The tips of Ananti’s fingers moved swiftly over Aradhana’s scalp as she parted her hair into neat shafts, from which she plucked the lice, dropping them into the cone of ash. Once inside, they would be unable to escape.
Ananti’s husband, Suresh, had secured a job as a station master just as Aradhana had started school. They had moved out of their shared accommodation into the tworoom flat in the Railway Colony. Their previous quarters at the chawl had been predominantly Gujarati and from the same caste as theirs. Here, with Railways being a transferrable post, their neighbours came from all over, even as far as Kerala. The colony was located in the neighbourhood of a gauthan, so it was largely Christian. Suresh had heard from his neighbours how their children were hired by the hotels and offices on Marine Drive and Cuffe Parade for salaries twice his own. That was when Suresh had started saying that the children should go to St. Joseph’s, which was just a five-minute walk further than Goklibai Elementary School.
“Look, it’s Ardonna’s brother,” Rosie and Mary would say whenever Bhautik walked past them on their way home from school. Bhautik liked how they pronounced his sister’s name, though the colony boys made fun of the Christian girls, who used every opportunity to anglicise words and manners. It was not until recently that it began to dawn on him that they barely knew more grammar than he now did since joining the English school. Bhautik bit his lip and smiled at the thought of the dialogue the older local boys would recite whenever gauthan girls walked past:
But when Rosie and Mary came to the flat in the late afternoons to pick up Aradhana, Bhautik would step out onto the balcony just as the three girls sauntered down the lane towards the beach, laughing and shoving each other playfully, their arms hooked into one another.
Ananti searched Aradhana’s head one more time with her frisking fingers before rubbing the smelly sharifa seed paste into her scalp and weaving her hair back into a braid. The girl returned inside. Ananti picked up the cone and walked up to the edge of the small balcony. The lice stepped over each other in a vain attempt to climb the slippery, ashen wall. She leaned forward to make sure no one was approaching. Then she threw the crawling cone into the adjacent balcony with one practiced thrust so that the lice, unwanted but not to be deprived of a livelihood, might thrive on a neighbour’s scalp. .......