Not all who wander are lost.
Did I really believe that?
What had we been doing all our life? Wandering around and around the West because though India was where we wanted to be, we kept changing our minds in fits of fickleness and fear.
It was tough living there, in the second most populous country in the world. Here, we didn’t have to toil quite so hard. And we could take refuge in forests and meadows, instead of squeezing ourselves into slums. It didn’t always feel like a better life. But at least we weren’t like most other gypsies, who didn’t even remember the name of their land of origin after all those generations spent suffering and crossing the great divide without ever stepping out of the hinterlands of Firangi country. We remembered, and we tried to go back. We didn’t leave off swimming because we might be just one stroke away from surfacing. We did not accept that we were lost- insisted that we were just displaced...
My thoughts were interrupted by a halfhearted, tired wail, and I was glad to abandon them.
‘Simmi!’ I sat up. ‘I’m not able to get to sleep either.’ I rocked back and forth, hugging my knees, until Simmi’s swinging fist caught me in the small of my back. I turned to her. ‘What’s the matter? You can’t be hungry already...’ I leaned towards her and sniffed gingerly. ‘You haven’t filled your nappy, either.’
Dada grunted and rolled over. He opened one bleary eye. ‘Let her be and go to sleep. It’s a new place, she just needs to settle down.’
A new place? We were Gypsies, we were always going to new places, and Simmi was used to that. However, we had never camped at a meadow before, not as far as I could remember. For some reason,it had always been small forest clearings for us.
‘Shush, Simmi…want to hear a story?’
Simmi gurgled and crowed, ‘Sto-wee.’
I thought I would tell her about one of the constellations, but my mind veered towards memories.
She towered over me- my aunt Sayara. She was tall and willowy, with grey hair gathered at her temples. Alia was showing her an egg-beater, pressing a button so its steel loops revolved into a blur. Aunt Sayara shook her head and proceeded to beat the eggs ‘manually,’ as she put it. ‘None of them new-fangled devil’s tools for me,’ she said. ‘One’s better off using on one’s own hands.’
I was holding a battered, button-eyed stuffed zebra in the crook of my arm. I tugged at her thin blue-bordered shawl with my other arm. ‘Tell me a story, Aunty,’ I demanded.
She wiped her hands on a towel and crouched down to my height. ‘I’m busy right now, Kanti, my petal.’ She patted my cheek and said, ‘And how can you be going to go to bed without having dinner first, hmm?’
‘I’m getting punished today, I have to skip dinner.’
‘Ah. You’ve been asking your Dada for toys again, haven’t you?’
I snivelled. ‘I want a doll.’
‘If you get a doll, won’t your zebra be jealous? And then maybe he won’t play with you anymore.’
I shook my head solemnly. ’Zebzeb won’t be jealous ‘cause she’s going to be his girlfriend.’
’Why don’t you be Zebzeb’s girlfriend?′
‘He wants her to be a doll. I’m not a doll.’
Aunt Sayara’s dark eyes twinkled suddenly. ‘You’ll get your doll.’
‘Pinky promise,’ she nodded, and we linked little fingers. ‘Yes! Yes!’ I mewled, frisking around the caravan.
I snuggled into my rug and waited for story time. I didn’t want to go outside, where they were all having dinner. I didn’t go for the bonfire either, as I was exempted from it as a part of my punishment.
After ages and ages, Aunt Sayara finally came. She pulled her own rug near mine and arranged it over her feet. She pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders, too, because as the day waned it got colder and colder.
‘Once upon a time,’ she began, and the same words poured from my mouth and danced in Simmi’s shell-like ears. I rubbed my hands over her downy arms, keeping her warm.
’Once upon a time there was a rose tree. In India, our homeland, rose trees bloom in the winter, and wither by summer. This tree was no different, but it wanted to be special, better, looked up to by the other rose trees. One day a tree spirit appeared before it and asked, ‘What do you seek?’
″I want my roses to bloom in the summer,′ said the rose tree. ‘So be it,’ said the tree spirit and vanished. So now the rose tree’s flowers bloomed when the summer sun warmed their buds, and died when the monsoon winds blew their way.
’At first, the tree enjoyed flaunting its roses when all the other trees were bare. But then winter came, and the rose-tree’s blooms withered, and it had to bear the sight of all the other trees showing off their blooms. It called out fervently to the tree spirit again.
‘I want my blooms to never wither.’
