“Rabiya, start counting, will you?” Seema gently coaxed her three-year-old daughter to begin the peek-a-boo, Rabiya’s favorite game.

Ammi, where should I go to count today?” She looked up with her gleaming wide eyes, a bottomless ocean of hope and wonder. A tentative smile began to form on her pink lips, the cleft in her chin becoming pronounced. Seema chuckled at the familiar antics of her only offspring.

“Today, go to Munir chacha’s chai-tapri. Is that OK bachha?” Seema tackled the unruly curls that stubbornly escaped the confines of Rabiya’s favorite green satin ribbon. Seema had got it last year for Eid. It matched with the now faded green frock Rabiya wore every alternate day. The dress was well above her knee and bursting at the seams, but that didn’t stop Rabiya from loving it…after all her abbu had sent it. Or so she was told…

Ammi, will I get a nankhatai? The one with a kaaju?” Rabiya asked, doubt written all over her face.

“Yes, bachha, he will. I have already paid him.”

“Um… Ammi, after today’s Roza, will you make sheer-khurma?”

Seema looked back at her dingy room in the slum in the busy pocket of Mumbai. Her meagre belongings lay scattered, just like her life. Blinking back tears, she forced a smile.

“Yes, bachha, I will”

Allah kasam, Ammi?

“Yes, bachha…” Seema linked her pinkie with Rabiya’s stubby one.

“Ammi, is abbu coming today?”

“Start counting up to 100, and when you finish, he will be here” Seema moved yet another stray curl that had snaked its way to Rabiya’s forehead.

Rabiya scampered towards the tea stall. 

“Munir chacha, abbu is coming today… I will eat sheer-khurma… one…two…three…” She cupped her face in her palms and faced the tarpaulin wall that formed the backside of the tiny stall. 

Septuagenarian Munir looked up at Seema and nodded, a sad smile adorning his wrinkled face.

Seema walked back into the room and arranged the coir cot. She wiped away a stray tear that had escaped her control. It was time to start work. Rabiya could barely count beyond fifty and would repeatedly go on a loop till Seema sought her.

This was a routine ritual whenever Rabiya was home on a school holiday. 

The sham of a door barely held by coir ropes slammed open, and a man stumbled in, reeking of cheap hooch. He held out a hundred-rupee note, which Seema placed in a plastic pouch behind her prized Ayatul Kursi metal frame.

Shutting back the door, she walked towards the cot and lay next to the man sprawled in his birth clothes. As the lecherous hound ravaged her, she stared blankly at the cardboard ceiling, the vast sky peeping in through the holes.

She hoped her lie would hold on for a while and Rabiya would believe her non-existent abbu would come for her someday. She hoped the peek-a-boo game would last long, and Rabiya would never have to witness what her mother did for a living…


Author note:
Nankhatai: shortbread biscuits
Chai-tapri: tea stall
Sheer-khurma: rich and creamy dessert made during Eid festivities.
Ayatul kursi: 

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Priya Nayak-Gole
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