Nobody seemed to want Akhil around. Dadi had just shooed him out of the kitchen, and now Mummy wanted him out of the way of her cleaning. Everybody was busy getting ready for Diwali.
"I wish there was something I could do," moped Akhil.
"I will tell you what, Akhil, why don't you do the rangoli this year?"
Akhil's face lit up. "Oh! Mummy, can I? But," he continued doubtfully, "I have never done it before."
"There is always a first time," encouraged his mother.
"Besides, you have seen me do it so many times, I am sure you will be able to do it."
"What design shall I make?" wondered Akhil.
"Make whatever you like, Akhil," urged his mother, getting a bit impatient with him. She wanted to get on with her work.
Akhil chose the same spot where his mother drew the rangoli every year, right at the front door. Just above, hung a picture of Gandhiji. Akhil somehow liked the picture.
The smile on Bapuji's face reminded him of his own Bapuji, his Mummy's father. He settled down with the steel tray full of little packets of different colours. He loved dipping his fingers into the colours and seeing them come out covered with pink, blue and purple powders. He sat on the floor, thinking of what to make.. .a lamp! Yes, that would be the most appropriate design for Diwali! He began tracing the outline on the floor.
"Can I help you?" asked a small voice.
Akhil looked up. Mumtaz, the girl who lived next door, was standing in the doorway. He hesitated as he did not know her very well. She and her mother had come to the building just a month ago. They kept mostly to themselves.
Before Akhil could answer, Mumtaz sat down and began dipping her fingers into the powders.
"I like doing that too," said Akhil. "Come, you make your design that side. I am making a lamp here." Mumtaz nodded.
Both the children worked in silence for some time.
"Where is your father?" Akhil asked, as he filled the outline of the flame with orange powder.
"He was killed in the Bombay riots," replied Mumtaz without lifting her head. Her deft fingers were trickling green colour on the floor.
Akhil felt embarrassed and sorry he had asked. He did not know what to say. Finally, he asked, "What are riots?"
"When people who hate each other kill one another," answered Mumtaz, in a very grown-up voice.
Akhil was puzzled. "Why should people hate each other?" he asked.
"Because they are different," replied Mumtaz.
"Well, everyone is different," argued Akhil. "Tall, short, fat, thin...how can everyone be the same?"
"Ammi says it is because we are Muslims," said Mumtaz.
"I don't hate you, I like you," said Akhil.
Mumtaz did not say anything. She just peeped at him through her eyelashes and smiled shyly at him.
"There! how does that look?" she asked, dusting the purple colour off her fingers.
"It is beautiful!" exclaimed Akhil, admiring the design.
Mumtaz had made a castle with domes.
"It is Alladin's castle," she said.
"And what does this mean?" asked Akhil, pointing to something she had written under the castle.
"This means Diwali Mubarak (Happy Diwali). I have written in Urdu," she explained.
They were so absorbed in what they were doing, they did not hear Mumtaz's mother come out of her flat to look for Mumtaz. Seeing Mumtaz busy with the colours, she scolded her, "Mumtaz, don't meddle with his rangoli!"
"She is not meddling, aunty, in fact, she is helping me," Akhil explained.
"Let her be, they are enjoying it," said Akhil's mother, who had come out upon hearing voices.
"You are sure you don't mind?" asked Mumtaz's mother.
"She...she has written in Urdu..."
"And he has made a lamp," smiled Akhil's mother.
"What better way is there to show that festivals are for coming together?"
"There, we have finished," said Akhil. "Do you like it, Mummy?"
"Of course, Akhil!" assured his mother, drawing him and Mumtaz close, "I could never have made such a beautiful and colourful rangoli."
She smiled at Mumtaz's mother who smiled back. "See, Akhil, even Bapuji likes it!"
And indeed Gandhiji's smile did seem a bit wider as he looked down at the rangoli from the wall.