I’ve never been more confused in six years of my life. Our class teacher has announced a fancy dress competition the day after tomorrow and I have no clue what to dress as. Sydelle is going to be a giraffe…suits her…she has such a long neck. Nikola’s going to be a sunflower…I don’t see how but she seems excited. Her mommy has promised to dress her up for the competition.

I wish I could be a flower too or at least a bird… like a parrot or even a sparrow.

But then, who is going to dress me up??? Mamma can’t dress me up…She spends all her time dressing up Sammy who, well, really needs her now.

A week back Sammy burnt his right arm and he’s been admitted in a local children’s hospital. The doctor dresses him up everyday with white bandage and he’s become very cranky. Mamma takes care of Sammy in the hospital and she’s even living with him there. I guess Sammy’s in great pain now because I’ve heard him howl a couple of times when he’s being bandaged. Dad and I visit him once everyday but Dad says they will only be home after two more Sundays….hmmm…….that’s fourteen more days!!!

Anyway, the bigger crisis now is the fancy dress competition. I wonder what Dad will suggest when I ask him what to dress as for the competition. I’m waiting to go home and tell him all about my classmates and what they want to become.

At dinner:

“Daddy, Sydelle is going to be a giraffe for the fancy dress competition….” I tell Dad as we chomp food ordered from a restaurant. I’m struggling with the fact that mamma isn’t here to feed me. I first look at my plate which is an ugly mess with half the food on the floor and then at Dad who is watching a football match with his mouth open. I don’t think he heard what I just told him.

“Daddy, there’s a fancy dress competition in school day after tomorrow,” I try again.

“Ahhhhhh………..GOAL!” Daddy screams in response his eyes still glued to the TV. As I wonder what’s so interesting about a group of people chasing a ball, Dad decreases the TV volume and looks down at me, “A fancy dress competition, eh?” he says with a grin, “you wouldn’t need to dress up. Go stand on the stage and they’ll all see a monkey.” He nudges me with his elbow winks and then looks at my reaction. ‘Nice joke, dad’ I think but give him an I’m-not-in-the-mood-right-now look.

“Let me think now…….hmmmm…..” He adds, rather quickly.

My Dad doesn’t have to think a lot for answers usually. He knows a lot and takes all my questions very gravely. It makes me feel important. He tells me the best he knows of a subject and always makes practical suggestions.

This time he takes longer than usual but finally proposes, “How about asking Mamma tomorrow when we go to visit Sammy. I’m sure you will be someone very different from all the others. So don’t worry, baby! We’ll definitely work something out by tomorrow.”

That’s a satisfying answer. I can wait till tomorrow and I wonder what Mommy will say about the competition. I wonder what Sammy is doing now and how different he must be feeling.

“Come on and get your hands washed” Daddy says, dusting the rice off my dress. I run to the kitchen sink to wash my hands and stand on the stool by the tap. I like this place a lot. I can look at myself in the mirror while I wash my hands here. There’s pickle on my forehead and rice around my mouth. I wash my face and look up again. I can just imagine how stunning I will look in a parrot costume…..this competition is going to be so much fun!!!

Dad is still watching the match. I lie on his lap and talk to him a little. We always discuss highly important matters and I feel very scholarly when I talk to him. I like to listen to him, too.

In school…Mrs. Emily is on the stage and behind her are all my other teachers. I can see Mrs. Thelma, Mrs. Lily and hey, there’s Miss Sandra…she’s my favourite. Sydelle is by me in a giraffe costume and she is looking unusually nice for a ‘giraffe’! Nikola’s sunflower head has lost two petals and her mom is trying to borrow a safety pin from the others to fasten them back together. I can barely recognize all my classmates in their costumes. All I can see are fishes and princesses and animals of all sizes. I’m proud of my parrot costume as no one has such bright colours on them. Miss Sandra told me I look adorable. I know she means every word she tells me.

She slowly makes her way to the stage and announces, “It’s been a tough competition between all of you children and all of you have done your best. But we all know that there can be only winner and that has to beeeeeeee…….Rebecca….the parrot!!!!!!!! Can we all clap for her now?….Rebecca, why don’t you come up here and act like a parrot again? You are a natural!”

