“Rhea”, Bijji screamed. “My little dugduggi, how you have grown!”
Rhea’s nose was jammed in Bijji’s armpit, which smelt a bit sour after twenty hours in the plane. Rhea tried to hold her breath, until Bijji loosened her hold on her. Bijji pounced on Karan next, who pounced right back. But what did he know? He was only a stupid, seven year old boy, Rhea thought spiffily.
As Rhea wheeled Bijji’s humungous suitcase to the car park, she watched Bijji waddling between Papa and Mama on her short, fat legs. Bijji has a rather large behind, thought Rhea. And what is this that she is wearing, a dark brown flared skirt for heaven’s sake.
As you have figured out by now, Rhea was a bit of a fashion snob. Her Papa and Mama were smart and glamorous. Her younger brother Karan was often muddy and dirty, but he was only a boy. Rhea herself wore only the latest fashions. Their house glittered spick-and span, their car was big and shining. Rhea thought Bijji was going to look very out of place in their family picture.
Rhea had last met Bijji when she – Rhea, not Bijji – was two, which did not count. Since then, Big Tau had sent photos regularly, but perhaps, he had tinkered with them on the computer. Because Bijji was nothing like Rhea had expected.
Rhea sat between Bijji and Karan in the car, and worried about what her friends Jenny and Panna would say about Bijji. She should not have boasted so much about her American relations to them. She had almost made them believe that Bijji would be, not blonde of course, but with blue-tinted hair and pastel trouser suits, like the grandmothers on television.
And here was Bijji. Her hair was a grey oily knot at the back of her head. When she laughed, Rhea could see a gold tooth, but also cavities, and she wobbled like a jelly. She actually had a few horrid hair on her chin.
Bijji had brought Karan and Rhea a lot of gifts from the US, chocolates, clothes, bags, shoes. Rhea would normally have been excited about all the American goodies, but she took everything from Bijji so quietly, that her mother looked at her, worried she may be catching a cold again. Bijji stroked her cheek, and Rhea without even knowing it, stepped back a little. Bijji smiled, but she also looked a little sad.
At school the next day, Jenny and Panna wanted to know all about Bijji and more important, the gifts she had brought from the US. But Rhea did not say, as she normally would, “Come home, na?” Jenny and Panna were so shocked by Rhea’s indifference that they did not even gossip amongst themselves about it, at least that day.
When Rhea went back from school. Bijji was sitting in the living room. She was wearing a turquoise blue sweat shirt and a red track pant, and to make matters worse, she had an orange and green dupatta draped around her head, for some reason. Rhea wanted to switch on Cartoon Network as she usually did while eating. But Bijji was full of prattle, asking her all sorts of silly questions. When Rhea tried to ignore her, pretending to watch television, Bijji spoilt it all by talking on and on, about the cartoon characters as if they were real, and asking silly questions about them. Rhea looked at her hard and long. Had Bijji really come from America? It seemed to Rhea that she had come from some remote village in Punjab.
Karan ran in from tennis practice, all sweaty and disgusting. Bijji actually opened her arms to him, and he rushed in. They pushed each other around on the sofa, laughing. Rhea looked at them, disgusted. Uhh-hh. Papa came home early from work, and got a big hug from Bijji too. Mama was bustling around as usual, smiling, laughing, plying everyone with food and more food. Only Rhea was quiet. She was wondering if she could ask to sleep with Papa and Mama tonight.
Yesterday, Bijji had slept with Rhea and Karan in their room. Karan and she were chattering and giggling, until Rhea turned her back, pretending to be very sleepy. Bijji switched off the lights, but mumbled for some minutes, a soft prayer. Then, she turned left, then right, then grunted, then shuffled, until Rhea was wide awake. Bijji fell off to sleep, snoring softly. Karan was sleeping too. Only Rhea lay scowling into the night, wondering when Bijji would leave.
Rhea saw Papa looking at her sadly, and she made an effort to smile. Suddenly, Papa said, “Bijji, did you get the albums I asked you to? It’s not fair that Bhaiya should keep all the family photographs. It’s ages since I’ve seen the albums.” “Oh son, don’t complain. I’ve got all the albums. And your Bhaiya has said that you can have them now, at least for a few years. After all, he has me.” Papa scowled. “And why is that, may I ask? Don’t you like India, don’t you love me?” Bijji pinched his cheek affectionately. “You know it’s not true. You know they need me there, to look after the kids. It’s not like here, where you can get so much help. Urmi has to do all the work herself. If I am there, it’s a big support.”
Meanwhile, Bijji had taken out the photographs from her suitcase. Karan and Papa hogged them, Mama pushed her way in to look at the photos herself. Rhea could not contain her curiosity, and was soon fighting with Karan to see the photographs. Bjji called her near her. Rhea went to Bijji, trying to hide her reluctance. She sat on the edge of the sofa, but Bijji put an arm around her, and put an album on her lap.
Rhea opened the album. There were some black and white photos of a young girl. They were black and white photos of Rhea. Rhea was confused. She had never taken these photographs of herself. She looked at Bijji. Bijji laughed. “That’s me. I look exactly like you, don’t I?” Papa said, “Oh, Rhea looks like you, Bijji. Yes, she does. Beautiful girl.”
Rhea looked at the photographs again, and then sneaked a look at Bijji from the corners of her eyes. She was laughing, and her double chin was wobbling a bit. But she had dimples, and her eyes were large, with thick lashes. Hmm, was she beautiful? Rhea wondered if she would look like Bijji when she grew old, and her grandchildren would think of her as a funny old woman when they saw her. Maybe, she could give Bijji a make-over before Jenny and Panna came home. Rhea grinned to herself, and snuggled a little closer to Bijji. Bijji too smiled to herself a little. Papa looked at Rhea and smiled to himself too. He knew what was going on in his baby’s mind.