We had news from Delhi. Papa had become a papa and we had a sister. We had been visiting Mini in December each year when it got too cold in Didoli, but this time we rushed. The house was six times larger than ours. It had a staircase, and gardens in the front and back. Papa was a trader in bricks and such material and, as if it mattered, had proudly finished the construction of a tall building all on his own. Mini had quit work to welcome our sister into the world.

From the car I expected to see a little girl in a blue frock swinging on the gate and respectfully bowing to us the way slaves did in Vurf ’s books, now mine. What we saw instead in Mini’s arms was a fat ugly mouse. A fat ugly mouse was called a bandicoot, I remembered, and smiled in triumph, just when Mini took my hands and touched them to its face. “Look, Mira, who’s here,” she sang softly. “It’s big brother Aum.”

“And Vurf,” I added. Vurf thumped his tail on the carpet and barked.

“And Vurf, of course!”Mini laughed. The three elders were so busy with the mouse that we had little interference. Ammu barely noticed our clothes and Mini was rarely out of her room. I had heard she had stitches. I checked her minutely and saw none. Not even on the ear. “Where are the stitches?” I asked when she was surrounded by cackling neighbourhood women. They buried their faces in their shoulders and hankies and said not a word. Mini fussed over the mouse for nothing.

Ammu walked in and I demanded an answer. “How do you think babies are born?” Her eyes bore into mine. This was her trick. Ask a question in reply to a question. Mini almost always had an answer, not Ammu. “Will Mini die too?” I asked. My real worry was that it was these stitches that killed mothers soon after they gave birth. The women began whispering amongst themselves. Ammu held me to her belly. I could see Mini in the mirror behind her. She was smiling and wiping her eyes. “Come here,” she called out to me. And then she held me by the waist and pinched me on the arm. “No, I won’t die. How can I die when I have three lovely kids?”

“Three?” some of the women exclaimed at once.

“Have you all forgotten? Vurf and I have a sister now.” I couldn’t help laughing at them. And Mini and Ammu laughed even louder. Vurf, who had been busy digging up the radishes, gave a half-woof of “Am I missing something very important or what?” somewhere in the garden. We stayed two more weeks till some old lady came to care for Mini. Things were fine all along except for Papa and his ideas. I heard him say he didn’t want the dog shedding his flea in the house. Every hair, he explained, had a million germs. I told him to shave his head first and Ammu took me to a corner and shook me. They decided Vurf would stay in the verandah on a thick purple mattress with clouds all over. I insisted I would stay with him. Papa was furious. Ammu was annoyed. And Mini sat with her chin on her knees, looking sad. It was for her I had to find a way out of Papa’s mess, which I did.

“What have you done?” Ammu screeched when we presented ourselves at the foot of the stairs. Everything was a question for her. “Have you lost your mind, Aum?” Another question. “Is it them?” Mini called from the room. “You know what they have gone and done, these two?” she complained over her shoulder. “I thought Vurf had grown up, but look at him. What a sight.” And she sat down on the topmost step and began hitting her forehead and chuckling. She always did that. Created a scene and laughed.

“What happened?” Mini appeared behind Ammu and her hand went to her mouth.

“You have shaved your head, Aum?”

“And the other one too.” Ammu pointed at us and laughed. “He looks like a pink pig. What do I do with them you tell me, Mini?”

“No hair, no germs,” I said.

“It’s all Papa’s fault.” Mini hid her smile. “We’ll deal with him later. But how will you go to school? And what will people say? Vurf is without clothes. He can’t go out looking like that.”

Vurf whined. I had not thought of the future. A war is a war and you do what you have to do. You have to sacrifice your life for freedom if you must. Vurf ’s books, now mine, said so. We won the war but lost our freedom. For a week both of us stayed out of the way because too many visitors came with too many questions about Vurf ’s breed. One far-sighted auntie wanted to know why Papa had kept a goat. “For meat, Mrs Khera,” Papa said loud enough. He had the last laugh.

Excerpted with permission from Visitors to the House, Shashank Gupta, HarperCollins India.