It was little Avantika’s 5th birthday, and the first one in her new home. They moved here a week back and had just about finished doing it up. Her mother, a beaming Pooja, slowly entered the living room, cake in hand. The children, all 30 of them, shouted in unison. Pooja laughed and gently placed the cake on the center table.
She arranged the plastic knife alongside the cake, asked her daughter to come stand beside her. Pavan, who was busy welcoming other guests, heard the kids shouting and guessed it was cake cutting time. He turned around to see Pooja beckoning him. He nodded and made his way to the cake. Arpita, Pooja’s sister, was the lens woman, taking pictures with her D-SLR. She had also been Pooja’s right hand all through, arranging and looking after all the details.
Everybody milled around the birthday girl who was resplendent in her new white gown, looking like a little fairy.
“Come on, children, closer now..” Arpita said into the lens, as she focused the picture.
She took her eye off the camera for a minute and smiled. A couple of other kids Avantika’s age were jostling for space near her, wanting to cut the cake as well. Kids, she thought shaking her head. Finally, it was all settled and Arpita clicked pictures as Avantika cut the cake, fed her parents and then all the children by turns.
The rest of the evening was filled with cries of joy and excitement, some happy conversation, and lastly a long picture session with the tiny tot. Arpita’s finger ached by the end of it all. The last of the guests left a little after 10 pm and soon, it was just the family.
Avantika had dozed off at the couch. The adults were chatting, milling around to clear the table and clean up the mess the children had made. It was a memorable evening. Arpita came into the kitchen carrying the empty cake tray.
“What a party. Phew.”
Pooja hugged her. “All thanks to you, sweetheart. I don’t know what I would've done without you.”
“Drama queen,” Arpita said, giving a peck on her older sister’s cheek and continued cleaning.
The men were discussing politics and sports outside in the living room. Pavan was on a ladder bringing down the wall decoratives. Pooja and Arpita, done with their cleaning, sat at the dining table. Pooja had carried some wine along.
“Boys..join us for some wine?” She said, smiling at her brother-in-law Rajesh. Rajesh’s eyes lit up.
“Wow, Bhabhi, you sure know how to make a tired man happy.” He ambled over to the dining table and motioned Pavan over. He was Pavan’s younger brother and Arpita’s husband. It was a really close knit family. Arpita and he hadn’t had kids yet, so they showered all their love on little Avantika.
The four of them sat and sipped quietly for a while. Arpita looked lovingly at her niece, who Pavan would later carry to her bedroom. She had taken care to clean up her bed a while ago.
It was really hot in this house, and Arpita and Rajesh were holed up on the first floor room. Around 2 am, her throat parched, Arpita decided to come down to the kitchen for a glass of water. She’d forgotten to keep her usual water bottle by the bed side. She came to the stairs sleepily and stopped.
She sensed some movement in the living room. She slowly got down the stairs. Was Ammu still in the living room? But she remembered Pavan carrying her along earlier. There was a zero-watt bulb on in the hall and Arpita stood dead in her tracks. The hall was partially visible from the staircase, but she could make out clearly.
A little girl in a green frock, humming the birthday song softly, was circling around the center table where the cake was cut.
Oh my God, someone’s kid got left behind.
The girl saw Arpita and froze, shocked. Arpita smiled. ‘It’s ok child,’ she whispered, walking down the stairs.
‘Mommy papa didn’t come to pick you up?’ she asked all the while wondering how on earth would anybody forget to pick up their own child. And how did they miss her? Even Pooja didn’t mention anything about her.
Arpita came down the stairs. She made her way to the switchboard at the bottom of the staircase, switched on the lights. It was Avantika.
‘Ammu, it’s you! What is it baby, why’re you standing here all by yourself?’
Avantika made a sulking face and spoke out – ‘want cake’.
In an adult male voice.