I can’t believe this….It can’t possibly be real….all my friends are clapping and some are shouting ‘Popat’, ‘Popat’ (Hindi for ‘Parrot’). It’s an exhilarating feeling. I walk to the stage proudly, take the mike and say my lines just as Dad taught me, with a highly nasal tone, “Polly wants a cracker! Polly wants a cracker! Polly wants a cracker!” It’s a lovely feeling, standing on the stage here with a little gift-wrapped box in my hand. I can see Sydelle from here…and Nikola, too. Nikola has lost another petal by now.

“Come on! Come on!” I can hear dad shouting loudly. “It’s morning already and Sammy and Mamma must be waiting for us.”

I open my eyes and look at him drearily. I realize I was dreaming and want to tell dad about it all right away but he looks like he’s in a hurry to leave.

I manage a quick bath, put on a pink frock with frills and hastily tie up my hair in a crooked pony tail. I am afraid Dad can’t help me with any of this. It’s Mamma’s department. She dresses me up like a princess, with matching ribbons and earrings, two equally defined pony tails and an even coat of talcum powder on my face. She makes me think I’m beautiful. I miss her so much.

Dad and I walk to the hospital and into the burns ward where Sammy is admitted. He seems to have just got up from his sleep and looks drowsy. Mom looks tired and she tells dad that she hasn’t slept much at night because of Sammy. “He was crying a lot last night and was restless,” she tells daddy.

“He was crying a lot last night and was restless”…..hmm…..and I had a great dream last night……our lives are so different…’ I think quietly as Dad seats himself near Mamma. He misses her a lot too. It doesn’t take any intellect to recognize that.

Sammy looks at me and seems disinterested and distant. I want to tell him about the fancy dress and the dream I had last night, but I don’t think this is a good time. His big, round eyes look frightened for some reason.

Dad and mom are whispering and they talk as if they meet after a month or so. I am supposed to keep Sammy entertained while they talk. They didn’t tell me that. I just know.

After what seems to me like half an hour, mom offers me an apple that was bought for Sammy. She then calls me to sit on her lap. We talk about school and homework and I have lots to tell her while she undoes my crooked ponytail and straightens out my knotted hair. Daddy carries Sammy around the ward and shows him other children with worse burns than his. I’m sure he must be telling Sammy to be happy that he isn’t burnt that much.

Mom tells me that she and Dad discussed about my fancy dress competition and that Dad would dress me up to be something very special and different. She says it’s a surprise. I can hardly wait to find out but since the big day is tomorrow I think I can wait.

When it’s finally time to leave, I can know from Sammy’s eyes he misses me a lot. He looks at us and waves out with his left hand till we move out of the ward and vanish out of sight.

On our way back, Dad drops me off at school and kisses me good bye. We don’t talk about my costume but I trust dad and mom to have arranged the best for me.

The rest of my day is filled with a weird sense of suspense and killing curiosity. My mind explores all the possible animals I could be and all the possible lines I could be saying. As time passes and evening turns to night, I feel an anxious inquisitiveness and a desperate excitement within me.

Before I realize it, the big day has arrived. Dad wakes me up and I feel no languor or lethargy whatsoever. I get up at once and run to the bathroom. Dad has already got the hot water ready for my bath and all I have to do is bathe quickly. In the thrill of anticipation, I forget to wash my hair and even lather the soap very carelessly.

I step out wrapped in a pink towel and dad is waiting for me with a big bag in his hand. Seated next to him on the chair is a Maharashtrian neighbour aunty whom I call ‘Aaee’ (Marathi for ‘mother’). I smile at her and look at the bag in Dad’s hand. There it is!!! The bag that holds my prize-winning costume! Slowly, he pulls it out and my eager eyes see the most unexpected sight. He pulls out a length of brown cloth that has black checks on it. Then with it he pulls out a little black blouse. What follows next is an assortment of jewellery and fresh jasmine flowers knitted together to form a little garland.

Dad sees my confused face and says, “Baby, how’s this??? You are going to be a Maharashtrian Koli woman.” He looks at me expectantly for a reaction. Koli? I don’t understand but I don’t ask him what it is either. I know that if ask him what Koli means he will give me a complicated explanation which is bound to make me late for the competition. I smile back at dad and Aaee grabs hold of me and starts wrapping the cloth around me in a very peculiar way. The last turn goes through my feet and up my rear and is tucked away neatly. Hmm…not bad I think. She loosens my hair and ties it in a side bun. She decorates it with flowers and adorns me with the jewellery. She proceeds to dab me with powder and applies lipstick generously on my lips.

