It’s Saturday today. Saturdays are fun because they mean that Daddy takes Sammy and me out to the zoo. The ‘Victoria Garden’ local zoo in our city is quite familiar to me and although I’m only five, I know each and every turn inside that place well. True that the zoo is dingy, the animals aren’t kept well, the grass is overgrown and well, the media can go on and on about the zoo (I overheard Dad say that to an uncle) but this is where I have learnt crucial life lessons (that the media hasn’t been notified of). This is where I have grown to be five and every visit here is an action-packed one for me.

Today, I’m more excited than usual. Mamma told me the story of Daniel in the den of lions yesterday. She carefully explained to my rather ‘naïve’ mind (or so she thinks) how the lions were hungry but they did not eat Daniel because Jesus had sealed their mouths. She reiterated the fact that even the lions listened to Jesus. I think it is because He made them. Mamma told me how God created all animals with great skill and imagination. She said I must thank God when I see them in the zoo. So, that is exactly what I will do today. I will thank God for the animals. It’s my assignment for today’s visit.

We have been waiting for the bus for what seems like an eternity now and Sammy wants Mamma to carry him. Daddy offers to do that but he insists on Mamma holding him. Sammy is just two years old and talks very little. He doesn’t understand much either. I’m older than him and understand much more. Last night, he didn’t understand the story of Daniel. I tried explaining it to him with elaborate actions but he thought it was some kind of a game. I’ve often seen him trying to read books upside down and scribble on the walls. ‘How childish’ I’ve often thought to myself when I see him trotting about aimlessly in the house. It’s good for him he has a responsible and mature sister like me.

“God made Sammy,” is all Mamma said when I asked her where he came from. She was hoping I’d believe God dropped him at the hospital and they picked him up from there. I am smart though and noticed her stomach bulge for almost four months before Sammy came. Although I haven’t discussed this with dad or mom, I am sure God put him in her stomach before he came in her hands. My parents will be amazed at my ability to comprehend when I share this with them but I’d rather not. I will play along as a gullible kid.

Sammy is fairer than me and I heard one aunty say he looks like Mamma. I also heard someone in church say that I look like Daddy. I think that’s because both daddy and I are dark. Sammy has got big and expressive eyes. His eyes are too big for his face, I think. But my hair is too thick for my head too. So it’s alright if we’re not all the same, I guess.

I like the bus that takes us to the zoo. It’s a double-decker bus. Dad always takes us on the top and I usually get to sit right up front. Today, however, the bus looks crowded. Dad makes sure we all get in when the bus comes and he gets in after us all. Mamma sits down on one seat and Sammy gets to sit on her lap. Dad and I are standing.

“How come Sammy gets to sit on Mamma’s lap and I don’t Daddy?” I ask, rather unhappy about the fact that he got to stick his head out the window. Daddy looks around to see if there is another vacant seat and then looks back at me. “When you were his age you got to sit on Mamma’s lap too. Now you’re older and you can manage yourself in a crowd. You’re growing up to be a smart, understanding little girl,” he pauses and looks at Sammy and then at me again. “Sammy is still a baby. He can’t manage standing all by himself, that’s why he needs Mamma.”

I stare intently at Sammy. His eyes are big and round and wide open now. His long lashes seem to be curved straight up in the air as his eyeballs catch every movement outside the bus. I wonder what he’s thinking now. Can he even think? He can’t manage standing all by himself, that’s why he needs Mamma.

The bus stops all of a sudden and Dad carries Sammy immediately from mamma’s hand. “It’s time to get off, Chinku,” he tells me.

He’s always called me Chinku and so has Mamma. It’s my pet name, they say. “Why don’t you all call me Rebecca like my teacher in school does?” I had once asked Mamma. She then explained how when I was born I had really petite eyes and so my granny started calling me ‘Chinky’ (which is Tamil for ‘Chinese’). She said they eventually started calling me Chinku, which was a metamorphosized version of ‘Chinky’.

Daddy asks us to wait near the ticket counter while he stands in the line to buy the tickets. Mummy sits herself on a wooden bench by the ticket area. Sammy is trying to show her that he can run all by himself.

I like playing with Sammy. His credulous mind believes anything I tell him. This being his first visit to the zoo, I hope to educate him a bit on the things that go on around here.

Dad is the seventh person in a long line of uncles and aunties who are buying tickets for their families. Next to the ticket counter is a metal railing that’s taller than me. Hmm…interesting…here’s a good chance for me to give Sammy his first zoo lesson. I drag him to the railing and try to reach my hands up to it. At times like this, I wish I were eight or ten years old. It is the perfect age to hang from a railing that high.

Sammy looks at me with his eyes wide open. “See this is how the monkeys in the zoo hang in their cages,” I say, matter-of-factly, jumping up to get hold of the railing and trying to hang on to it. My first try is a failure and Sammy is giggling. Determined to share my expert knowledge with him, I try again, this time holding firmly to the railing. Sammy is clearly impressed by now and he’s clapping his hands enthusiastically. He moves up behind me and starts shouting fervently, “Monkey! Monkey!……. Mamma, Chinku…….Monkey!”

