| A steady trickle of people passed into a balloon and streamer festooned hall, punctuating their progress with random interactions. Mandatory expressions of delight and contrived smiles were produced; murmurs of acceptable social inanity were exchanged in passing.
There was one glum face, one cynical observer, unmoved by the celebratory mood. Huh, Naming Ceremony indeed, like they’ve found a new star or planet. It was bad enough before, but today, they’re not even looking at me.
Siya slunk into the window seat, tucking the thick folds of the curtains under herself - thus creating a perfect ‘hide’- retreating from the party buzz. She pulled up her long skirt of stiff embroidered silk, wiggling into a comfortable position, resting her stuffed teddy-bear on her knees.
At least I still have you, Ribbons,Her lips nuzzled the threadbare patch on top of a drab head.
Pallu Bua says I am a big girl now and big girls dress up for parties. Her lip curled as she tugged her skirt even higher and crossed her legs, why does dressing ‘up’ mean long skirts that are worn ‘down’.
Another absent kiss to her confidante’s head heralded a new train of thought; I am not any ‘bigger’ than I was last month – just heart-height, as Papa used to say.
This ‘growing big’ only means Mama does not like me any more; she never gives me just-passing-hugs or no-need-kisses any longer. She tugs my hair when combing the tangles out and doesn’t tickle away my frowns. She even makes impatient tcch-tcch sounds a lot.
A lower lip protruded in quivering pinkness but long lashes proved successful in keeping tears at bay.
The party noise without was changing – glasses clinked and cutlery played tinny melodies on plates, voices slowed and stilled. Siya continued her probe.
Papa’s been calling me Siya a lot, even Si-ya Tri-ve-di once, real stern. Yet, he never called me anything other than Pankudi or Rani before. He’d laugh and say I was his Petal Princess. Siya – even the kids in the new school all tease me and tell me my name means goodbye! It’s hard, having left all my friends behind in India.
One particular trill sounded repeatedly as the conversation hummed, Siya pursed her lips in a disapproving grimace.
There goes Pallu Bua again, calling out for someone to admire the ‘latest addition’. More of a subtraction, if you ask me, he took away Papa and Mama. She even caught hold of me to ask me what I thought of him. A satisfied gleam flitted across the face; Bua had no answer when I said one never thought anything of squashed cabbage leaves. Icky wet shapeless things that smell and are of no possible use to anybody!
Siya felt it was time her companion contributed to the conversation. She picked him up and peered at his mismatched chipped bead eyes, dejected under-stuffed white belly, and his stoic expression, all so dear to her. One frayed red ribbon wound under his chin, ending in a bedraggled bow, it had been the basis for his name.
He had been with her for years, waxing in importance even as his looks waned. He had gained the position of close friend-philosopher-guide by dint of ready listening and unfailing acquiescence, not to mention supreme discretion. Other resplendent toys were dispatched to indifferent occupancy of a shelf; only he shared her bed and confidence.
You know what I mean, Ribbons - Ved has only to turn beet-red and wail, for both Mama and Papa to rush at him. It might well be for one of his disgusting smelly messes but they’ll act as though it were the ice-cream cart! And Mama, she keeps hugging him to her chest for ages – then she pats him – he gives a gross belch and spits up icky curds and gets told ‘Good boy’! Gosh, I do my home work, put away my toys, eat all my food, say ‘Thanks’ and ‘Please’; it’s ages since I heard ‘Good girl’!
She parted the drapes and peeped at the dining table; the crowds milling around it had thinned and the assorted treats were visible.
There, see, for his stupid ‘naming’ party they make Dhoklas and samosas – gulab jamuns too, proper home-cooked food. For my birthday, there was just ice-cream and wafers. Of course, Mama had Peggrancy then. You know, that fatty, waddly, swollen-feet illness she had for months. She had to go to hospital to make it better and I think they gave her that Cabbage-Leaf, Ved, to cheer her up.
Siya swung her legs out of her retreat; she sidled past knots of women talking of babies and their clever deeds. Maybe other babies do clever stuff but Cabbage Leaf just lies there - asleep or yelling, stinking or dripping.
She hovered near the table in a casual attitude - one deft paw snagged some random goodies sufficient to load her plate. She was just about to return to her safe haven when she felt a large hand on her shoulder.
She knew that hand so well, long fingers and a hard palm, but so warm, so tender, so safe. Her face lit up as she looked up and confirmed it was indeed her father.
“Well, Pankudi, getting some titbits for Ribbons too?”
Siya’s curls bounced at the haste with which she dived into willing arms, plate falling unheeded from her loosening grasp. Her chest was tight with joy and she found herself sobbing without being able to stop.
I’m still Pankudi? Papa hasn’t forgotten! He’s even concerned about Ribbons.
One hasty swoop from Papa and she found herself riding his forearms into the kitchen, where he sat her on his lap and let the tempest subside. One hand smoothed the head buried deep in his neck.
A hiccup interrupted the momentous question hovering on childish lips.
