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Genre: Young Adult
Anu had just turned ten. Her birthday had been celebrated with the usual lack of fanfare. Her mother had woken up fifteen minutes earlier to make the customary Payesh, which she was given the privilege of tasting ahead of her perpetually hungry brothers. Apart from this and an absent minded wish from her bookworm of a father, there was nothing particularly differentiating about the day that marked her entry into the world that was at the time too busy handling its newly found independence and socialist government to celebrate her journey so far.
She left for the park half an hour earlier than usual, alone, without informing her elder sister Alo didi. She thought of this solitary half an hour at the park as her gift to herself. Alo didi had recently turned fourteen and going to the park with her daily had swiftly transformed from a fairly pleasant aspect of her regular routine into a dreaded exercise. She attributed this to Alo didi’s newly acquired interest of paying attention to her physical appearance. She had grown to be a tall, slender beauty with skin as fair as Suchitra Sen; the hugely popular actress based on whose features artists allegedly modeled their Durga Ma idols.
The neighborhood boys had become aware of Alo’s fresh allure like sniffing dogs. Every time she left their home, the streets, otherwise dead, would fill up with an assorted collection of boys who would find some excuse to lurk around the grocery store where she had been sent to buy milk or the route she used to walk to school. The park, initially a safe haven for Anu, had been discovered as a place Alo didi would spend two hours of her time, and the boys had been pouring in, disbanding their usual fervor for football for make shift cricket matches in the sandy park or standing around aimlessly near the swings and attempting brave feats on the already rusting monkey bars.
Alo didi pretended to be blind to this attention, which Anu had initially found amusing until it became nauseating. She suddenly began to take more time to get ready, spending what felt like hours applying powder and Kohl, wearing only figure enhancing frocks. Previously, Anu and Alo would spend hours playing in the park, pranking other children and competing to see who could run faster, climb higher and eat more. Now, Alo didi would refuse to run around, lest her frocks got dusty and preferred to take slow walks around the park making suggestive eye contact with the better looking boys, assuming Anu was too small to notice anything. But notice Anu did and it became a regular source of irritation for her. The slow walks didn’t interest her and the swings were boring without Alo didi by her side, trying to out swing her.
So curious to explore her park alone, sans the weight of adolescence, Anu entered the park to find a few neighborhood children already playing around. She used the swing for a while, jumped a few hoops, tried playing hopscotch and hanging on the monkey bar. The initial excitement gave way to boredom and she sat down in a nearby shade, wiping her sweat away. This is why Alo didi never wanted to come out when the sun was so strong; the heat was too unbearable in its role as an assailant to her beauty.
Anu looked around, her face cupped in her hands, shoulders hunched, wondering how she would spend the remaining half an hour. She gazed around at the girls playing nearby, their mothers standing around talking, rubbing the sweat of their faces with their sarees.
She had recently begun noticing faces, their aesthetics, specifically how they were colored. Categorizing faces according to colors had become something of a pastime. The lady in the red saree was a light shade of yellow and her little daughter was dark brown. The lady she was talking to was brownish and the boy she was attempting to hold onto was white as milk. Her mother was brown, Alo didi was white, her father was a mustard shade of yellow and her brothers were wheatish during winter, browning slightly during the hot Calcutta summer.
It had started when she overheard a conversation between her mother and their neighbor Lata mashi, who had dropped in one afternoon after having completed her household chores. Her mother had made tea and the two had sat on the verandah, updating each other on the details of the houses nearby. She had sat outside trying to practice the difficult spellings of a particularly tough chapter in English. The conversation had been senseless noise until she heard her own name weaved into it.