Amreen fastened the ribbon, securing the right pigtail for Naaz. The five-year-old little girl rambled on switching topics every two sentences.

“Ammi… I want to sleep next to you tonight.” Naaz’s kohl-laden wide eyes demanded.

Amreen sighed. “Very soon, jaan. But tonight, Ammi must work.”

“But why Ammi?”

“So that we can move to a better house and Naaz can go to a good school.”

“But I want you …” Naaz’s eyes filled with unshed tears.

Amreen patted the satin frock she had got for Naaz during last Eid, almost a year ago. The dress was still her prized possession despite being faded and reaching over Naaz’s knee. The single layer of frill had torn apart, and Amreen had tried to stitch it back. But the visible black thread was an eyesore. Not that Naaz understood it. Yet.

She pulled Naaz into a hug, inhaling the baby powder she still indulged for her daughter.

“Didn’t I tell you if you count well during our game, you will get everything you desire?”

Naaz nodded into her chest, and she smiled, blinking back tears. “Ok then, start counting when I say so…” Holding her daughter away, Amreen wiped the excess powder off the cherubic face. “Now go, and get your new mojris.”

Before she could finish, Naaz rushed towards the alembic partition of their lone room, made by fragmented linen, thinner than Amreen’s archaic morals. She knew the girl would take a while to find the mojris as it was out of reach for the little one, just like everything else.

Amreen looked around her mundane rental abode, the only affordable roof with a lock to keep away biped predators. The once-upon-a-time bright green walls were smudged with different verdant shades wherever the external leakage had seeped in last monsoon. A couple of damp clothes hung listlessly on a wire in the corner, just like her life on the strings of poverty and despair. The lone hanging florescent lamp cast a soft glow in the dingy room, while the noisy fan barely ventilated the room and the tiny clock on the shut window still, clicked away noiselessly…. watching it all.

“Ammi…” Naaz came with her booty.

“Naaz, it’s time for peek-a-boo. Go to Adil chacha’s shop and start counting.” Amreen patted her head, and gently gave her a shove.

Holding her new mojris, Naaz ran towards the corner tea-stall, excitement palpable in her steps. Adil chacha lifted a giggling Naaz, and placed her on a table in his stall. The septuagenarian then turned and waved to Amreen. Naaz would chatter away till sleep claimed her, and Amreen would pick her later.

Amreen waved back and shut the door. She began to prep herself and the lone rickety bed in the room, her flaccid emotions inert.

It was show-time.

Like the rest of the rooms in this lane of Mumbai’s infamous red-light area, Kamathipura, her evening would begin.

But Naaz would never witness what her single mother did for a living.

The peek-a-boo had to continue…

Priya Nayak Gole