The girls whose names we know, Martabel and I ask Basanti about. Puja, Dipya, Sangita, Induja, Laxmi. A refrain emerges–alcoholic, invalid, or absent fathers, mothers mostly domestic servants. Induja's mother died of breast cancer.
Jasmine takes me by the hand into the hall, sits me on the stairs, sings love songs and dances Bengali dance. This inevitably attracts others; she gets a partner and they perform what is obviously a love ballad, caressing each other, laughing in embarrassment. But then Megha comes with her English book thrust into my lap and others come around so I try to sit them in my lap and beside me, let them hold all of my limbs and respond to every "Aunty" even though someone is on my head also, while still watching them dance.
They are beautiful dancers and it breaks my heart a little.
Puja gives us biscuits. We try to refuse but they say "No, Aunty" and none of the other girls will eat them. When they get muri (puffed rice), which they hold in the folds of their skirts, they thrust handfuls into my lap, which they will not take back. And they feed me the chilis because I will eat them.
It's Saturday, there's no school so we play lot of badminton outside and it's Martabel's last day. When we leave, she sobs and the girls she became closest to cry also and I can't help but cry. In the car she says "I feel so stupid for leaving."
So in the car on the way home I am thinking about leaving. I think about Puja who I have been watching since the first day, who is, as it turns out, an orphan, about how all everyone in her life does is leave and how I want to love her so that she can feel special, but then I will go too. On the last day she'll say "No, Aunty" and it will break my heart a little. I am thinking about these heartbreakingly beautiful girls living under threat of switching for losing buttons, who are capable of so much childhood joy the way children are supposed to be and I think "I could never bring another child into this world."
Which had never been in my plan, but today I feel a great loss.