis won a cash prize, must be the only time, for a match against Cathedral school. With the money they purchased sports clothes, so they didn’t have to compete in salwar kameezes, and bought a first-aid kit with Band-Aids, Dettol and muscle sprays. Most generously, she says, they bought a television set, which everyone watches together every day. She wants her daughter to grow up, and be like them.’

The woman’s smile widens, excited that her words are valuable enough to be translated into English. She stares at Sara, and her eyes are round and unblinking, as if unable to believe that they’re brave enough to look at a white woman.

Sara licks her lips self-consciously and says, ‘Hello. How are you today?’

The woman shudders and for a moment I’m afraid she’ll drop her baby. She turns to me for help.

‘I think she’s fine,’ I tell Sara.

‘Ask her how old her baby is?’ Sara persists.

‘Must be a newborn,’ I reply dismissively, but when Sara keeps looking at me expectantly, I ask the woman.

‘Ten months,’ she replies, and I realize how malnourished the baby is to look so much younger than her age. The woman says she must get back to the tap, her baby hasn’t been bathed in three days and the water comes once every few hours. I thank her, and Sara and me continue on alone.

We slip down a squelchy slope filled with overflowing sewage, and the sickly-sweet smell of garbage and human excreta intensifies. There are dogs everywhere; some are rabid with frothing mouths. I turn around and see a group of men walking behind us, silently. None of them look away when I glare at them.

I grab Sara’s arm more tightly and say, ‘This is not a good idea.’

Looking shame-faced and sick, Sara doesn’t reply.

Before we take another step we hear a shout ahead of us: ‘Welcome to our home.’ The entire Agnis team is standing in front of us, giggling and jostling each other, as though unable to contain their joy at seeing us. They are a short team, but over here, in their own surroundings of squalor, they tower over everything, looking as out of place as we do.

I look back and see that the men following us have vanished.

Mary steps out and takes Sara’s hand. She tells her, ‘I am too happy to see you. I thought maybe you will not come. Let me show you my house.’

We follow her into a tunnel of corrugated iron and emerge onto a narrow dilapidated walkway of bamboo poles, lashed together on stilts. There are holes in parts where the feet of passers-by must have previously fallen through. The whole structure moves as I walk. Fatima holds my arm, anxious that I don’t slip into the black sludge below.

We reach Mary’s ten-by-ten foot kholi on the ground floor, which is divided into three rooms with the help of two curtains. Her sister sits on a small stool in the kitchen area. With a steel spoon, she is stirring a metal pot balanced on a domed clay oven. Her mother, my maid, is lying on a jute charpai with her hand over her head. When she sees us, she jumps out of bed, joy written all over her face. She touches my feet, a sign of respect for elders, which I don’t deserve.

‘I cannot believe that you are in my house. I thought Mary was playing a joke on me when she said you might come. I don’t know what to offer you,’ she says in Marathi.

‘Nothing,’ I reply back in Marathi. My snobbery dissolves on hearing her quavering voice.

Before I can say another word, Mary’s sister plants a glass of tea into my hand and one into Sara’s.

It’s hot and there’s no place to put it down.

I look at Mary’s mother.

She takes the glass from my hand and rests it in hers.

Happy Birthday by Meghna Pant is published by Random House, 2013. It is available at Fliipkart.com.
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