“Who. Is. That?” asked Miss Siloo, face quivering. She pointed at the cold marble bust in the assembly hall.

Havovi rattled off: “Miss Jamshed Jamshetji, respected founder JJ Girls High School and Boarding School.” Around them, the portraits of Miss Jamshetji’s ancestors glared down at this elfin girl in her green checked frock, chin jutting forward. “So not the White Walking lady, who visits boarders who haven’t given you a bite of their parathas?”

“Pickles,” Havovi corrected her, then bit her tongue. Oops. The quivering had reached the corner of Miss Siloo’s lips. Was that a smile? But it vanished, as she rattled the strange pouch in her hand, and let out a dramatic sigh. “Stuffing a pin up your nose to miss a day of school. Writing to your mother to take you away, as you had smallpox. Smallpox!”

“But –”

“World over, there has been no smallpox for decades, dikra. Pick your excuses.” Double oops. Miss Siloo was warming up. “Not answering teachers in class. Not talking to classmates.” Classmates! The less said about them the better (though Havovi had a lot to say). But Miss Siloo wasn’t done. “Havovi Gheewala! 25 years as boarding matron, and for the first time, I asked the school headmistress for a favour.” Havovi kept her eyes trained on the large windows. A bright dart of blue. Was that a kingfisher among the mango trees?

“I asked her to admit you as a favour to my friend, your dear father.” Miss Siloo raised her voice, “Only ten needy Parsi girls are accepted every year. And how have you repaid me?” Havovi, who had clenched her fists at “needy”, then “admit”, almost choked by “father”. “Stuff your admission process,” she wanted to say. “Don’t mention my father,” she wanted to say. “Sorry, Miss Siloo” she muttered. “If you want the school to take in another Gheewala next year, show them what Gheewalas are made of!” And there it was. The reason admission day ended in tears.

Havovi had been admitted, but her younger sister Roshan had been sent back to their home in Nargol. Without her sister and best friend, she had no interest in getting to know anyone or anything else. Oh she would show them what Gheewalas are made of. With her expressive, wide eyes, wispy hair, and slender frame, Havovi did look elfin – but needle her, and as her dorm partners found out – she could turn into an elf-warrior! “I meant I had small chicken-pox,” she said, looking Miss Siloo in the eye. The matron sighed again. “This is what you will have to do.”Punishment time! Havovi’s eyes brightened. Washing extra dishes? Splish splosh what fun that had been. Cleaning the boarder’s dorms? Yay!

She’d found many hidden food packets beneath beds. But Miss Siloo was holding out that strange pouch. Havovi pulled out the crumbling object inside. A children’s book, the size of her palm. “Values for Children,” she read slowly, stumbling over the unfamiliar English. “I was a boarder here too,” said Miss Siloo suddenly. “I came with two frocks in my trunk and this book.”

“I’ll read it every night,” promised Havovi.

“I can’t part with it for that long! This Friday, your teacher informs me you have the term’s first Show and Tell.” Where was this going?

“Yes. We have to bring our favourite item and tell the story behind it,” said Havovi. She was going to take a set of interesting stones. “You will read out from this book. Practice till you are fluent. You will leave a strong impression.” Havovi opened it. Page one: “Children should be seen and not heard” Page two: “Girls are sugar and spice and everything nice”. A hollow pit formed in her stomach. She knew what impression this would make on the students. One more chance for her classmates to snigger at her?

Aloud she said, “Yes, Miss Siloo” with a deep sigh of her own. And Friday had arrived, too quickly. Outside, it was one of Mumbai’s brightest days, filled with birdsong. In her classroom, Havovi looked around, lips pressed tight as she took in the fancy Show and Tell objects everyone had brought. Every class in JJ Girls High School had two or three “needy” boarders. These girls lived in the hostel on the school premises. The others were day scholars from the city, (like her partner, Sameera), who rarely mixed with the boarders.

That suited Havovi just fine. You could stick your tongue out at them when they laughed at your hand-me-down mended uniforms, you could look the other way when they talked about their fun lives after school, you could pretend not to understand when they giggled at your accent. But wouldn’t it all have been easier if lil sis Roshan was around to ignore/stick out tongue/laugh back at the others with her? She flopped down on her seat.

Excerpted with permission from The Dog With Two Names: Stories That Celebrate Diversity, by Nandita da Cunha, Talking Cub.