The balloonwallah's child

[originally published Novemer 25, 2011]

I've found a new perch where I would wait for Shweta. Moments ago, a lanky guard with a rifle had told me to remove myself from the shopping malls steps. Grumbling, I grabbed my bag and settled by some marble planters on the elevated sidewalk.

From my spot I watch the bookwallahs, hawking copies of Mein Kampf and self-help books written by cricket gods, elbowing up next to fruitwallahs with their fleshy pink guavas. Some dogs pick at a diaper in the gutter and an old woman, tired chin tucked in her chest, rests by a scale where passerbys can guess her weight for pocket change. Angry, veiny fists fly at the nimbu pani stall.

On the street below, a family of six: a man, a woman, three small children and a baby snug in its mother’s chest. The thin man, clad in a threadbare brown stripe cotton kurta, blows up colorful balloons in a rainbow of shape and size: hearts and spot and stripes. Noah's Ark born from knots. The children barefoot across the sidewalk. In one hand they hold their tins; the others are clutched in a fists and motioning to their mouths.

The littlest sister is bald wearing a sleeveless blue velvet dress with the zipper ripped out of the back. Balloon string in her fingers, hand in mouth, she toddles up to the guard. He points a gun at her face.

Their mother, displeased with their empty tins, thwacks their guts with her metal lunch tiffin. She's yelling. A balloons bursts. Their father offers up deflated balloons to chew on. Out of the path of their ornery mother hen, they sit by his feet as he continued to work. They begin to giggle.

A family of three approaches the balloonwallah and his family. The two parents, plump in their crisp button down and zealously bedazzled shalwar kameez, follow their equally doughy son to the edge of the sidewalk. He points and barks to his parents who bark to the wallah below.

This one?

No, that one.

How about this one?

No, that one!

The chubby boy is impatient. That one! he points.

The little girl in the blue velvet dress continues to gum.

This one?

That one.

The wallah hesitates a moment before bending down, snatching the balloon from his daughter's mouth. He blows it up, quickly handing it to the boy. The parents toss a few rupees into the cigar box.

The little girl in the blue dress began to cry.