Beyond the Wall
Mumbai, India 1995
Kala nursed her newborn son. His demanding mouth brought tears of pain as if, at two days old, he knew his place in her life. Once satisfied, he slept. Kala changed his diaper, swaddled him in a soft blue blanket and placed him in the crib where her daughter had slept until his birth.
Staring at the wall without focus, she braided her long black hair. Dim light cast grotto-like shadows on her hollow face. She draped herself in a yellow silk sari while her swampy eyes lingered on her sleeping daughter.
Perspiration dampened the toddler’s hair on her plump mocha cheek, her skin as clear as morning light. She was small for her age and looked younger than three years old.
Careful not to wake her husband in the next room, Kala gently brushed her sleeping daughter’s hair and secured it with a silver barrette. The child opened her bright honey-gold eyes but didn’t make a sound as Kala slipped a red embroidered dress over her head. It was the dress she wore on her third birthday, just days before Kala gave birth to the baby boy.
The little girl’s unusual eyes sparkled, lighting the room with happiness and comforting tolerance. The men of the family also had honey-gold eyes, but their gaze provoked fear.
Kala and her husband lived in a mansion in Mumbai owned by Kala’s father-in-law. Her husband’s brother and his toddling sons lived there as well. All three men were government officials with decision making power over the lives of many.
Kala shivered, remembering the day her sister-in-law had died in a kitchen fire. She’d entered the kitchen just as her mother-in-law’s arm swept through the air, knocking kerosene onto Kala’s sister-in-law. Blood chilling screams filled the room as flames engulfed the young mother. “We must call for help,” said the mother-in-law, in a monotone, unconcerned voice, as she dragged pregnant Kala away from the flames. Kala struggled but her mother-in-law held her back. When the screams subsided, Kala’s brother-in-law appeared with buckets of water. His wife was dead. Kala saw a nod, as a smile rose between them.
There was no investigation.
Like a stealth leopard stalking its prey, Kala slipped into the yard with her daughter on her hip. Mango trees and a tall brick wall screened the property from the palm-lined boulevard. The mansion’s whitewashed pillars were scarcely visible from the street. The opulent wrought iron gate squeaked like a sleeping kitten when Kala squeezed through. The black metal winked shut as she hurried beyond the wall that had safeguarded her daughter from the harsh realities of Mumbai. Her husband’s voice seemed to echo off the barrier, Now I have a boy child, get rid of the girl…, as if their daughter were an outgrown plastic doll.
Kala walked for hours, burying her face in her daughter’s fine hair and gulping the musky infant sweetness. Kala’s pace quickened through the rat infested alley next to a menacing stone wall. She hurried beyond the postern window where a worn bamboo basket accepted donations, typically unwanted female babies. She knew, once inside, no child escaped the orphanage.
She moved aimlessly through dark alleys, passing lavish hotels and putrid slums. As midnight blue replaced the utter blackness of night, she stumbled upon children sleeping like a litter of puppies in the shadow of a fruit-wallah’s cart.
One of the older children rested her arm over a smaller child. Another spooned against her back. She saw love among them, a shining yellow light, the love she sought for her daughter. Hunching like a heron in the shadows, Kala offered her breast to her daughter until milk dripped from the sleeping child’s open mouth. Then she gently lowered the toddler to the sidewalk. Careful not to wake the children, Kala gently lifted a sleeping girl’s arm and let it lay over her three-year-old. With her palms pressed together, she silently blessed the small band of orphans.
Filled with grief beyond tears, scarcely breathing, she forgot to re-hook her choli, leaving only the pallu to cover her round, milk-swollen breasts.
She walked away.
Yellow chiffon glowed around her like a flickering flame about to blow out. When she came to the Arabian Sea, she kept walking toward the rim of the world until the unfolding sari floated above her like a full moon’s reflection.
When the new day began, the toddler looked into the eyes of each pack member as if introducing herself without words.
The oldest girl, Radika, traced the red embroidery with her palm, aware that the fabric was expensive. The child’s cheeks were plump and she smelled of soap and sweet milk. A small silver barrette held fine hair out of her face. Radika looked into the girl’s unusual eyes, “Your mother must love you very much. What is your name?” she said in Hindi.
The little girl gazed intensely into Radika’s dark eyes, but she did not speak.
“We will call you Shakti. My mother told me about the goddess of power and change. Shakti who is no one but part of everyone,” said Radika.
Radika taught Shakti how to forage for food. Shakti’s tiny fingers scratched the dirt like a monkey grooming its sibling. She survived on grubs and garbage and the occasional generosity of tourists. Months passed and in spite of her poor diet, Shakti outgrew the red dress. Radika found a discarded flour sack and tore holes for Shakti’s head and arms. Radika pulled the smelly sack over Shakti’s naked body. They didn’t notice the stench, life on the street offered no other fragrance.
Soon, Shakti couldn’t remember the love of her mother, the security of her crib, the satiety of a meal or her birth name.
One sweltering pre-monsoon morning, Radika led the pack to the fountain in front of a hotel. Before jumping into the water, Shakti neatly folded her little sack-dress and placed it near a palm tree. The others played in their clothes.
In the fountain, the children laughed, giggled and splashed as children anywhere on a searing summer day. Shakti’s scrawny brown shoulders glistened.
She didn’t know that benevolent strangers watched from the hotel windows.