‘There’s no living and blooming forever.’ But the rose tree wouldn’t listen. So, ‘Granted,’ said the tree spirit, ‘But although they’ll keep blooming throughout the seasons, your flowers have to die somehow, someday.’
‘Her warnings failed to penetrate the rose tree’s stomata, which were all clogged up with its daydreams of ever-blooming. Jubilantly, the rose-tree displayed its blooms throughout the year. People noticed, and the ordinary rose trees lost their popularity. Everyone wanted an ever-blooming rose tree. They began to take cuttings from this tree, to plant in their own gardens. People took cuttings indiscriminately, not even waiting for the tree to heal and grow back. The tree gradually diminished until there was nothing left of it. So the tree spirit’s prediction came true.’
Simmi’s large, dark eyes were fixed on my face, thumb in mouth. I doubted she understood half of what I said. I didn’t know why she hadn’t been bored to sleep. At least she wasn’t crying anymore, though.
I lay back down, remembering that Aunt Sayara sold the electric beater and bought me a fairy doll with the money.
* * *
The sunlight crept in under my eyelids and pried them open with glaring hot fingers. I tied my loose hair back with a scarf and gave Simmi a bath. She squirmed and kicked, but I’d had a lot of experience with her in that mood and knew how to deal with it. I stood back, crossed my arms and watched her tantrum dispassionately, until she used up all her energy and quieted down. Then I continued bathing her as though nothing happened, and now she was so tired that she only gave the occasional wriggle and whine. I warmed her milk and while I was feeding it to her, a Firangi girl with the curliest hair I’d ever seen bounced up to me and watched.
‘Drink up, drink up,’ I said to Simmi, who had turned her face away from the bottle and was drinking in this stranger with wide eyes. The girl smiled at Simmi, then looked at me and cleared her throat loudly.
‘Yes?’ I said. Even though it was just one word, it came out snappish. I was irritable in the morning, a chip I’d got off Dada.
‘Is this your little sister? She’s so cute! Can I help take care of her?’ I wondered if she was mocking me. How did she expect me to let her? ‘My name is Lorna,’ she added.
‘I’m Kanti,’ I said, ‘And I can handle her myself, so...’
‘You want me to buzz off.’
‘That’s not how I’d put it… just, not right now.’
‘Fine. I’m dead bored around here, and I wish you’d let me help you, but whatever. I’ll be back in half an hour.’ She grinned toothily at me and bounced off.
I felt a nudge in the back, and turned around to face Dada. According to him, wrestling and fighting with staffs were immensely popular when he was young. He’d poked me with his knobbly, gnarled stick, his first (failed) attempt at fashioning his own staff.
‘I’ve got a job for us,’ he said, frowning at Lorna’s retreating back. ’But what was that Firangi doing, hanging around here? What was you doing, talking to her?′
‘She was saying that she came here because she was bored, and she thought Simmi was cute-’
‘Well, why didn’t you tell her to get lost the moment you seen her?’ he argued. ‘And why don’t you just talk normal?’
’Dada, for you ‘normal’ means ‘slang’. And Aunty taught me not to speak slang and now I’m used to not speaking slang and I’m not going to start again whatever you do. And who am I to tell Lorna to get lost?′ I said mulishly. ‘This meadow doesn’t belong to us. If we can come here, the Firangi can, too.’
Dada could see the reason in this, so he stabbed at the ground with his staff and admitted defeat. ‘Well, but if she comes a-hanging around here again, just make her see she ain’t welcome.’
‘Yes, I know, and I’ve already done it,’ I sighed, as he muttered under his breath about my airs and graces. ‘Now what was that job you were telling me about?’
’Oh, yeah- some Lord or the other is to come to the village, and he’s got a lot of horses, finest Persian ones, it seems; and he wants some fine grass to feed ‘em. And I says to myself, I says, why, there ain’t no finer grass that the one in this here meadow!’
I thought I knew where this was going. ‘But this meadow doesn’t belong to us,’ I protested, ‘and so this grass doesn’t belong to us, either!’
’We been feeding this grass that ‘don’t belong to us’ to the horses, and I ain’t seen you complaining about that. Selling the grass ain’t worse in comparin’.′
‘Well,’ I condescended, ‘all right, but if we get in trouble for it, and if the Firangi come and drive us out because we’re trespassers and this is private property-’
’Private property of whom, I’d like to know? There ain’t no board around here saying, ‘This here meadow’s private property of so-and-so,’ and saying trespassers they will prosecute; why, there ain’t no fence even.′
‘So... if we stay here forever nobody will say anything?’ I said hopefully.
