Dheep and Amoli were racing as usual from Dheep's house to Amoli's hut on the other end of the paddy field. Amoli always won the race, so when Dheep reached Amoli's hut before her, he was surprised and looked back disbelievingly. His disbelief gave way to concern when he saw Amoli standing some feet away from the hut, her head hanging low. He ran back to her and could see she was crying, her tiny body shaking with silent sobs.
Catching her by the shoulders, "What's the matter Amoli?" asked Dheep. "Is something wrong?".
Shaking her tiny head, her dark brown curls lashing softly against her face, Amoli spoke out so low that Dheep had to lean closer to understand. "Baba (father in Hindi) is not feeling well. And I don't have money to buy him medicine”, she managed between sobs. “Dheepu dhadha (brother in Hindi) , I don’t know how to help!"
"What's wrong with Khemu Chacha (uncle in Hindi)?". Khemu was Amoli's father and he was a sweet person. All the kids in the neighborhood loved him.
"He came back from work last night not looking so well. But he cooked dinner for me and then without having anything went off to sleep," managed Amoli in between sobs. "I woke up in the middle of the night and saw him shivering and mumbling. I covered him up with the blanket and this morning even before I woke up he was gone."
"Oh Amoli, don't cry. We will go find Chacha now. We will see if he is ill and take him to doctor uncle. Come with me."
Her sobs calming down a bit Amoli followed him, as she had done every single time for the past two years. Khemu and a six year old Amoli had come to Dheep's house, a year back, looking for a livelihood and he had been taken in to work in Dheep's father's paddy fields. Dheep's father had even made arrangements for Amoli to go to the nearby evening school. The hut they lived in also belonged to Dheep's father. Dheep, who was the same age as Amoli had become fast friends with her right from the beginning and he loved Khemu Chacha with all his heart. Khemu never spoke a harsh word and always had wonderful stories to tell the kids after returning from work every night.
As Dheep and Amoli made their way to the paddy fields on the other side of the village, they could see a few scattering of people working in the distance. And even from that distance Khemu was distinguishable with his faded blue turban and his ultra loose garment that always seemed to have no body inside of it and swayed like an unattached piece of cloth in the wind. A few minutes later Khemu Chacha looked up and there they were, standing before him, two red-faced kids breathing heavily through their mouth at having run all the way up there.
"What's wrong dears?" he asked, a little anxious.
Barely catching his breath, Dheep said, "Chacha, aren’t you sick? You should come with us to see doctor uncle."
Amused and touched at Dheep's concern and his own doll, Amoli's teary eyes, Khemu Chacha replied in the most sweetest of tones.
" Oh my little devils! I'm fine. I do not want to go to anyone let alone Dr. Chatterjee saab (sir in Hindi). You go along now. I'll be back by sunset."
"No buts Dheepu beta. I have work to do. Gudiya (doll in Hindi), listen to me. I'm fine. Don't cry. Both of you, run along now."
With that, Khemu turned back to his work. Dheep caught Amoli's hand and both of them turned to go back, with much less vigor than they had set out with.
"Amoli, Chacha did not look ill now, did he? Maybe he is really fine now. Don't worry. If he is sick when he comes tonight, we will bring doctor uncle to your place." Dheep grasped Amoli’s hand tight and squeezed it ever so lightly.
Amoli, who had been silent all along, just nodded her tiny head and walked alongside the only important person in her little world other than her father.
As the children walked back, Khemu stared glassy-eyed at their retreating backs not aware of the tears pouring down his face. He knew what the tears of his child really meant.
She wasn't crying for her father. Her father was no more. He had died of a chronic heart disease.
She was crying for her mother.
Her mother - who had shaved her head, put on a turban, worn a loose garment and started out against the world with one aim in her mind : bringing up her daughter so strong she would face the world with nothing but courage.
Her mother - who had been abused mentally and physically over and over ever since her husband died, that the only way to survive was to live like a man.
The world never know the truth. Except her child. Her gudiya. Her life.