Little Worlds…

On most days when I make my way to the After Hours School Care to pick up Ms A, a shy face with twinkling eyes and a pretty smile greets me. Ms Riya is all of 3 and is a recent addition to the child care centre. She doesn’t speak much English yet, or much of any language for that matter. Sometimes, I see her on the swings humming to herself. The family has migrated recently and Riya wanders behind the other kids trying to take in the accents, the sights, the sounds and the action on the play-ground. She follows me around as I sign Ms A out and gather her school-bag.

“Hey sweetie”, I say and bend down to ruffle her hair. She brushes my hand away, but the bright smile is intact. When we get to the main gate, A and I realize that she is following us.

She runs up to A and holds her hand tight – not a word yet, but a firm gesture. “I have to go home, I will see you tomorrow”, A tells her in a voice that is ever so gentle and friendly.

“You come home with me?” Riya asks. The voice is like a little wren’s, high pitched and fairly surprised at itself.

“I cannot come home with you Riya, but I will play with you tomorrow, yes?” Riya nods sadly and troops back to the other kids, pausing every now and then as she looks at us over her shoulder, her face visibly downcast. She makes her way to the side gate that offers an unfettered view of the road. As we drive off, we see a small face watching us intently.

After that it becomes a ritual of sorts. Riya follows us around every evening, she still doesn’t say a word to me but she asks A to come home with her everyday with a defiant sort of hope. A tells her the same thing with commendable patience every evening.

Somewhere along the way Riya learns to smile at me. “I playing duck duck goose”, Riya informs me one day. This time my “Shall I play with you, sweetie?” is met with a shy nod. She wanders away from the game in a matter of minutes. I follow her around asking her if she wants to play something else. Ms A has disappeared with her friends and I figure that I could play with Riya till A makes an appearance. Riya wanders off to the overgrown part of the garden and ducks under a hedge and disappears. I wait on the other side of the hedge for her, wondering if this is her way of getting me to play hide and seek.

“You okay, Riya?” I ask her. Typically, there is no response. She emerges from the hedge a minute later, eyes gleaming, leaves and twigs in her hair.

“A playing. Riya found her!”, she tells me. And before I can comment, she disappears again and I hear her telling A in her own little language that A now needs to go home with Mummy. The first lesson of settling down is learning to let go.

 A regales me with tales of Riya as the term progresses. Riya offers me titbits of information about the weather or the duck and goose game or the swings most evenings. She no longer wants A to come home with her but some days she does ask if A can stay back for “a play”. On the days that I acquiesce to this request, Riya makes happy sounds. “Like a happy magpie”, A says.

Riya soon becomes a part of the landscape to me and I cease to think more about her growing attachment for A. A part of me has forgotten the pristine simplicity of a world of swings and hedges and hoping your friends can go home with you at the end of the day so that the evening stretches for ever. An evening can be infinity when you are only 3. I think nothing of the fact that Riya is a small child in a new country trying to find some familiarity in alien surroundings. The tragedy of being an adult sometimes is not so much that we are well past the cornerstones of childhood but that we gradually forget to acknowledge these signposts when we do see them.

A week later I decide to pick up A early as a surprise of sorts. I have called up to let the carers know of this but A insists on making a stop at the child care even as I insist that it is too hot to go for any kind of a walk.

The sky is a relentless blue; the air hot and scented with the sharp tang of the gum trees. The sweetish whiff of camellias infuses the air even as the gardens lie heavy and unflinching in the afternoon heat. Somewhere in the nearby pine trees, a kookaburra sings in a burst of somnolent tones. The afternoon is bathed in a stupor so thick that most souls have retreated to gentler universes behind shaded windows. I almost don’t see her at first but then suddenly, right next to the camellias on a lonely and possibly quite hot park bench, I see a solitary figure wearing a giant hat; scanning the roads that lead back to the school eagerly and resolutely. A small, stuffed,teddy bear keeps her company.

A breaks into a run as soon as she sees her and Riya’s face breaks into a giant grin. “Aaaaaaaa”, she screams with unbridled joy, even as she whirls around in impatience till A unlocks the gate and gets in. She flings herself at A as soon as the gate is opened and buries her face in A’s skirt. As A hugs her and talks to her and makes her giggle, I make my way indoors to let the carers know that I am picking A up.

“Come in now, Riya”, Carol the genial carer says as she scoops Riya up.

“Do you know she does this every day?”, she asks me. “She cannot tell the time yet, but as soon as she hears the school bell ring, she drops everything she is doing and races out to wait by the camellias for A to get here and gives her a hug. “ And suddenly I realize how much this little ritual means to Riya and therefore to A. I cannot bear to think of her little crestfallen face if we had skipped the walk and gone home directly. We are part of Riya’s carefully constructed little universe now. “Bye”, Riya says cheerily as we head off. “See you tomorrow?”, she asks A, and squeals in joy when A promises to do puzzles with her. This time I am the one that troops back to the car, pausing every now and then to look at her over my shoulder.

You are never too old to be homesick. You are never too young to make a home wherever you go.