‘Ar, that’s too much to hope for,’ he said grimly, ‘They’ll sure boot us out one day.’
‘But why? How can they if this isn’t private property?’
‘If this ain’t private property then what is it?’ he growled through gritted teeth.
‘... Public property, I suppose.’
’And we ain’t public, we Gypsies. The gov’ment ain’t supportive of Gypsies, and all them blamed authorities is Firangi. That’s what they mean by ‘public’- Firangi. They’ll boot us out because we’re Gypsies, they don’t need no more reasons.′ His voice rose higher and higher with each sentence, and shook with anger.
He huffed and puffed for a few seconds, and I prayed he wouldn’t blow me down, in vain- he turned on me and roared, ‘Wasting me time asking me stupid questions about the blamed Firangi, working me up something awful, and we’ve got work to do, sixteen bundles of grass before sundown or else...’ He paused for breath but continued shaking his fists at me. And then he hissed, ‘And now let’s get to work, you blamed little-’ muttering darkly, he handed me a sickle, took one for himself, and we began to work.
Later, in the afternoon, I was lying out on the grass with Simmi next to me. After I fed her that morning she’d had a nice long nap until lunch while I worked myself to the bone. She awoke for lunch, and was still awake now- lying down with me, but with her eyes open. Dada had allowed a half-hour rest for me, and then it was back to cutting grass.
Oh my, how I wished I could go to sleep for a bit, and wake up to work somewhat refreshed and with regained strength, but my limbs were too sore and my mind wouldn’t come to rest to let me sleep.
‘Oh Simmi, I reckon no work ever took so much out of me,’ I said feebly. ‘And all this trouble for a few bundles of grass, a few desmuntes- just barely enough to fill our stomachs for a day. But let me tell you, Dada is right- the grass is fine, all thick and healthy and so soft! We should get a good price for it. But we’re Gypsies, so they’ll probably give us much less than is fair, they don’t trust us...’
Simmi yawned and closed her eyes, and suddenly, I was angry. Simmi wasn’t even ours, we took her in out of pity, for she was orphaned and her parents were of our own clan, and they were good, hardworking people who didn’t deserve to die, but they did- and we took in their little child, and she was a right nuisance...
All unjust, foolish thoughts, as I knew well. She was just a baby. I stood up, sickle in hand, and continued cutting grass. My back began pulling too soon. When I stood upright the sickle fell from my hand. I pressed my palm to my pounding forehead and closed my eyes. I glimpsed sparks, but they were such tiny pinpricks of light and they were gone so quickly that I couldn’t be sure if they were ever there at all.
‘Hello, you seem as idle as I am,’ hailed an exuberant voice. I turned and greeted Lorna with a ‘Please go away, and don’t get offended, I’m not supposed to talk to you.’
She halted, and her mouth puckered up. ‘Why, are you vagrants too high and classy for my society?’ She didn’t sound hearty anymore, and her eyes, when I met them, were icy.
‘You know very well what our social standing is, and I’m betting your parents don’t know you’re mixing with people like me,’ I said steadily. The needles behind my eyes skewed and receded. She ran a hand through her chestnut curls, frowning.
‘You know why I came here?’
‘You came... you came because you’re bored.’
‘No...’ she shook her head and laughed, briefly and harshly. ‘I came because I wanted to see just how dirty and uncivilized you tramps are. And then I wanted to gather all my friends and laugh at you.’ She blared the words in my face, relishing them. My hands were over my ears but her voice slipped through the gaps in my fingers, so that I heard every blamed word. My eyes prickled, and I bit my lip, not understanding why I felt this way. This wasn’t the first time a Firangi spat swill at me.
I heard a footstep, accompanied with the crunch of stick on soil. Dada leaned on his staff, gave Lorna a long, steely look and said just two gruff words.
Lorna hesitated, opened her mouth to fight back. Dada bared his teeth and brandished the stick. She scarpered then, if reluctantly, and we were left in peace.
But I was boiling inside, with rage and hurt. I was used to Firangi behaving such with me... but Lorna had seemed different. She’d seemed like she was disregarding the social barriers, the way she asked whether she could help take care of Simmi as though we were Firangi just like her...
‘She called us uncivilized tramps,’ I told Dada.
‘I know, I overheard her, the blamed-’ he called her something which, in normal circumstances (which is if it concerned any other Firangi but Lorna) I would reproach him for saying out loud. But on this occasion I seconded his opinion.