I trudge home across the cornfields, it’s a shortcut from school. The other girls must be home by now. The English teacher made me stay late after school and practice my handwriting. She says it looks like chicken scratch, but it’s really because she secretly hates me. Today, of all days, when I wanted to be home before anyone else. Grandma is visiting from the big city. And she usually brings gifts for everybody.
She is not really my grandma though. Just all us girls call her that. She built the house we all live in, and she also pays all the costs. Lakshmi amma, one of the caretakers, tells us there are big companies in the big city that give her money for free. She tells us it is not because they care for us, but they do it to pay less tax to the government. But Grandma cares for us a lot. She visits twice a year. And she brings us a lot of goodies.
Last time, she got me a shiny red metal truck with three wooden wheels. One of the wheels was missing, which makes it wobble when I push it along the floor. Grandma says there is a lesson in it. She says life comes at us like that, with all its imperfections. And we just make the most of it. I call the truck “Wobbler.” I love it very much. I keep it safely in my cupboard and play with it every evening after I finish my homework and do my chores. I am not like the other girls. I don’t like dolls. And Grandma knows what each of us likes even though there are twenty girls living in the house. Some are my age, some are more grown up and go to middle school, and some are still babies that sleep all day in the crib. She brought each of us to the house, and she has watched us grow.
“Oh Maya! My darling!” she says, as she gives me a big hug, the soft folds of her dress smell like jasmine. I must be smelling like the sewer after school and the long walk home in the sweltering heat. I hug her back as tightly as I can, so I can hold onto this memory till her next visit. The other girls are busy unpacking their gifts. But I am suddenly not interested in a gift anymore, I just want Grandma to stay for as long as she can.
“How long are you here?” I ask, and she kisses me on my forehead.
“Oh honey, I leave the day after tomorrow,” she says.
“I have a meeting with more people to ask them for money for this house” she says.
She pulls out a velvet pouch from her handbag and gives it to me. It’s beautiful dark velvet, with gold colored writing on it. The other girls crowd around me. “Open it” says Grandma. I am still staring at the velvet bag. The bag could be a gift all by itself. My hands are shaking as I pull out a long black string from inside it, and it’s got a single pearl in it like a pendant. But what a pearl it is! Smooth and round and glowing like it’s hiding the moon inside it! I’ve never seen anything like it before! I hold it to the light, and the pearl is now reflecting every color in the spectrum. Moon and rainbows. Magic.
“It’s not from me,” Grandma says. “You seem to have a secret benefactor.” I don’t know what that means. “Someone sent it to me in the city to give to you. I don’t know who that someone is,” she explains.
Who could it be from?
“Maya, you have to show me your new paintings before I leave tomorrow,” says Grandma. She really likes my paintings. She keeps asking me to make more of them. There are always art supplies in the house. Grandma loves art. Lakshmi amma says Grandma used to be an artist herself before. Her paintings made a lot of money. They used to put it up in galleries. She used that money to build this house.
I put the pearl back in the velvet pouch, and hold on to it as tightly as I can for the rest of the day. The golden letters on the pouch say GIA. What could that mean? Is it the name of a jewelry store? There is only one thought constantly running through my head. Who sent the pearl to me?
“I think it’s from your family,” says Anita.
“I don’t have a family,” I say.
“Everyone has a family. Families keep some children and give away others. They don’t keep everyone they make.”
“Because some children are faulty.”
Anita knows a lot about everything. She is one of the older girls. Everyone listens to Anita. I don’t say anything back because it makes her angry when other girls argue with her. But I don’t think she’s right about this. If my family really gave me away, why are they sending me gifts? And why now, after all these years? I am nine years old, and my family has never sent me anything till now. Wobbler wasn’t from my secret benefactor. It was from Grandma.
I climb up to my bunk bed in the night and pull out the velvet pouch from under the pillow. I trace the words embroidered on it with a finger. GIA. Maybe it’s my name. That’s what my family wanted to call me. I like the name. More than Maya. Gia sounds like the name of a princess. I pull out the pearl again. It even glows in the dark.
