“I’m going to visit Little Stars now I think…” I stood barefoot in the kitchen, thinking out loud.
“Okay, go na?” Lalu said, peeling vegetables onto the concrete floor. Ashish nodded and brushed past me, carrying a glass of chai and a glass of lemon water to a customer sitting outside.
I came into the city an hour earlier, smiling as the cab flew by so many places I remember. As I walked from the taxi to the Yadav family house, the heat waves were visible in the air and enhanced my impression of being in a dream.
I left this house in tears last year, after living there for four months. Nine months later, I was walking into the kitchen and saying hello again to Lalu and Ashish, my Indian brothers. They greeted me casually, as though I’d been in the other room for the past hour. As we talked, I realized that I really was where I was. The odd mouse moved across the floor, sampling whatever it could find.
“Okay, see you later!” I should have been exhausted, as I was throughout the trip, but felt exhilarated being back in the city. I walked through the back lane, or gali, empty in the midafternoon. After arguing with a rickshaw man in my broken Hindi, I sat upright in the rickshaw with my purse in my lap. I couldn’t believe how naturally things were happening, just like last year.
At school, Gargi greeted me at the door with a big hug, sweet. Gatekeeper Rajkumari and maid Shanthi came smiling and grabbed my shoulders with their soft brown hands. They pulled me close, at the same time telling the new maids who I was. The school’s principal and founder Asha Pandey and her one biological daughter Rishi were sleeping, so I headed up stairs. On tiptoe, holding my breath. Shambhavi saw me first.
“Browniedidi! Brownididi!” the girls started to shriek and rushed towards me. They cornered me from all sides, wrapping me in an enormous hug. I closed my eyes. Wished I had more hands, to be able to touch each girl’s face, hair, shoulders. They all began speaking at ones, talking about recent events in their lives. Speaking and then falling silent and just watching me. I looked into each pair of black eyes and couldn’t believe it.
We moved into the girls’ hostel bedroom, where I sat on a bed and the girls crowded around me, touching my arms and face. We talked about what we had done last year when I was there, and what had happened since. Three girls have left the hostel, and there’s one new one. I pulled away after an hour, overwhelmed with the kids’ love. Downstairs, I hugged Rishi and touched Ashaji’s feet.
I was stopped several times before reaching home again, by neighbours who remembered me. Some only smile or nod slightly, some want to chat about the changes in their lives. I was invited into little Ansu’s house, who was just a baby last year but now talks and plays cricket. His mother offered me chai and sweets, and waved a hand fan in the hot air. We sat cross-legged side by side in the two-room house, talking about how much the little one had grown up. I said to her as best I could in Hindi, “It feels as though I didn’t leave.”