‘Hey, Lady! Is the snow wet?’ A small, high pitched voice trilled close by.
It was my day off from work and I had decided to visit the Nezu Museum. Before I could enter the building, a minor magic had happened – spring snow had begun falling. Small flakes came drifting down to rest in the open faces of camelias and peonies and hung like bits of feathers on cherry trees studded with tiny, tightly closed buds. It was difficult to imagine that the bare black branches would soon be laden with white and pink, silk-crepe flowers. I looked down at the two-toned pink umbrella blooming next to me at knee-height. It was decorated with a cartoon cat motif that was popular right then – shaped like a sugar-loaf and white like sugar too, large-eyed and mouthless, with a prim bow over one ear. Most girls in the international school I taught English at, had bags or jackets adorned with it. ‘Why don’t you hold out your hand and see?’ I said.
The umbrella shook vigourously. ‘No, no, I don’t want my mitt to get wet.’
The mitten on the little hand holding the umbrella had the same cat design. ‘Ok, then how about you look at me and decide for yourself whether the snow is wet?’ I said, ‘I have been out here in the garden ever since it began to snow.’
A round, dark- haired little face peeped out from under the umbrella. She fixed her eyes at me. The pink shade cast by the umbrella trembled on her cheeks like water-shadows. ‘You are not wet.’ She announced after examining me, ‘but your hair looks funny.’ The damp air had brought out waves in my loose hair. She touched her straight fringe with a cherry blossom finger and continued to gaze earnestly at me. ‘Do you live in Tokyo?’
‘Yes,’ I smiled.
‘Do you like living here?’
This was a difficult question to answer. It involved figuring out whether I missed everyone and everything I had left behind, whether I thought trading it all for a lonely freedom had been worthwhile, a question I looked away from every day as I boarded the train to work, anxiously scanning the flashing station-names so as not to miss my stop and every evening returned to my tiny apartment, carrying a pint of milk and an apple in a brown paper bag for my breakfast. ‘There’s lots to see in Tokyo.’ I answered.
She rounded her mouth and sucked in her cheeks. ‘I rode on a train, mommy and daddy and Rio and me, all of us. I ate two mochis, one pink, one white. I liked the one with the powder on the outside the best.’
‘I like those too. I also like the ones filled with sweet red bean paste.’
Her gaze relaxed. ‘I was good on the train so mommy got me this umbrella and the mitts. I like Hello Kitty but Daddy doesn’t like her. He said he didn’t bring us to Japan to buy cheap trash and Mommy shouldn’t have bought the umbrella.’ She widened her eyes, ‘but this umbrella is not cheap, Mommy gave so many Yen coins for it, more than the mochi but Daddy says Mochi is my Heritage. He says I am lucky to have Heritage, he never had any, he was always just plain old American.’ I followed her glance to the glass fronted lobby of the museum. A man and a woman sat at one of the low, round tables, a pram by their side. The man, small, fine-limbed, had the museum’s catalogue and a thick guidebook open on his knee and was reading intently. Wispy, ash-blonde hair fell over his high forehead and hollow temples. The woman, dark-haired and smooth-complexioned like the little girl, was sitting upright. She bowed politely as our eyes met. ‘You know there are only funny old cups and boxes inside and things to hang on the walls. There are no games or anything.’ She said, her small mouth beginning to form a pout. ‘Daddy says we must see everything because we are going to another place soon to see the cherry flowers.’ Her pout became pronounced. ‘I don’t want to see old boxes, I want to go to Disneyland. Sally’s going to Disneyland for the holidays. She will see Elsa and Olaf and sit in a tea cup that goes round and round. Her Mommy has promised to let her eat as many popsicles and candy-floss as she wants.’
‘But you saw spring-snow falling in the camelias and the plum blossoms today and ate mochi. Sally won’t see all this in Disneyland.’
Her gaze became cautious again. ‘But the snow is not falling any longer. And I ate mochi long ago, at the train-station.’
Snow had indeed stopped falling. The air glittered with points of light as ice-crystals spiralled and fell. Swallows had emerged from under the eaves of a pavilion in the tiered garden. We stood watching as they swooped and turned and rose like so many small boomerangs, their wings flashing a deep blue.
‘What funny birds!’ She commented. ‘Why don’t they sit on a branch and sing and then people will give them nice things to eat!’
‘These are swallows, they don’t need anyone to give them food. They catch their own food and they sing to please themselves, not anyone else.’
She pulled off her mitten and put her finger into her mouth. Her eyes followed the swallows. ‘I like to sing.’
I smiled. ‘And do you like to fly?’
She continued sucking her finger and spoke in bursts. ‘We sat in an airplane to come to Japan. I saw clouds but no birds and the nice lady on the plane gave me an extra ice cream but Rio cried so much and Daddy scolded Mummy all the time.’
‘Oh, that couldn’t have been nice. But flying like a swallow must feel different from flying in an airplane, wouldn’t it?’
She nodded doubtfully. ‘We have birds back home, not like these, different ones. And lots of crows. I have a new swing-set and Mommy lets me camp in the yard with Sally.’ She took her finger out of her mouth and examined it. Its tip was quite wrinkled. She leaned towards me. Her hair swung against her round cheeks. ‘I don’t want Daddy to call me Yoko-chan. Everyone laughs at me at school. They call me Yoko-loco. Mommy doesn’t want to go to Osaka. She says she doesn’t know anyone there anymore.’ She squeezed the tip of her finger and put it in her mouth again. Her lips rounded and her cheeks worked. ‘I don’t want Heritage.’ She said, finger still tucked in the corner of her mouth. ‘Mommy doesn’t want it either. She said so. She said she’d give all the Heritage in the world if only Rio would sleep. And it is really hers, not Daddy’s, she lived in Osaka when she was little, not Daddy.’ She looked at me gravely. ‘Heritage is really just old things and weird places. Sometimes it is also things you can eat but mostly it is just things you see. It is not fun like camping or Disneyland or anything,’
The sky was opening up. There were patches of blue here and there and the wind was sharp and cold. The man stepped out of the museum’s lobby. The woman followed, pushing the pram before her. ‘Come on, Yoko-chan, let’s go.’ He called out. The little girl hastily took her finger out of her mouth and slipped her mitten back on. She looked at me solemnly. ‘When I am big, I will run away and change my name and no one will know I have Heritage.’ She took off towards the man and woman walking in single file. I watched her cross the garden and pass under the old weeping cherry by the gate. A late flake of snow drifted down upon her from the old weeping cherry tree. It brushed her dark head gently and settled into the collar of her jacket. There it lay, white and fragile like a cherry flower.
Anukrti Upadhyay writes fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. A collection of Hindi short stories, titled Japani Sarai, and a short novel, titled Neena Aunty, have been published by Rajpal and Sons. Three books in English, two short novels, Daura and Bhaunri, and one novel, Kintsugi, have been published by HarperCollins under their prestigious literary imprint, Fourth Estate. A volume of short stories in English will be published by HarperCollins in July 2021. Short stories in both and English and Hindi have appeared in prestigious literary journals.
Anukrti has previously worked for Goldman Sachs and UBS in Hong Kong and India. Currently she is working with Wildlife Conservation Trust, a conservation think-tank. She is an Indian national, and divides her time between Bombay and Singapore. She has post-graduate degrees in Literature and Management, and a graduate degree in Law. She also wrote a doctoral thesis on human relationships in post-modern Hindi stories in a past life.