People are looking at us.
Seema’s face was at the window, ten-year-old eyes surveying the world, button nose squashed against the tinted glass.
They’re not looking at us, honey. They’re looking at the car.
Papa eased them into an empty slot between a hatchback and a minivan. When he killed the engine, the deep thrumming under her body subsided.
This car is too loud.
Papa laughed, put on his sunglasses and opened the door. She followed him out, hefting her lime green backpack on her shoulder and toppling onto the cobbled path. Papa looked at her with his lopsided smile.
You can keep the backpack in the car, you know. You don’t have to carry it everywhere.
She gave him a withering look, scrunching up her face to show that his suggestion was not welcome. He shrugged and extended his hand. She took it and they made their way past the small crowd of teenagers who were inching towards the parked car like it was an exotic creature. Seema looked over her shoulder and saw some of them taking out their phones.
They’re taking pictures, Papa.
Papa’s smile could be heard in his voice.
Let them, honey. It’s not every day that they will see a car like that.
They reached the entrance to the zoo and joined the line before the ticket booth behind an old couple who were bickering about which animal to go see first. The old man, wearing a red-checked shirt, khakis and a crumpled baseball cap, was adamant that it should be the gorilla.
They nap in the afternoon. Like people. Don’t you nap in the afternoon? If we go late, they will be hiding in the trees. We will miss them.
The old lady, wearing an oversized t-shirt and a pained expression, adjusted her glasses.
I just wanted to see the giraffe first. I have always found pictures of them pretty. I really want to see one.
He raised an arthritic hand and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder.
We will. We will just swing by King Kong first.
We are here to see the white lion cub, Seema said.
She felt Papa’s grip on her hand tighten. He was frowning without looking at her. The old couple turned around, peering down at her like they had never seen a child before.
What was that?
Seema threw a triumphant look Papa’s way.
We are here to see the white lion cub.
A white lion, you say?
A cub. A white lion cub, yeah.
This confused the old man.
I didn’t know lions were white, he told the woman. She shook her head, as bewildered as he was.
They aren’t normally white. They are dusty yellow. But that’s what makes this cub so special. There are very few white lions in the world.
The old woman tugged at her t-shirt. We must go see this cub, she told the man. He nodded.
We will. After the gorilla.
He’s just three weeks old, Seema continued. Papa thought it would be fun to come see him.
The couple turned their gaze onto Papa.
That’s sweet of you, said the woman.
You look a little familiar, said the man.
Papa smiled at them, giving a small shrug. This drew a gasp of recognition from the old man.
You’re that movie star!
I’m afraid so.
The old man’s exclamation drew the attention of the crowd around them. People standing in the queue cast curious glances their way before starting to whisper amongst themselves as they realized who they were looking at. The whispers gathered, snowballing into excited chatter that people made no effort to hide. A man pointed them out to his companion, the dirty fingernail of his index finger shining in the sunlight. A woman rummaged around in her purse, got out her phone and took a picture. The snap of the camera dislodged the restraints of civility that had been holding back the crowd. First one, then another, followed by the rest, broke ranks and started gathering around the two of them.
Her voice was meek, drowned by the babble of the crowd. Someone patted Papa on the shoulder and then turned around to declare what he had just done. Others were more ambitious. They reached for Papa’s arm for a handshake, tussling with each other to get a grip on his right hand. The ones who couldn’t were not deterred and reached for his other hand, the one that held onto Seema’s. She felt herself being eased out of Papa’s grip as the throng squeezed into the space between the two of them.
They obscured her view of him. She could hear his practiced laugh somewhere ahead of her, the one he used with his fans. She wanted to shout but her breath had been dragged out of her by the sudden press of strange bodies. The old woman, who was the only one standing still in the deluge, leaned down towards Seema, bug eyes looking at her without blinking.
Is that really your Papa?
Seema nodded, still trying to find her voice.
Papa’s voice, streaked with a note of panic she had never heard before, rose higher than that of the people surrounding him. She opened her mouth to scream and attract his attention but all that came out was a strangled sob. The tears soon followed, great crystals of them hanging from her tiny eyelashes. They blurred her vision, the crowd melting into a big amorphous mass from which Papa’s voice rang out again, louder than before.
Seema? Where’s my daughter?
The people parted before her, making the colours shift in her vision. Through her tears, she saw an outline move towards her. Two familiar thumbs pressed against her eyes and swabbed at the tears. Papa’s face materialized in front of her like an illusion but the warm fingers cradling her face were real.
The gentleness of his voice brought the tears back. He wiped them away again. She sobbed, holding onto his hands. He kissed her on the forehead, a gesture that elicited a collective cooing from the assembled crowd. They stepped forward again with their hands raised like they were going in for a communal hug. Seema felt hands, unfamiliar ones, patting her on the head and pinching her cheeks. She heard swatches of what they were saying.
