By Sunil Sharma

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It was a daily ritual.

On the way to office, Grandpa would peep in to find the little Neha sitting quietly in the corner, her red-nosed, big-eyed clown near the books, on the bare stone floor.  He would say nothing and leave.  As soon as the cook, that fat old lady, went out to chat with the neighbours, Neha, now empress of a silent cottage near the small railway station in the middle of the desert, winked at the clown and said: “Come on, let us play, my little brother.”

The clown, waiting for the invitation from his human mistress, would nod, jump up and down, roll and make faces at the puny girl.  Neha screamed with laughter, eyes lit up.  His red nose twitching, white hair under a faded cap, the ill-matched bright-hued tunic upon a thin body, the clown danced, his painted enormous eyes full of laughter and kindness.  Neha and the clown played together in the silent house.  When the cook returned home, the clown shrank back and resumed his place either on the iron table or the pile of the books.  Neha sat quietly, staring out of the barred window, at the huge expanse of the moving sand and across the stretch of desert, at the village many miles away from the railway station, shimmering in the hot sun.  Bare brown hills, except an occasional babool tree here and there, loomed up high in the arid landscape of hot sun, shifting sands and a cold moon.