“Winters are Here!!!“, Exclaimed little Sia as she gazed out of her small room window, with her button nose sticking to the glass of the window pane. Her eyes were wide open in awe, as she saw nothing but white and fluffy snow cover the neighbourhood as far as she could see. Trees, cars, houses, lampposts, all were coated in white overnight, and it looked like Christmas Town from her crystal ball.
“Mom, I will make Snowman and play with Hrishi after we make a snow castle in the yard.” She informed her mother excitedly and added, “And Dad and I will have a snowball fight once he is back.” She concluded as her mother picked the 5 yr old from the bed on her back like a gunny sack and prattled in the room. Little did Sia know that her Dad was never coming back, he was dead. Nor did she know that it was not a happy time for her mother. She worked as a maid in a household, and they had given her a room in servants quarters along with a scanty salary to her on the condition that she will be available 24/7. But the problem came when her employers informed her that they will be moving out of Kullu for about three months and will come back in spring and she will have to fend for herself meanwhile. That meant three long months with no job, no money and no place to live. Meera had not a single penny in the name of savings; her meagre earnings hardly left anything to save.
But Meera had two characteristics, she was tenacious, and she was a good liar. She had fabricated beautiful lies to keep Sia happy, telling her she was a princess like Cinderella and one day she will find her prince. She even lied to her employers and told them she would have no problem, that she had relatives nearby, that she will like this break, she needed no pity. She and her daughter have come this far; they will survive the winter too. But beneath all that mettel, she was scared to death. Her grit and courage turned to mush when she thought about Sia. Where will she take her? What will she feed her? Sia was already vulnerable and weak from the Pneumonia she had last year; she must not fall sick once again.
“Doll, you know na you can’t play with Hrishi, we are going on a holiday.” She told Sia while stuffing all her clothes in a worn out bag and made her wear a thick sweater.
“Meera!!! Meera!!!“, came the voice of her Madam.
“Coming Madam!” Meera answered and ran out.
Her employer stood with her family, all carrying bags, loading suitcases on the hood of their SUV. Meera ran to them and helped the driver load the bags in the boot.
“Here, keep this. Vacate the room and give keys to watchman“, her Madam said while sitting in the car and pressed a 500Rs note in her palm.
“Be here on 1st of March. Okay!” She said, and Meera nodded. The car skidded away, and Meera sighed, watching the lone note in her hand as she made her way back to the room, all ready to leave.
She packed everything she owned, it all came in one bag and held Sia’s small hand as she locked the one-room home that had been her safe-haven for past eight months. She handed the keys to the watchman and made her way to the only place she hoped to find shelter. She took the bus to Manali, where her husbands’ sister and her family lived. Meera had her address on a piece of paper and located the small house that was over a local bar. She picked Sia up in her arms and went up the stairs as all the men in the bar eyed her. The door flew open, and she was face to face with the virago named Sushma, her Sister-In-Law.
The tall and broad built woman eyed Meera head to toe and moved aside to let her in.
“Why are you here? What do you want now? You ate my beloved brother and now have come to eat me too?“, She barked at Meera.
“No Didi, I need your help. I need a place to stay. Just….“, She wiped her brow and placed her bag on the floor, “Just for three months.” Meera said patting Sia’s back.
“THREE MONTHS!!!” The domineering woman yelped harshly eyeing Sia. “That too free of cost?” She asked incredulously.
“No, not free of cost. I will work for you. Help you with work. Do whatever you say. Ï need shelter in this cruel winter; then I will leave when my employers are back.” Meera said with a plea in her eyes.
Sushma seemed appeased and nodded her head. “Alright, come after me.” She took her to the kitchen and said, “We have no room for you, make do here, and behind the kitchen is a store, keep your stuff there.” She said, and Meera nodded with a sigh of relief as she sent a prayer heavenwards.
Meera was asked to come downstairs and help in the kitchen. She felt intimidated by the crass and bawdy gentry but has no option. She catered to the clientele and tolerated their vulgar comments and tawdry looks for the sake of Sia. Her brother-in-law told her to toughen up if she has to work here and she merely nodded.
At night she lay on a thin mat on the kitchen floor, holding Sia in her arms, covering her as best as she could with a blanket when she spun tales for her. “You know, we are like Hansel and Gretel in the chocolate house of the wicked witch, and soon we will run away,” she told Sia in an animated tone, and she would look at her with wonderment, asking innocent questions till she dozed off.
Meera worked from dawn to dusk, all for a place to stay and three meals a day for her and Sia. A week went by, by now she had learnt to ignore the loud and gross gentry of the small motel downstairs. That night she had cleaned the kitchen and came upstairs to check on Sia when she heard her cries. She went to the kitchen to check, no one was there, she checked the store, Sia was not there either. But the crying got louder, and Meera ran to her Sister-in-law’s room and froze to see the sight. Her brother-in-law holding Sia in his lap and was trying to take off her frock.
Meera screamed and slapped the man, pulling her daughter away from the demon. The monster held Meera by the hair and hit her hard, calling her colourful names.
“You think you are some high and mighty queen and your daughter is a princess. I have heard the tales you tell her at night. Don’t give her false hopes. Thank me for keeping you beggars here.” He shrieked.
Meera could not believe her ears, Sia was crying loudly and she picked her up and ran away from the beast. She didn’t even stop to take her things, she just left with Sia, running, putting as much distance as she could between him and Sia.
It was an hour later that she stopped to breathe, crying bitterly, cursing her luck. She sat on a rock and cried as for as long as she could and then looked up at the sky. The night was a clear midnight blue, and stars twinkled. Sia loved stars, she said they are diamonds up there. Meera closed her eyes and prayed, prayed for a way, a single ray of hope. She got up and moved, just to stay warm, or her blood might freeze. She walked for another mile when she saw a church and a building next to it that read ‘Trinity Orphanage Home’. Meera read it twice and looked at Sia.
No, No, what is she thinking…how can she even fathom to get separated from her lovely doll. But where will she take her in this winter night with no money? She sat on a sill outside the church and kissed Sia over and over, crying all the while as Sia was sleeping with a lovely smile on her lap. She woke Sia up.
“Sia, baby, wake up, wake up and listen to Mumma” Meera patted her cheek.
Sia opened her eyes and blinked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and with the heel of her small palms.
“What is it, Mumma? Have we killed the monster?” Sia asked and smiled.
“Sia, Mumma killed the monster. Yes, but now we need to play hide and seek.” The child blinked with apt curiosity, the word ‘Play’ got her attention.
“Play?” She asked.
“YES, Play. Listen carefully. Mumma is going to hide for some time, and Sia has to hide too, she must not get caught. Okay.” Meera prompted, and Sia nodded.
“Okay, now after some time, go to that door” She pointed to the church door, “Go there and go inside. They will ask you about Mumma, do not tell them anything. Say Mum and Dad are gone. Okay. Do that baby, there you will get a warm bed, good food and toys to play. There are a lot of kids there too. And sometime later, Mumma will come back and take you, Okay, you understand.” Sia nodded again, and Meera kissed her small hands, hugged her and left her there, hiding behind a tree in the dark, watching Sia go to the church door.