Monday, March 20, 2006

Rent a smile

Last week I visited one of the slums we work in for Holi. The kids went all out and choreographed an elaborate dance routine, directed and performed their own plays and did the decorating on their own. We were all suitably impressed. I let my colleagues find their places and went off to see if the children needed help with their costumes. As soon as they saw me approaching the green room, I was promptly chased away and instructed to sit down patiently.

The speakers were being tested and I sat on the ground to wait. One of the speakers was misbehaving and a small army of the older boys were fiddling with the wires. Occasionally, snatches of music blared from both and they'd whoop and start jumping around to the beat, hands in the air. Then the faulty speaker would go silent once more, the jumping would stop and a huddle would form again.

Now and then a small boy would run across the stage, to the changing room and back to the group at the speakers. He wasn't participating that day but took the role of supervisor upon himself. Nobody paid much attention to him, but he ran around with tremendous purpose. Every once in a while he'd stop suddenly and bounce his bottom to the music before scrambling off again.

I caught his eye and called him over to keep me company. His name was Chelu, he said. He wouldn't be participating because he missed most of the rehearsals. He was very ill, he said.
'You don't look ill to me,' I said. 'And you dance very well.'
'Thank you auntymadam,' he grinned. And stuck out his hand for me to shake.
I shook his hand and gave him a hug.

I don't know if it was because he wasn't used to physical affection of this sort, but he blushed and looked at his friends coyly, who stood a small distance away, giggling into their palms. I let him go and ruffled his hair just before he sprinted away.

Later, as I sat cross legged in front of the area chalked out as the stage, Chelu sat down quietly next to me. Before I turned and saw who it was, I felt a small, skinny arm resting lightly on my knee. I shifted to my right slightly and the arm flew back into its owner's lap.
'What happened?' I asked.
Chelu shook his head, probably embarrassed at having used me for an armrest. He dropped his head and became suddenly interested in the manuscript he had begun writing in the sand.
I reached over and placed him in my lap, not expecting the squeal that escaped from his lips. He wriggled around a bit, then found a comfortable spot and he didn't move after that. Once in a while I'd tickle him, just to hear that squeal again and to watch him cover his face in embarrassment.

We watched the kids dance, joined in at the end and handed out syrupy jelebis once the programme was over. As we were leaving, Chelu asked me to visit him the next day. I tried explaining that I had to go to my office, just like he had to go to school the next day.
'Holidays?' he asked.
'Of course, whenever you invite me. And you can come to my office, okay?'
Chelu looked suddenly serious, 'No auntymadam.'
'Why? Why can't you come to see me?'
'I don't have a clean pant-shirt,' he said, the smile never leaving his face.

And I smiled back and said it didn't matter. That he could come wearing whatever he wanted.
And after that, my smile wasn't really mine.