“Aren’t you going to wear it?”
Divya sits next to me in the classroom. She is my best friend. I tell her everything. She lives in Grandma’s house too. Her bunk bed is right below mine.
“I don’t want to,” I say. “Everyone will know”
“Everyone knows anyway,” says Divya with a shrug. “The whole school is talking about it. Nitya was telling me maybe it’s magic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you tried rubbing it?” she whispers. “Maybe a genie will come out of it and grant all your wishes.”
What would I ask for? I’d love to know who gave me the pearl. And then I’d ask for a cycle. A gorgeous yellow cycle with a pink bow on the handlebar, just like the one Shreya has. Without training wheels, because I’d also ask for knowing how to ride a cycle. I will hang a white basket in front, and fill it with flowers. Rose, jasmine, and hibiscus—lots of it. And then when Shreya asks me for a turn on the cycle, I will refuse just like she never lets me touch hers. And I’ll ask for pearl-colored oil paints. So I can paint a moon that looks like my pearl. I put my hand into my skirt pocket, and I can feel the velvet pouch. And the embroidered name. The teacher throws a chalk at me. “Maya! Concentrate.”
Not Maya. Gia.
“Maybe she’s a mermaid. And her friend, the oyster, sent her the pearl,” says Divya to Rupa at the lunch table, and all the girls start laughing.
“I have legs,” I point out.
“Mermaids grows their tails and gills only at twelve,” explains Divya.
That’s very silly. I don’t think that’s true. But when I think about it, I really wouldn’t mind being a mermaid. Did you know the earth is three-quarters water? Think of how much more space I would have, instead of six of us sharing a room! And I’ve seen the ocean floor. They showed it in a movie Grandma took us all to last summer. It was very beautiful and colorful. And when you look up from down below, the sunlight hitting the surface glistens like a treasure chest packed with gold and diamonds. I’ll have an oyster friend who will give me a new pearl every season. I’ll string them all together and make the prettiest necklace anyone has ever seen.
“Maya, are you listening? I asked you a question!” says Nitya. She is also sitting at the same table as us.
“Oh, she’s always in her own world,” says Rupa.
“What was the question?” I ask.
“Can you show us the pearl?” whispers Nitya.
I shake my head. “I don’t have it with me,” I lie. “Grandma asked me to leave it back at the house.”
I don’t know why I lied. I know it’s a bad thing to do. But I don’t feel ready to start sharing the pearl with my school mates. I need some time alone with it. Maybe there’s a hidden message from my family in there. Maybe the pearl will talk to me in the night, in my dream, when I sleep with it under the pillow. I tried that yesterday, but I fell into such deep sleep that I couldn’t listen. But I will try it again tonight. And I’ll make sure to sleep lightly.
“You should sell it,” says Divya. We are walking back to the house across the cornfields, and today I am with the rest of the girls.
“Why?” I ask.
“You will get a lot of money for it. I bet it belonged to a queen. It looks like a royal pearl.”
“I like the pearl. I don’t want to sell it.”
“You can put the money in a bank, and it will make more money. By the time you are grown up, you will have enough money to buy your own house.”
I don’t want to buy my own house. I will live in this one. When I’m all grown up, I’ll ask Grandma for a job as one of the caretakers. There will be new young girls to look after. I will have this house, and there will be food, and I will use what Grandma pays me to buy pretty new sarees. Like the ones Shreya’s mother wears. Silk, with gold and silver embroidery. When I find time, I will paint. I will use the money I get from my paintings to buy pretty new frocks for the new girls. And I will wear the pearl every day. It’s from my family.
“Will you do a new painting I can take with me when I leave tomorrow?” asks Grandma. She has already setup a canvas and oil paints for me. I love oil paints. They look so much shinier than watercolors. There’s even a new set of paintbrushes that Grandma has brought along.
