The ten year old was unusually quiet during dinner that Dad had to ask. Ten-year-olds, especially those like her, did not sit quiet during dinner until they were yelled at.
“Anything exciting happen today?” he asked.
“No,” she said, thoughtfully examining a piece of roti before allowing it to vanish in her mouth.
“Tell me about your day.”
She paused for a long time and said, “It was as usual.”
“All the actors and extras behave themselves?” he tried to prod her. She nodded.
This was curious – it was evident that something was occupying her mind, but she was not willing to share it with him. For as long as he could remember, there was nothing she did not share the moment it happened, in excruciating detail. His little girl was growing older, and learning to keep secrets. In a few years, she would be so good at it that he’d not even notice she was concealing something. He rambled on for a while about other matters, about his work and about the people he met, pretending not to notice her silence. It was at bed time that she finally decided to disclose her thoughts. He was sitting by her side with an unopened story-book.
“I saw a child while we were shooting,” she said. “This girl was peeking out from between the crowd while I was saying my lines. I almost forgot a couple of words when I saw her. She had the largest eyes I have seen, and she was staring at me as if I were some… some…”
“Well, you are a celebrity,” said the Dad, trying not to let his pride show.
“We had to take that shot five times before I got it right, I was so shaken by the apparition,” she continued as if he had not said anything. She had a way of gesturing and raising her eyebrows while she spoke and using words too big for her that reminded him dreadfully of the characters she played in her movies. “Anyway, after it was done, I looked around and did not see her. I was just asking Geeta for a juice-”
“-for a juice, when I spotted her again. The crowd had moved away and scattered. I could see her at a distance, watching, as though she were scared to approach. I remembered what you said that we should always be kind to the poor, so I waved her to come to me. I thought I will give her a coin or something. She could perhaps buy some cheap juice or something. She would be very gratified that I had shown her kindness. Or maybe she would just keep that coin forever to remember this day, or something.”
Dad fidgeted, but said nothing.
“Anyway, she approached cautiously, with an embarrassed smile. Abdu tried to shoo her off and I said, ‘No, Abdu, I called her. Let her come to me.’ Abdu nodded and I think he too thought I was very nice. I suppose he might have mentioned it to Director Pradeep Uncle. When this kid came, I thought it might be nice to give her some juice so I offered the packet I was sipping from. There was about half of it left. She shook her head. I was surprised. Do the poor have that kind of thing too, that they won’t drink leftovers, or are they trying to behave like us? Anyway, I asked Geeta to get one more packet of juice for the poor kid. She didn’t drink it. She kept holding on to it as though it were something precious. I am sure she is talking all about it to her family right now, how I called her and gave her the juice. And all that.”
Dad knew better than to interrupt so he nodded carefully. Dissection of the incident and clarifications and extended lectures on the moral of the story could happen later.
“She was wearing some kind of faded uniform, so I asked her if she was in school. She said a name; I think it is the little building we saw on our way there in the morning. I don’t suppose they teach them a lot there. I don’t suppose they have computers or swimming pools. Oh – she is ten years old too. She was so skinny, I had assumed she might be younger. I asked her about her family. She has some five or six sisters and brothers, I forget how many. Two or three are older than her and the others younger. They all live in a one-room house, with her parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. One room! I asked her, ‘Where do you all sleep?’ She grinned and said, ‘On the floor, of course.’ She said one of the walls of the house had collapsed in the rains a couple of months ago, and even though no one was hurt, they had to spend many days in the wet and muddy floor until someone built it back for them. She said they are sort of used to it; she seemed to remember something similar having happened, earlier. She told me all about the games they play. She has an old cycle of her brother’s. It is big, but she has learnt to ride it. Sometimes, they all go out to watch movies. She said she has seen all of mine. She likes to play in the rain, and she doesn’t catch cold or fever. In fact, she said she never had a fever before, and she wished she had. And she loves swimming in the river. In the evenings, all the kids of the neighbourhood play football or cricket in the ground. She said she was an excellent wicket-keeper. She wasn’t good at studies but she said no one bothered about it, except her teacher. No one bothered about the teacher, so it was okay. Her uniform was handed down from her sister and the sister had got it second-hand from someone else. She had sneaked out from school to see the shooting, because she had heard I was there. Then she asked me about me.”
“I told her I had a miserable life, because I had to travel all the time, and I missed lessons at school whenever I was acting, and that meant I did not do my exams well, and I had a tutor come to teach me at home. I did not get to go out and play with friends; in fact I had no time for friends. We did not watch a lot of movies except the ones I’m in. And I told her, I wish I had a more normal childhood like hers.”
Dad’s eyes widened.
“She asked me if my house was large and if I had TV. I told her I did, but having TV and refrigerator or air conditioner did not mean a thing, because my Dad and I lived alone. We did not have a nice big family like hers. And when Dad was working, I had to sit with the nanny. I told her sometimes I went for shoots with Geeta – Aunty – and I did not enjoy that much.
“She asked me if I loved being a celebrity. I thought for a while and said, ‘I would rather play football with you in your ground.’”
Dad didn’t know what to say. His baby was indeed growing up, quicker than he would have liked. This story did not need any dissection or lecture. He really would have loved to deliver a few moral science lessons based on this incident.
“What did you feel when you spoke to her?” he asked gently.
The child looked up. “A little sad, and a little happy.” He waited. “A little sad for her and a little strange that I have such a different life from hers. And, a little happy that I got to talk to her and know about her life. I think she went away happy too.”
When Dad tucked her in and said “Good-night,” she did not respond. He kissed her forehead, switched off the light and went. She stared into the darkness for a long, long time. Finally she whispered to the night, “I am a very good actress.”