I find my sister at the Sneha Centre for Girls in Injambakkam. It is November in Madras. Roads laid waste by rain. Mosquitoes vying for every inch of exposed skin.
Nothing about it is scary. Not the narrow funnel of Periyar Street or the lone, crooked laburnum leaning over the gate. Not even the towers of plastic clogging the exposed drains.
I think of my mother; my newly dead mother who has bequeathed me land, a house, a sister.
The place is more terrible inside than out.
All the walls are a uniform concrete grey, and the cork-boards – the only splash of colour in the rooms – are filled with pictorial charts of vegetables and types of professions. Sad, uninventive socialist charts, left over from when India used to be friends with Russia. The windows are barred with intricate grilles, and the bedraggled children stare off into nothing, holding themselves, rocking. Some of them have gimpy legs and they drag themselves across the floor with their hands.
Mrs Gayatri, who I first met at Ma’s funeral, shows me the dark room with the wooden bench where the epileptics are hauled off to be strapped down, the kitchen, the terrace, the activity room, where the more advanced children make bags out of newspapers.
There are thirty girls in all. Girls, I say, though most of them, including my sister, are women.
One of them is an albino. Sugandhi. She sits in a dark corner. A giant, ghost-like creature with a disproportionately huge head, pink eyes, ash-white hair. When I enter the room she lifts a long arm to point at me. She is relentless with her questions. Who are you?What’s your name?What are you doing here? Are you married?
Mrs Gayatri shoves me towards her. “She wants to shake your hand.”
I take that ghost hand in mine. Those long, musical fingers. Somebody’s child. Maybe even somebody’s sister.
I tell her my name. “I’m Lucy’s sister,” I say.
No one at the Sneha Centre has ever called my sister Lucia. Lucy is easier on the Tamil tongue.
Mrs Gayatri guides me through her office, up the stairway to the large hall where the girls sleep. There are twenty-eight jute mats rolled and standing up against the wall, twenty-eight pillows and twenty-eight sets of folded sheets. A single shelf built into the wall runs all the way across the room, where the girls store their clothes, toys, towels, toothbrushes.
Only two girls have private rooms. One has cerebral palsy, the other is my sister. Rich girls.
“Lucy’s waiting,” Mrs Gayatri says. “Quite excited, naturally, but also nervous.”
Mrs Gayatri is a remarkable woman, almost two-dimensional if you look at her sideways. The paragon of a woman who works in social services. Completely flattened out by life. Trying to look optimistic and cheery but, having seen too much to be angry about, just looks perpetually worried.
“What should I call you?” I ask, after we had been acquainted a few weeks.
“Everyone calls me Teacher,” she laughed. “Even my husband.”
The first sight of my sister.
She looks like a jumbo peach. Round glasses perched on a snub nose. Perfect almond upturned eyes. Tiny little ears that grow away from her face like flowers in search of light. Peach kurti, blue wide-legged jeans, peach plastic hoop earrings, peach slippers. Hair – limp and brown and long.
She is heavier than me. Plump everywhere – shoulders, breasts, hips, thighs, bum.
She smiles. Two rows of tiny, jagged, widely spaced teeth.
“Come and meet my babies.” She slides off the bed and takes my hand. Laces her fingers through mine. Gives them a squeeze.
There are rows of stuffed animals of varying size, colour and condition, perched on the shelves of my sister’s room. A frame sits on the bedside table with a photograph of my mother and Lucia. Ma is skinny, unrecognisable. She’s looking down at Lucia at her hip, who’s fat and bright-eyed, clutching on to a yellow teddy bear in a red-and-black vest. The same bear lies in a heap on the bed, looking somewhat diminished by the years.
“That’s Baloo, the first of the birthday toys. Your mother used to bring one every year. Sorry, they’re a bit dirty. Lucy gets agitated if we even talk of washing them.”
Lucia is introducing me to each of her babies. Many named from The Jungle Book, her favourite story. The newer ones have nonsense names like Pootchie and Booboo.
“You know your mother used to come every week? She always took Lucy to see a film, whatever was playing. Hardly any English films in those days, but it didn’t matter. Birthdays were extra-special. She’d stay overnight and organise a party for all the children. Cake, balloons, mutton biryani, colouring books and crayons for everyone. We all looked forward to your mother’s visits. She always brought her lovely homemade bread.”
Now Lucia is dragging out all her clothes and laying them on the bed. Smocks. A dozen of them – oral, baggy, shapeless things. We’ll have to get rid of those. Nighties, salwar kameezes, jeans, T-shirts. One ridiculous frothy pink frock. A couple of bejewelled ghagras for the annual Diwali and Christmas dance shows. Underwear – granny-style vests and knickers, pointy cotton bras. Petticoats. A pink terry-towelling bathrobe that I remember my mother wearing for many years. Sensible, sturdy Teva sandals for her at, splayed feet. Rubber chappals and a pair of pink- and-silver Nikes.
“It’s all a little old-fashioned,” Teacher says, glancing at me apologetically.
“Doesn’t matter, we’ll pack it all.”
“Where’s Mummy?” Lucia asks, suddenly, blinking.
“Lucy, we already talked about this. This is your sister Grace. You’re going to go live with her. Mummy’s not here any more. Mummy’s gone to God.”
“But I love Mummy.”
“But Grace is here for you now. She’s going to take care of you like Mummy did.”
“No,” Lucia says, shouting louder and louder. “No, no, no, go away. I want Mummy.”
Excerpted with permission from Small Days and Nights, Tishani Doshi, Bloomsbury.