I can hear dad say, “Baby, tell me who could have thought of something so unique and special.” I don’t answer and look in the mirror instead. I must admit, I don’t look like a ‘parrot’ or even a ‘monkey’ but I do look pretty. “Will Sydelle or Nikola look so pretty?” he asked me rhetorically. I want to thank him and ask him from where he got the dress but I fear that I may smear my lipstick and so simply signal him that I like it and that it is time to go.

As dad rushes me down the stairs, I can hear the jingle of my anklets. It sends a wave of excitement through me. I would be terribly surprised if anyone other than me won this contest. Dad and I quickly sit in a cab and before I can adjust my self properly, we are on our way to school. I fiddle with my green glass bangles in the cab and hear daddy warn me against breaking them. I find the nose ring on my nose very irritating and I try to tweak it a little too. Dad warns me again, but this time in an I-mean-business tone. I can bear this little pain I finally decide. The joys of the getting the prize will make me forget this slight soreness on my nose.

When we reach the school gate, dad alights first and pays the taxi driver. He then gently carries me out of the cab, careful not to crumple the pleats of my outfit.

I prefer to walk as having dad carry me around will prove damaging to my reputation as Miss Manage-Herself. Mismanage Herself. Dad agrees and understands my feelings on this subject quite well. He places me down and walks ahead of me allowing me to struggle behind him, making little small paced strides. We reach the school building and I see Miss Sandra wave at me from the door with a very surprised look. Dad reaches her before me and I can see him talk to her and laugh. They both look at me and laugh as I struggle to reach the door. I’m sure they’re joking about how I am bound to get the prize. I smile too, carefully though, causing no harm to the lipstick on my lips.

When I go near them, Miss Sandra bends down and says, “Rebecca, how sweet! You look terrific! You would have surely won the fancy dress competition.” Would have? “Now tell me, girl,” she smiles lovingly what were you dreaming of when I announced yesterday in class that the competition is cancelled? Hmm?” Cancelled? The words pass by me like a far off voice. I carefully process her words in my mind and then throw a loud, adult laugh. ‘God, the way grown ups indulge in hoodwinking kids is amazingly stupid’, I think.

I look at daddy and he bends down too. He beams a warm smile and says, “Baby, you must have not paid attention in class yesterday when Miss Sandra announced that the Fancy Dress is cancelled. It’s okay. There’s another programme here today for you and you can enjoy it with me, sitting in the audience. We will have a great time, I’m sure. There’s a Red-Indian dance and I’ll tell you all about the Red-Indians.” He’s holding me close in his arms now but none of his words make any sense. It all sounds like a taped message that I wish I could rewind. My eyes well up and the swelling in my throat is too enormous to hold back. I don’t like to cry in front of Miss Sandra. She thinks I am strong minded. In a fit of hurt and frustration, I run past them both to the school hall where I see a lot of my class mates dressed in little multi-coloured skirts with their faces painted in different colours. Reality hits me harder now than ever and I burst into uncontrollable tears. I sit outside the hall weeping and wondering why all of this happened to me. Why didn’t it happen to Sydelle? Or Nikola?

Dad and Miss Sandra walk towards me and they seem to be discussing something important. Miss Sandra sweeps me up in her arms and tells me very consolingly, “Baby, please don’t cry. It’s alright if you didn’t hear properly yesterday. It happens sometimes. What’s important is that you did your best. I like that in you. Look at it this way,” she continued, pointing towards all my classmates dressed as Red-Indians, “They all look the same, but you are so different. Now stop crying like a good girl and get dressed into this. We have a show to start.” She thrust a blue Red-Indian skirt in my hand and walked away into the hall.

Daddy kissed me on my cheek and the hair of his moustache poked me. The make-up on my face was smudged because of my tears and Dad’s moustache. But it didn’t matter anymore. “Quickly pose for a picture, baby” Daddy said, pulling the camera out of his pocket. “We must have a picture to show Mamma and Sammy how pretty you are looking today.” He asks me to stand on the bench I am sitting on and I force a fake smile.

I feel angry with him and angry with myself. But none of this is his fault anyways. It’s my mistake. I wonder if Dad is upset with me for making him waste so much time on what ultimately was a trivial affair that really wasn’t meant to be. I wonder if he hates me and doesn’t want me to be his baby again. ‘My God! This is too much trauma for my six year old mind to deal with.’

