The girl swept back the curls tumbling over her forehead and stared intently at the thin strip of the road ahead of her.
The chasm loomed below, sending a shiver up her spine. She held her breath, and holding aloft her arms like airplane wings, took a step forward on the parapet of the wall. The bunch of oblong purple Jamuns, the biggest bunch, swayed a few feet away. The skin of a few had burst open, dribbling over the thick sweet juice, and attracting a steady drone of little bee-like flies.
Her best friend, a thin tall girl with tightly coiled pigtails adjusted her glasses and goaded her on. A boy, not more than three, a jute string holding up his pair of oversized green and white shorts stood barefoot on the other side. His little round stomach jutted out between his thin grimy arms as he gaped at her.
His elder brother sat a few feet away washing utensils under a tap outside their hut and watched her from the corner of his eye.
She attempted a tiny wave at the little boy. He continued to stare at her and then wiped the snot dribbling from his nose with the back of his hand.
The 5 feet tall compound wall next to the Jamun tree was the single barrier separating her home, an apartment in a four-building complex and a small but thick settlement of slums on the other side.
This was the only Jamun tree in the entire gated building complex now paved in most places except for a clump of Gulmohur trees in one corner showering a carpet of flaming red flowers on the parked cars every summer.
She took another step and then another, inching her way towards the trunk leaning over the wall. Once close, she grabbed the trunk with one hand and lunged at the fruit with the other. The little boy clapped.
Suddenly her balance shifted and the world tumbled around her. She landed on the prickly mud and her left knee suddenly exploded in a shower of white-hot needles.
Fat tears surged against her eyes as she struggled to gulp them back. Her friend helped her up and they limped slowly towards the children's' park complete with a slide, a seesaw, and a swing painted yellow and red. Helping her on the swing, her friend crouched on the ground to brush away the dust and tiny pebbles sticking to the grazed knee.
The girl's dress was muddy around the middle and a pocket patched on the side of the dress had run open. A walk home to dress the wound would mean another shouting from mother.
This was the third dress she had torn this month.
They leaned back on the swings, grazing their feet against the ground, dragging little blooms of dust behind them, watching the clouds drift aimlessly above.
She wanted to go faster, but the breeze itched at the wound. Slowly the pain got bearable and she realized the shame of falling down had been more than the physical wound.
Her friend suggested walking to the beach a few kilometers away from their home. They walked slowly down the tree-canopied path leading up to the main gate, stopping to pluck a white lily from the bushes lining the hedge.
She took in the clean sweet scent and missed the grandmother who lived in the hills.
The watchman was on his plastic chair by the gate, resting his head on his stick, snoring softly.
It was late afternoon and the streets were empty except for some traffic zipping on the link road outside connecting the west of Mumbai with the eastern side. They crept out slowly pulling the iron gate behind them and then ran, to get out of his line of sight.
The sun was white and hot and the thin fabric of her pink cotton frock clung her back. Every now and then the frill lining the frock would graze her knee giving her a fresh sting of pain.
But she didn’t mind it now.
They walked to the beach stopping on the way at Suresh uncle’s store and asked for two pepsis.
Pepsi was a long stick of flavored ice wrapped up in plastic. It came in all colors of the rainbow, each color a different flavor. She picked the orange stick and her friend the lemony green.
They bit the plastic covering at one end and squeezed the other end, sucking hard on the ice, slowing draining it of color. The cold sweet juice ran down her throat and she could feel its little cool fingers working through her body in spasms of pleasure.
They hopped and skipped their way, keeping to the shadows of the tall palm and areca nut trees serenading the skies on both sides of the road.
Midway they decided it was too hot and turned their way back.
The watchman was not there on his seat. As they let themselves in, a woman’s voice called out from behind. It was Mehra aunty, grunting and heaving her way home, arms holding on two bags filled with vegetables. Sheaves of coriander and mint spilled over the side of one bag and one long snake gourd peeped from the other. They offered to hold the bags and she sighed with relief.
The bags were heavy and they panted slightly as they walked towards her building no 3. Once near, she took the bags back from them and plopped something in the palm of their hands. Cadbury éclairs! The day had not been a complete waste after all.
As they finally reached near their building, the girl stole a furtive glance back at the bunch on the Jamun tree. It was not there.
Horrified, they ran back to the tree to confirm.
Suddenly her friend clutched at her arm and pointed up. They stood upon their toes and there on the parapet of the wall, sat the same bunch of berries now plucked and neatly placed on a little bed of leaves clumped together with a twig.
As her friend happily gathered the berries in her hands, the girl peered over and looked on the other side. There was no one there now. She hesitated for a moment and then opened her fist to leave the two eclairs on the bed of leaves.