I desperately long to see the look on his face. I bend my head over to get a glimpse of him and I see a delightful sight. Upside-down trees, upside-down people, upside-down walls…and hey, upside-down Sammy, clapping his hands!!!

What happened next was not a part of the lesson. Within a split second my hands slip off the railing and the sky seems to rotate and slam!!! I fall ‘upside-down’ on the ground below. I feel something cut through my head like a sharp knife and I can feel the blood trickle down my scalp. My screams get dad and mom’s attention and they run to me by reflex. Sammy is clapping more vigorously, thinking I’m still entertaining him. I suddenly feel like crying so badly and hey, before I know it I’m howling out loud.

Dad quickly carries me and examines the spot where I hurt myself on my head. There’s a nasty bump there and it aches in an excruciating way every time he tries to wipe the blood off the wounded spot. My head hurts in a splitting way and I can barely hear Mamma praying in my ears. I think Mamma is trying to simultaneously pacify Sammy who is also crying loudly by now. ‘Why does he have to scream when I am hurt?’ I think amidst the pain and tears. It makes no sense now. Nothing makes sense now.

Still carrying me, Dad rushes us all out to the gate. He sends mamma and Sammy home in a cab. Before leaving Mamma asks me not to cry so much and that she would have prepared ‘rasna’ for me by the time I reach home from the doctor’s.

Dad rushes me over to the doctor’s. We wait in a room and in no time I find myself on the doctor’s examining table. He carefully scrutinizes my wound and gives the nurse some instructions in ‘hospital language’. The nurse first gives me a little orange lollipop and then asks me to bend my head down. I’ve stopped crying by now because I’m glad that the lollipop is a part of the treatment. She does something with my head for the next few minutes and then sits me back on Daddy’s lap. “I told you this wouldn’t hurt a bit,” he said, smiling at me broadly. I feel better now and ask Dad if I can take a look in the mirror. He says ‘ok’ quite reluctantly.

I wasn’t prepared to see what I see now. In the mirror, at the doctor’s clinic, I see a different ‘me’, a sight that is quite a shock for my five-year-old mind. Where there once stood a smart palm tree shaped ponytail, now stands a flat white tape with some cotton underneath it. The area around the white tape has been shaved and my scalp is exposed quite a bit. The rest of my hair remains intact, but nothing can replace the loss of my ponytail. The lollipop in my hand is drying by now, as I haven’t sucked on it for long. All of a sudden, I feel like throwing it away.

I walk back and Dad identifies my unhappiness. He pays the doctor and helps me wear my slippers. He offers to carry me but I decline and prefer to walk on my own. When will he realize I am too old to be carried? I am five now. Five minus a ponytail.

“Come on, baby, cheer up,” Daddy says, but I can barely hear him. My mind is elsewhere. My mind is with my beautiful little colourful hair bands and hair clips that have suddenly been orphaned with the disappearance of my ponytail. When, O, when can I wear them again? “You are looking so cute, like a little doll,” Daddy adds. He then goes on to sing, “My daughter, my daughter, my life-giving water.” It sounds like a rhyme and he sounds happy.

I’m not glad at all. He can sing all he wants and he may know everything but does he know what it feels like to lose a ponytail? Does he know how it feels to have a white bandage on your head without any hair around it? Like a lonely island in the middle of the sea?

We reach the bus stop and Daddy is still humming some song. He seems distant and numb to my feelings and fears. He can’t possibly be happy when I’m going through such a crisis, can he? Can’t he also see how my social life is going to be influenced? How am I to go to Sunday school anymore? And what about my classmates? How do I explain to them that this is just what normally happens when you are educating your younger brother on matters important?

Daddy looks down at me, quite unexpectedly, and says, “Chinku, are you sad about your new hairstyle?” He pauses and then continues, “Remember baby, what people tell you doesn’t matter. It will never change who you are. When you go to school now, your friends may call you ‘takli’ (‘bald’ in Hindi), but you must realize that this is only temporary and that your hair will grow again. What the world says of you doesn’t matter at all. You get that right?” I look at him wondering how he knew just what I was thinking. “What Daddy, Mamma and Sammy think of you really matters. And I think you are beautiful, Mamma and Sammy will agree.” He tickles me and adds, “And think of it, how many people get to have a family like ours. Mamma has something great cooking at home for us and Sammy is surely waiting to play with you. We’ll have a great time once we’re home.”

I haven’t realized it but I’m giggling by now. I’m thinking of how Mamma often pours out the ‘rasna’ into the ice-cube tray and makes us different flavoured ice cubes. I can’t wait to go home and check if there are any left in the freezer. And Sammy has still to know so much about the zoo. After all, ‘a smart, understanding little girl’ was what Dad described me as.

Hmm…I feel the burden of Sammy’s zoo education lies on me. I just made up my mind, after today’s episode, not to go with the practical lessons first. He must learn the theory first…so that’s it… tonight’s lesson will be mimicking animal sounds.

For starters, I think he should just learn the meow, the bow-wow and the moo.

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