“Still here,” the gruff reply was belied by the smile on Papa’s lips, the tender loving smile that made her feel she could barely breathe.
“I thought you couldn’t love big girls like me.”
“Who said you’re big, sweetheart? You’ll be my little Queen always.”
“Bua said I must be a big girl now and not keep running to you and Mama and bothering you. Because you have the ‘little one’ to look after, Squa- … I mean Ved.”
“Squashed Cabbage-Leaf? Papa chortled, “Yes, I know that is what you call Ved - like I call you Pankudi.”
“So why have you been calling me Siya?”
“Well we’re in a new country; people here might not understand that for me you’re Pankudi - a little petal. You reminded me of a rose petal when you were born, all pink and soft. Someone else, seeing you, might have thought you a wrinkled beet.”
“Ugh – a wrinkled beet! Did I look as ugly as that?”
“Not to me, Rani, love showed me the real you. That’s why even Ved looks good to me. He’ll grow into a cute boy, but nothing as cute as my Pankudi baby!”
The new ideas required careful digestion: Siya slid off her father’s lap but let her arms still encircle his neck. Two glistening orbs pinned his gaze to hers; speaking of the grave portent behind the question.
“I’m your baby? Not a big girl?”
Her Papa sighed a little, the way he did when anyone needed something explained. It wasn’t irritation – just searching for words; Siya could see a half-smile on his lips.
“You know Pallu Bua is my sister? I was seven years old when she was born, just like you and Ved. She was a new baby and small and helpless. But my parents still loved me and I was their little boy. To them, I’m still one."
His eyes became moist, “You know, when Dadi used to send me off to office, she’d always tell me to ‘be careful’. You're sent off to school with, ‘’Bye - take care!’ You’re not a baby but you will always be mine.” Papa ruffled her curls and winked at her, “Understand?”
Mama came into the room, holding a heaped plate in one hand.
“There you are! I was wondering where you’d both disappeared!” She held the plate out to Siya and tried to draw her close with the other arm; but the little form was rigid.
“Here sweetheart, I made gulab jamuns, stuffed with dried fruit. I know I wasn’t able to give you a real birthday treat.”
“That’s not all, the samosas are stuffed with peas and the dhoklas are the yellow ones – your favourites,” added Papa.
“Today was for both of you.” Mama was looking down at her with fondness and Cabbage Leaf was nowhere in sight.
Siya drew in a deep breath – her mother smelled of lemon and vanilla; she leaned back and relaxed. Her mouth opened of its own accord and she spooned up morsels of succulent syrupy jamun with greedy delight.
A wail from the doorway drew all eyes; Pallu Bua was standing there with Cabbage Leaf in her arms, his face a familiar vermilion.
“Hey, I know you just fed and changed the little fellow, but he’s still cranky.”
Siya’s hand stilled and her heart drew on its customary stone sheath; she waited for her parents to push her away and begin their usual three-yard sprint, each racing to get there first.
Well, what are they waiting for?
Her slim form had stiffened in anticipation and was half out of her mother’s encircling arms. Mama pulled Siya back into place and feather-kissed the top of Siya’s head in an achingly familiar way.
“It’s just attention seeking. Pallu, let’s see if you can manage to quiet Ved by yourself, the practice might come in handy someday.” Mama twinkled at Bua.
Well. If that was a joke, neither Pallu Bua nor Ved seem to like it. Siya was not quite kindly disposed to either, so she gave a couple of firm nods of her head, serve them right!
The scarlet ribbons threaded through her rebellious curls danced with each decided movement and caught the baby’s attention. He crowed in appreciation, and turned liquid eyes upon the creator of the wondrous entertainment.
Siya found the appeal irresistible. Why, he looks much better now – not so Cabbage-Leafy. He has a darling nose and those big eyes look at me just like Ribbons does – as though I was the center of his world.
She shook her head in amazement at the sudden revelation. It seemed Ved liked her antics; his repeated crowing was endorsed by chubby arms held out to the source of amusement.
Siya turned, no longer wondering about irrelevant things like babyhood and bigness, pleading, “Mama, may I hold him?”
She sat cross-legged on the floor, making a comfortable lap, much as she had seen Mama do. Her parents crouched on either side and lowered a willing baby.
Siya gathered the warm squirming bundle close and the two gazed at each other in solemn ceremony. She laughed as he made a grab for her ribbons.
Papa’s teasing voice broke the tension, “Sure you want a smelly useless Cabbage Leaf, Rani?”
How can Papa say something like that? Ved smells of talc and milk and baby-ness! There - Mama is rolling her eyes at Papa, because he's silly! Ved is just like Ribbons, only better - because he can laugh and be happy with me.
An indignant Siya burst out, “Really Papa, his name is Ved - and babies are for loving, not using.”
Now, what is there in that to make Papa laugh and Mama sniffle?
She bounced the infant in her arms and beamed as he responded with now predictable appreciation.
”He’s buzzing around Siya like a bee around a rose!”
Siya pretended not to hear Papa but Bhavro is what family called him, ever after.