When Ira was driving home from school with her mother that Monday afternoon, she was still sad that Mahalaxmi was not coming to Mysore. The car passed Mahalaxmi, who was walking home with her mother, her shoes hanging over her shoulder.
“Mummy!” said Ira. “Look, Mahalaxmi is walking barefoot. Isn’t it cool that her mother allows that?”
“Yes,” laughed Mummy. “I think her parents are pretty cool to let her do that!”
“But her parents are not allowing her to come to Mysore.”
“Oh really? Did you ask her why?”
“She told me that her father said that they do not have extra money for school trips. But why is that, Mummy?”
“Mahalaxmi is perhaps an RTE child. Perhaps her parents do not have or want to spend Rs 3000 for a school trip,” said Mummy.
“What is an RTE child? And why do they not want to spend money for a school trip?”
“The government made a rule so that any child can go to private schools. An RTE child is someone from a poorer family, who cannot afford a school like yours. All private schools, such as yours, must enrol some kids for free. Do you notice that Mahalaxmi walks to school every day while all of you go home in airconditioned cars and buses? Her parents may not earn as much as Papa and I do. So her parents could think that a field trip is a luxury they cannot afford.”
“But she’s a part of Gulmohar Class and she’s my very best friend. I want her to come for the field trip.” She leaned out of the window to wave goodbye to Mahalaxmi, who had caught up with them while they were stuck at a red light. “BYeBYeSeeYOUtOMOrrOW,” she yelled.
“BYeBYeSeeYOUtOMOrrOW,” Mahalaxmi shouted back.
“It would be so nice if she could come too!” sighed Mummy.
Mahalaxmi brought a string of red flowers for Ira to put in her hair the next day. They ran around the playground, wearing matching flowers. Aditi looked the other way when Ira and Mahalaxmi asked her if she’d like to play lagori with them.
After lunch break, it was art class. Revathi ma’am asked the children to draw and colour a scene from their favourite book. Mahalaxmi began colouring with a stubby pencil from her set. Ira, who was sitting behind her, could see that the set was missing a few colours. Ira noticed after a few minutes that Mahalaxmi was looking for a colour, which she seemed to not find. She looked over at Aditi, who was sitting across the table from her. Everyone in class admired Aditi’s colouring pencils, which were fancier than anything anyone else had. The 48 swanky pencils came in their own mini hexagonal suitcase. It had all the shades and hues that one could imagine. Ira could see from Mahalaxmi’s expression that she had never seen anything like Aditi’s colour pencils before.
“Aditi!” Mahalaxmi whispered quietly. There was no response. “Aditi!” Mahalaxmi said a bit more loudly. Aditi did not look up. Mahalaxmi seemed to hesitate a bit. Then she reached out and took a purple pencil from Aditi’s box. Aditi suddenly went hysterical. “Ma’am,” she shouted at the top of her voice. “Mahalaxmi is stealing my colour pencils, ma’am.” Mahalaxmi pushed the purple pencil back towards Aditi.
“Calm down, Aditi,” said Revathi ma’am, coming towards the girls and looking at their pictures. “Mahalaxmi, please ask before taking someone’s colour pencils. It’s not nice to use something that doesn’t belong to you without asking.” Mahalaxmi looked down and did not say a word. Aditi whispered something to Vanya and Nilah and grinned. Revathi ma’am looked at Aditi and said, “And Aditi, there is no need to scream if a classmate is borrowing a colour pencil.” Aditi’s smile faded.
Ira leaned forward and offered Mahalaxmi her colour pencil set. But Mahalaxmi said she did not feel like colouring any longer. After the art class was PE. Mahalaxmi sat under the gulmohar tree by herself instead of joining the games enthusiastically, as she always did. Ira joined her. Mahalaxmi looked very lonely somehow. Ira asked, “Is something the matter?” Mahalaxmi hesitated for a long time, and then finally spoke. “I don’t have a colour pencil set of my own. This set belonged to my brother. Half the pencils are gone and the ones left are worn.”
“Oh!” said Ira immediately. “Don’t worry, you can take mine. I have many more colour pencil sets at home.” Mahalaxmi didn’t seem very happy with the idea so Ira told her the story of her aunt, who could not think of anything else to gift her and so gave her a colour pencil set for every birthday and festival. “And that’s why I have so many,” she ended. Mahalaxmi laughed and finally agreed.
Excerpted with permission from Mahalaxmi Will Go to Mysore, Niyatee Sharma, illustrated by Suvidha Mistry, Hole Books/Penguin India.