“I wish I had pearl-colored oil paints,” I tell Grandma. “Do you think my pearl is magic?”
Grandma laughs. “You don’t need a magic pearl to grant you wishes,” she says. “You can do it on your own. Just like I did.”
She teaches me how to mix pearl color. It’s three shades of white and four shades of gray and pink and crimson. I sketch the outlines of Grandma sitting on her chair, wearing a gigantic single pearl necklace. And then the paint. The black and white strokes for the hair, sparkling black for her eyes, and dark brown for the laughter lines around her eyes. A shade of pink for the kind smile on her face, and then the pearl on a black strand. Glowing, radiant, breathtaking. Light and shadow.
It’s night by the time I’m done. Grandma comes over to look at it, and she just stands there looking. She doesn’t say anything. “Grandma’s Pearl,” I write on the top left of the painting, in thalo green.
“Sign it,” she says, and I sign it with a fine-tipped black brush on the bottom right.
“Do you like it?” I ask her.
“It’s priceless,” she says, and there are tears in her eyes. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. Even more beautiful than the real pearl you have.”
“You can take the painting,” I say. “It’s for you.”
She gives me another hug, and I hug her back. She will be gone tomorrow. And I won’t see her for a few months more.
“Do you think that pearl is from my family?” I ask her.
Grandma just smiles. “Family is about people who care about you. You already have that with us.”
She is right. I don’t need the pearl for magic wishes or mystery family. Grandma is all the family I’ll ever need. Grandma and Lakshmi amma and Divya.
“Did you see this?” says Nitya, handing me a torn page from a newspaper. “My father was reading it, and I tore this page for you.”
It’s got a picture of Grandma in it. She is accepting an award and smiling at the camera. “The Fight Against Female Infanticide,” says the headline. “Asha has rescued tens of potential victims, to give them a shot at a beautiful, fulfilling future through Asha Foundation for Girls,” reads the caption.
“What does infanticide mean?” I ask Nitya.
She shrugs. “Maybe you should ask the English teacher,” she says.
I am not asking Mrs. Sharma. She hates me. What if it’s a bad word? She will drag me to the principal’s office, like that time when I asked her what “sexy” meant. I fold the newspaper carefully and put it into my skirt pocket next to the velvet pouch. I will ask Grandma when I see her next time.
It’s after dinner. All the vessels have been washed and put away, and the dining area has been cleaned up with a broom and a mop. There is an electric grid shutdown as usual, so Lakshmi amma walks around the house lighting the lanterns hanging from the ceiling. All the girls sit around the courtyard at this time, so that the cool breeze from the fields provide some respite from the radiating heat. Anita and Sonam, the older girls, hold the two babies and their feeding bottles. Once the babies have had their milk, they will tuck them into their cribs, and then it will be time for all of us to go to bed.
“Put away the pearl, Maya, before you lose it,” says Lakshmi amma. “Don’t hold it in your hands all the time.”
There’s something captivating about the pearl. I take it out and stare at it in my free time. It is starting to annoy the other girls, too. They think I am showing off.
“Does Grandma have a family?” I ask Lakshmi amma.
“She never got married,” says Lakshmi amma. “She wanted to care for all of you and the girls that came here before you.”
“Our Social Studies teacher says it is a woman’s duty to get married,” says Sonam.
Lakshmi amma smiles. “Our only duty is to be good people. To not hurt others. To try and do our best at all times, whatever we do.”
“Why didn’t Grandma get married?” asks Divya.
“She made a choice. It’s her choice.”
“Did you get married?” I ask Lakshmi amma.
She sighs. “I got married when I was nine,” she says. “And my husband died from jaundice when I was twelve. He was fourteen. Asha…your Grandma…helped put me through school, and she gave me this job.”
She was married when she was my age? I still need help with eating noodles.
“Do you miss him?” asks Anita.
“I don’t remember him,” says Lakshmi amma.
