It began innocently enough, when the three girls changed into their playing-card costumes for the Tasher Desh dress rehearsal, insisting Didu wear a red blouse on top of her jeans, to match. So they could all be queens of hearts.
What followed was a telephone call just as the grandmother hustled everyone in to the old sedan. “This is Mrs Dey,” the disembodied voice intoned in her ear. “We have an emergency!” Apparently, one of the boys, Aniket, had been allowed to play outside in his costume — and now it was tattered and dusty and could she stop at the Kmart with her three angels and pick up more posterboard and red felt? Of course, Didu said. It was still early.
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It wasn’t even her day to drive the girls to play practice. She had planned to mark the day by telephoning relatives in Kolkata, reminiscing. But Lisa, the regular babysitter, had called in with the stomach flu and her son-in-law had left for Hong Kong on a pre-dawn flight. Her only daughter had an emergency at work. “The minivan’s out of commission, mom. I left you the keys to the golden oldie,” she called out as she fled through the front door to the waiting carpool. “Bye girls, take good care of Didu today.”
The three angels replied in chorus, “We will!” Didu and girls puttered along in the old Saab, barely reaching the speed limit on surface streets lined with old magnolias and sporting lawns dotted with McCain-Palin placards. “Sixty years ago today, I was in India, celebrating,” she said, citing her dead father’s work as a freedom fighter, how he was imprisoned for a time for opposing the British Raj, how the collective effort of the people led to change and opportunity. “Without independence, I very much doubt we would have come to America.”
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“You have to fight sometimes, to set people straight?” The angel’s voice was soft and sweet.
“Yes.” She laughed a little. “Otherwise, we might still be going to Tasher Desh today, but it wouldn’t be in Atlanta.”
As she entered the parking lot, they passed a young man with hair the colour of corn, selling American flags out of the trunk of his white van; the flag an outdated version representing the 13 colonies in a circle of stars. One of the angels said, “His flags are broken.”
The grandmother wondered why the police hadn’t been called but said nothing as she parked as far away from him as possible. The young man looked very thin, and she felt sorry for him.
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They marched in single file through the parking lot, a line of fire ants going shopping. The chain-smokers by the bike racks stopped to stare at the beauties, how the sequins on their costumes glimmered in the sun. The grandmother noticed how no one smiled back at her when she tried to meet their eyes. She also noticed how the patrons far outnumbered the red-shirted cashiers and uniform stock boys. Her smile disappeared: when it was time to check out, they would not be able to leave in a hurry. The angels quickly grew tired of walking down the aisles and started to grab at this toy and that. Didu said no and re-shelved each plaything.
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The lady in the green pantsuit on Aisle 15 stood in front of the girls and told them to hush and asked aloud, “Where is their mother?” Didu ignored her though she felt pantsuit lady’s rebuke, and continued down the aisle with the girls. They rounded the corner, and on Aisle 14, they stopped in front of a display of soccer balls. The angels clamoured. “Please, can we have this one thing?” one cried out.
The grandmother took down the ball, and freed it from his box. “Just this once.” One of the angels snatched the ball out of the grandmother’s hands and threw it at her sisters’ feet. Three girls ran down the aisle showing off their fancy footwork and cheering, and then rounded the corner out of sight. An older woman, wearing a pink tank top and white pants, pushed her cart past and shook her head.
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Didu sighed. It was hard work, entertaining angels. After a few moments, she reached the craft supply aisle, found the large piece of stiff red felt, and the poster board. Across the way, the household goods section beckoned with her second-favourite English word displayed in bold letters: SALE. She stared at the Martha Stewart Living collection, and remembered seeing its creator on the news. Was it good karma to buy a convicted felon’s hand-towels? Were they now precluded from watching Mrs Stewart on TV as she canned vegetables in special jars?
The girls emerged from Aisle 16, kicking the ball back and forth, until the tallest stopped in front of their grandmother and juggled the ball on her knees. The other two begged their sister to pass it to them. Grandmother rolled up the felt and the posterboard together until it resembled a bat and gave it to the closest child. The youngest angel spied a pink towel set with an iridescent butterfly and pointed: from the neighbouring Jaclyn Smith collection. Well, Jaclyn was an “Angel” once, Didu thought. “Do you want this?” she asked.
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The older woman in the pink shirt wheeled up to them. “Y’all off break yet?” The angels stood still. “Didu doesn’t work here.” The grandmother cocked her head. The woman continued as if no one had spoken. “Can y’all run back to the back and get me another one of these?” Her drawl slow as she waved an ink cartridge for some sort of printer. Behind her glasses, her eyes sparkled icy blue, hard as diamonds. “This one’s already open and I know my grandson won’t use it if the package has been unwrapped.”
The grandmother, who was not a native English speaker and who had a natural tendency to take care of things for other people, when asked nicely, was poised to offer assistance the way she did when she witnessed a motorist stranded by the side of the road: Didu wouldn’t change the tyre or fix the engine but she would find someone who was an expert in those fields and make introductions. The young damsels, however, trilingual and unfortunately as fluent in prejudice as they were in American English, understood immediately, even before the woman could finish waving the ink in their faces.
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Before Didu blinked twice and opened her mouth to answer, the angels launched the ball into the air and one executed a perfect bicycle kick. The ball soared like a meteor and crashed into the open cartridge before falling into the woman’s outstretched hands. Black toner mushroomed into a small cloud before settling on the one holding the ball.
Later, Didu would be grateful that none of the angels had yelled, “Goooooaaaal.” In the moment, though, the pantsuit patron from Aisle 15 called the authorities. Meanwhile, the middle angel borrowed the grandmother’s cell phone and called Mrs Dey. The police arrived just as the news crews and the Tasher Desh participants did. With so many children dressed like cards, the eye-witness could not positively identify the culprit. “They all look alike,” the lady said, wringing her hands together.
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The police insisted all of the children wearing cards apologise, and they did so in unison. Didu, relieved she wasn’t asked to apologise, understood that with independence came diplomacy. She was quick to offer the woman the cost of dry-cleaning her clothes.
Devi S Laskar is the author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.