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Latika and the Flat World

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Latika doesn't tell Jamal that she's looking for work.

It's not as though he'd disapprove – it if was something she wanted. But anything Latika would want to do is years of schooling away from her, and she doesn't know if she can lie convincingly enough. And then he'd say: "Why, then? We have plenty of money."

And she would have to be the one to tell him that money runs out, even twenty million rupees, and he would give her that confused and hurt look, and then she'd feel as though she did something wrong. She already felt that way. The only arguments they ever had were in her head, but she got as upset as if they'd actually happened.

So that morning, when he smiles and leans in and asks, "What are you going to do today, Latika?" (and as always, he says her name with the utmost care, like it would shatter if spoken improperly), she stands on her toes and kisses him.

"I'll go for a walk," she says.

Jamal tells her to be careful, then leaves for work.

Latika decides to start with restaurants. After all, anyone can carry a tray of food, smile, and say "Enjoy your meal, sir," can't they? She knows she can. She's practiced.

She starts with the high-class places and works her way down to the ordinary ones, but she finds that all the responses are the same. She hides her scar under a scarf, but it hardly matters – it's as if they can see it, anyway.

"We're not hiring at the moment, but if you leave your name and contact information…" I know what you are. I don't want any trouble here. Back to square one.

At the end of the day, Latika ends up at a sad-looking place, painted entirely in the same red as the lipstick she wore when she was a teenager. The only decoration outside is a young boy standing by the side entrance, standing next to an empty jar and rubbing his bare arms even though it's a perfectly warm day today. Against her better judgment, she walks in.

The owner is younger and handsomer than she'd thought he would be, but she rather he not be. He reminds her of Maman. "Pretty girl like you," he says with a smile, "I'm sure we can find something for you to do."

She thanks him and leaves. There's not enough money on this earth to make her work there.

When she walks outside, she looks around. Without noticing it, she's ended up on the very edge of the city: just a dozen odd steps and she would be standing outside of Mumbai. To Jamal, that wouldn't be very special. But for Latika, it's standing on the edge of the world. Everything beyond the city limit might as well be a mirage.

It's not until then that she glances back and realizes that the boy standing outside the restaurant is a girl. She's cut her hair short – understandable, it's hard to manage when it gets so dirty. But it's no wonder that her jar is empty. People like children who suffer beautifully. Blind children with beautiful voices, pretty little girls in yellow dresses with crying babies. Keep her crying and you'll earn triple. Whoever sent her here didn't coach her very well.

Against her better judgment, Latika goes into the restaurant again. The Maman-lookalike smiles again. "Change your mind?"

Latika holds up her hand to stop him and snaps, "Chappathi."

"… excuse me?" The Maman-lookalike's smile falls.

"Chappathi," Latika repeats. "You have it, don't you?"

"Of course we do." He's looking distinctly sour now. "Everyone does."

"Bring me one, please," Latika says. They send her off with her bread and a much less cordial goodbye, and she walks straight to the girl and holds it out.

The girl blinks, completely thrown, and Latika smiles. "Go on. It's for you."

"I'm…" The girl ducks her head. "I'm supposed to get money."

"Of course," Latika says. "But this is just for you."


Latika leans in and drops her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You won't get in trouble," she says, "if you don't tell anyone."

The girl clutches the chappathi and scampers off – but not before Latika sees the briefest flicker of a smile light up her face. As it turns out, she's quite pretty, after all.

Before she goes home that night, Latika takes those dozen odd steps and stands outside Mumbai, just for ten seconds. Surprisingly, she doesn't fall.