I think of what Grandma told me. Life comes at us with all its imperfections, and we make the most of it. Lakshmi amma has made the most of it.
It’s dark. I am lying down on the bed, staring at the wooden beams on the ceiling. “I read something in the newspaper,” I whisper to Divya.
“What?” she asks.
“There are some villages where they kill girl babies after they are born.”
Divya covers her ears. “Don’t say anything more. I’m scared.”
I don’t say anything more, but I can’t stop thinking of ghosts of murdered children. Is there a difference between the ghost of a baby and the ghost of a big person?
“Do you want to pray with me?” asks Divya after a while.
I climb down into Divya’s bed, and we both pray together.
“Sleep here,” says Divya. “I am scared.”
“Sure,” I say. I was scared to sleep alone in my bed anyway. I hold on tight to the velvet pouch. The magic pearl will keep us safe.
There is no school on Sunday. On Sundays, some girls like to do some gardening, others go out to the fields to play. When it’s hot, we go to the river for a swim. Some like to go along with Lakshmi amma and Nirmala, the cook, to buy groceries from the town store. On Sundays, I paint. I already know what I’m going to paint today. A mermaid wearing a string of pearls. And I know exactly know to mix the colors. I’m going to add a hint of yellow so it will look just like my pearl.
“I know who sent the pearl to you.”
I turn around, and there’s Grandma again! This is a big surprise! I wasn’t expecting her back for months! I run to hug her, but there is someone with her today. A young lady.
“Kavitha, here, is a big admirer of your art,” says Grandma, and she looks very proud.
“Especially Grandma’s Pearl,” says Kavitha. “It is spectacular!”
“You sent me the gift?” I ask her.
Kavitha smiles as she gives me a hug. She has a lovely smile. It makes her look very pretty. “I passed it on to you,” she says.
I don’t understand. “You did not buy it?”
“I got this pearl as a gift when I was about your age, growing up in this house. Now, it’s my turn to pass it on.”
“Is it magic?” I ask.
Kavitha laughs. “It is magic if you want it to be.”
This is confusing. It is either magic, or it isn’t. What does my want have anything to do with it?
“It is magic because it makes you wish and hope and dream,” she continues. “But if you really want something for yourself, with all your heart, it’s not enough to ask the magic pearl. What you really need is your own talent and your hard work.”
“Like mixing the pearl paint.” I say, looking at Grandma.
Grandma smiles. “Like mixing the pearl paint,” she agrees. “And your pearl paint today is looking even better than last time.”
Kavitha looks up at the house, and she looks so happy. “Nothing has changed, Asha amma,” she says to Grandma. “Everything is exactly as it was. So many wonderful memories.”
“Did you grow up here too?” I ask her.
“All my childhood. Till I finished school and went to the city for college,” says Kavitha as she takes my hand, and we start walking toward the entrance.
“Kavitha is going to help me run the house,” says Grandma. “And she has a surprise for all of you!”
Grandma is pointing to the entrance. There is a truck standing outside the house, and the other girls are crowding around it.
This is so exciting! “What is it?” I shout, as I run over to join them. Two men are unloading cycles! There are eight new cycles, in different colors. Eight!! Can you believe it? There is a red one, a blue one, a green one, and even a yellow one!
Grandma and Kavitha join us, and they are both smiling.
“All of you will share the cycles,” says Grandma. “You can ride them to go to the town over summer. Kavitha here has arranged for art and math tutors.”
Grandma is introducing Kavitha to the rest of the girls. I run my hand softly over the yellow cycle. I remove the pink ribbon I am wearing on my hair and tie a bow around the handlebar. It looks perfect. Next, I’ll look for flowers to put in the front basket. I hold on tightly to my magic pearl. Maybe one day, my other wish will come true if I work very hard—to be an artist, and to sell my paintings to pay for the next set of girls who will live in this house. When that happens, maybe it will be my turn to pass the pearl on.