When Bhagubhai cut his thumb off, my grandmother scurried upstairs and locked herself in her room for fear of being contaminated by his blood.
Ma tut-tutted and dressed the man’s hand in one of Dipok’s clean T-shirts, whilst I stood in the doorway biting a hangnail, praying under my breath.
Turns out Bhagubhai hadn’t cut half or even a quarter of his thumb off whilst adjusting the lawnmower. The emergency department had examined the gash, Ma told us, and then stitched the thing together. I asked whether Bhagubhai had cried, but Ma said grown-ups didn’t cry at such things.
There were other things grown-ups didn’t do that Bhagubhai did do though, things that Ma, Baba, Nani or even Dipok knew nothing about.
Our house had many rooms and corridors. You could lose yourself in its spires and mazes. You could hide for a whole day, and no one would find you. It never occurred to me as a seven-year-old that the reason no one found me on those hot days was because nobody was looking.
Dipok and I roamed free. We crawled through junk-filled rooms where Baba stored chairs, tables and wardrobes he’d bought at auction. Then Dipok would lie with Nani for his afternoon nap, and I would sneak away and tap on the back window.
No one noticed the man-child employed to mow the lawns, clean the car and scrub the toilets, when he crept into the pantry to play house with me.
Bhagubhai brought treasures down from the top shelf. He poured pretend tea from Nani’s long-spouted brass teapot. I watched his gap-toothed smile fold over his goblet’s rim as we drank cupsful of syrupy air. We cut into imaginary sandesh and giggled until we heard Nani on the stairs.
He’d slip away before we were caught.
Sometimes we played hide and seek in the park across the road.
Sometimes we played counting games.
Ikri mikri chaam chikri…
No matter how often he showed me, skirting his fingers over mine like he was playing a musical instrument, I couldn’t capture the moves, or learn the words of his song.
When Bhagubhai injured his thumb, I’d already sensed things were changing.
Baba said the car didn’t shine enough. Nani complained about unclean spirits. Nothing was fast enough, clean enough, short enough or long enough.
They questioned me. I was made to place my palm on Nani’s, to swear to tell the truth.
Did you play together, just the two of you?
Where did you play?
What did you play?
I tried to give the right answers, but the wrong words jumped out of my mouth.
We played Ikri mikri.
He touched me with his fingers.
When Nani invoked the names of several gods, I knew it was over.
Sometimes I can’t sleep. I feel Bhagubhai’s fingers dance over my own.
Ikri mikri chaam chikri…
I drift off, and ask him to teach me the words.
But he never does.