I watch quietly as dad helps me off the bench and undoes my Koli sari. He helps me wear the blue skirt and is singing all the while. He’s singing a Konkani song. I wonder what makes him so chirpy at all times. Even when he’s got a ‘blunder-queen’ for a daughter.

I quickly run into the hall and a young lady comes to paint my face. She paints it blue and yellow stripes. Miss Sandra hands me a crepe paper crown that matches my skirt. I look at all the other Red-Indians rehearsing their little dance and feel miserable inside. I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t even know the dance. But as if reading my mind, Miss Sandra looks at me and says, “Baby, you just move along with everyone and imitate what your friends are doing. It’s okay if you make mistakes because we all do. But don’t quit at any time, okay? You look great and will do great. Daddy’s going to be watching you from the audience, so please wear a smile okay.” I listen to every word she says and admire her in my heart. I want to be like her one day. I would love to take care of little tots who can’t manage themselves and make stupid mistakes, so I can act smarter than them. But Miss Sandra doesn’t act over smart. She seems to be in control of every situation. I smile at her and nod in agreement.

On the stage, I was right at the furthest back and Nikola and Sydelle chose to stand near me. For moral support, I guess. They are really good friends. Sydelle is in a red skirt that is too short for her long, skinny legs and Nikola’s underwear can be seen through the slits in her skirt. The dance seems simple and I catch the steps real quick. It’s just a wave from one side to another and an occasional jump and a turn. Hey, this is really fun. I jump on Nikola’s foot by mistake and Sydelle is laughing aloud now.

I suddenly remember Miss Sandra’s words ‘Daddy’s going to be watching you from the audience, so please wear a smile okay?’ I lean over all my class mates dancing ahead of me and stand on my toes, to get a peek into the audience. At first, I don’t see him…but the second time I try, I see Daddy clearly. He’s in the rear part of the hall and he seems to be standing on his toes too to get a glimpse of the stage. I look at his face and of all the students on the stage, his eyes are fixed on me. He waves frantically when he sees me and I feel very special inside. No one else’s father is waving.

On our way back home, we visit Sammy and Mamma in the hospital. My face is still painted although I’m not wearing the skirt anymore. I had changed into a frock after the programme was over. Sammy seems tickled about my face and so are all the other kids in the ward. Dad and mom talk a little while I relive the day’s happenings to Sammy in detailed actions and simple words that his frail mind can comprehend.

When it’s finally time to leave the hospital, Mamma tells me how daddy told her all about the dance and how she missed being there so much. I tell Sammy to come home soon and bend to kiss him on his cheek. He bobs his head and the kiss lands on his eye instead. He throws me a you-don’t-know-how-to-kiss-look and Mamma laughs with Daddy.

Back at home, Dad tells me who the Red-Indians are and I listen to him in awe of his know-how. He still hasn’t shown any signs of having been angry with me. I wonder what he is thinking about me now. In a desperate attempt to find out I slowly suggest, “Dad, do you think I can be a Red-Indian in the next Fancy Dress competition.” He looks at me and slowly replies, “If you promise to pay more attention in class.” I nod slowly and he tickles me till I can’t laugh anymore and my eyes are moist with tears.

That night:

I stand among the crowd of my class mates, behind the stage in the hall. I wait for Miss Sandra is about to announce the winner of the Fancy Dress contest and Nikola nudges at me suggestively. She is dressed as a bride wearing a flowing white gown with a lovely tiara and a veil. Her lines were very simple. All she did was go on stage and say, “I do.”

My part was more difficult though, requiring more skills than that. I had to sing an African song Dad had taught me and dance a little around the stage. “Chaalo cheelo cheelo, Chaalo cheelo cheelo…Catch a running fox and put him in a box and never let him go… Chaalo cheelo cheelo, Chaalo cheelo cheelo…”

I also had to throw my cardboard spear as if aiming at an imaginary fox. Many had complimented me on my Red-Indian Dress as well as my performance and I have no qualms about winning this contest.

I stand back stage now with colourful feathers stuck all over my head and a spear in my hand. My skirt seems to have loosened with all the jumping and dancing and I adjust it at the waist by tucking it in my underwear. I look around to make sure nobody saw me do that.

Suddenly, I hear a clear voice announce loudly, “…….and the first place goes to Miss Rebecca………Our little Red-Indian girl……..”

“Chaalo cheelo cheelo, Chaalo cheelo cheelo…Catch a running fox and put him in a box and never let him go… Chaalo cheelo cheelo, Chaalo cheelo cheelo…”

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