…a pretty little thing.
Got scared, didn’t…
Poor babe. She’s like an angel.
She wrenched her head away from Papa’s face and was blinded by the flash of a phone camera going off a few inches away from her nose. There was a laugh and someone said she looked like a deer in the floodlights of a car. That didn’t stop them from taking more pictures, the snapping of cameras like a swarm of insects circling them. She wanted to ask Papa to pick her up but then she saw that he was wrestling with a part of the crowd himself, hungry hands intent on dragging him to themselves. She moved forward to hold onto his knees, knowing now that his hands were the limbs that the crowd would go for. If they dragged him away, at least she would go right along with him. As she moved, she felt her backpack sliding off of her. She wanted to reach back and tug at the straps but the fear of losing Papa again was too strong. The insect drone got louder and the hands rougher. She shut her eyes and screamed, her voice finally breaking through her congested chest. The scream made the crowd hesitate and Papa took advantage of the pause to crouch down and hug her. She crossed her arms behind his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. He picked her up and when he spoke, she felt the deep thrum in his chest, not unlike the car.
Okay, folks. It was great meeting you. I’m sorry we must be getting on now. Please give us some space here.
Back up, people. Back up.
These voices were new, crisp and in a hurry. Seema took a peek and saw two burly men in zoo uniforms holding their hands up and forming a protective cordon around Papa and her. From the way Papa’s cheek moved against her head, she knew that he was still smiling, his polite insistence softening the strong arm tactics of the two men. Knowing that the crowd was gone for good now, she snuggled her face back into Papa’s shoulder, breathing in his smell as deeply as she could.
When Papa finally set her down, she blinked her eyes open, swaying till her feet adjusted to the solid ground. They were inside the zoo. She could see the beginning of the pathway that led to the enclosures, giant topiaries of animals flanking it. Papa was talking to a man in a suit with a square face and short hair.
I can arrange for an escort if you so wish, sir. We would have made suitable arrangements before if we knew that you would be visiting today.
Papa waved away the man’s offer, one hand on Seema’s head.
That’s okay. I think we will be fine so long as we keep moving.
If you say so, sir. Here’s my card. Give me a ring if you need anything. It’s a privilege having you here.
The man gave the smallest of smiles before walking away, followed by the two men. Papa looked down at her, a rueful smile playing on his lips.
That was not very pleasant, was it?
I lost my backpack.
Papa looked taken aback by this revelation, looking around them like the backpack would spring out of the ground.
Someone took it from me back there.
Oh. I’m sorry, Seema.
Can we go look for it? Later maybe?
Maybe. We will get you a new one, eh? A better one. What do you say?
Her lower lip trembled and she felt her chest tightening again. Papa knelt down, removing his sunglasses.
It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.
Why were they like that?
It’s my fault. Should have planned this better. But it’s okay. We won’t be coming across those people again.
She sniffed, turning away from his beseeching eyes.
I didn’t like it when they came after us like that. I didn’t like it when they took pictures.
I know. I don’t like it either.
Can we still see the white lion cub?
Papa smiled and stood up, sliding the sunglasses back over his eyes.
Of course. Let’s go.
They started walking down the pathway. When they reached the enclosure containing the lions, Papa picked her up again and made his way to the front, muttering muted apologies to the people he was shouldering aside. They reached the fence and scanned the sparse terrain inside. It was designed to look like the native savannah landscape that the lions in the wild were used to. Tufts of yellow grass stuck out of the muddy ground. A few rocks were placed in strategic locations to provide the lions with a place to bask in the sun while also being visible to the visitors from every possible angle. On the biggest rock in the enclosure, right beside a small pond, a lioness was stretched out with her belly facing the sky. The cub gamboled around her. He was luminous, like a little ghost jumping around his mother’s tail. Seema let out a small gasp, pointing him out.
There he is, Papa.
I see him.
As they watched, the cub stopped playing and yawned, bright pink mouth in a white ball of fluff. The crowd sighed together like one big watching beast, the sound loud enough for the cub to prick his ears and take a few steps towards the fence.
Do you think he knows that everybody is here to watch him?
Papa remained silent, face inscrutable. The people around them had started taking photographs and calling the cub like one would a dog. He cocked his head this way and that, nose twitching a little before backing away towards his mother.
He’s just a baby.
I feel a little sorry for him, Papa.
So do I.
Ajay Patri is a lawyer and writer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Every Day Fiction, among others. He is currently working on his first book.
Featured image on this post © Bennett North, who is aware that it is a photo of a tiger cub, not a lion. Author photo © the author.