“Rajji come onnnnn,” Shikha flew in dancing with excitement, “come on, let’s go, we are leaving! We will have so much fun, hoorraaaayyyyyy.”
Rajani cast her mother a pleading look but she frowned ferociously back at her and hissed, “Make up your mind Rani. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. And remember,” she said sternly, “if you go, you must be on your best behavior, I don’t want to hear any complaints whatsoever….”
“Come on Rajii, what are you thinking? Come!” Shikha took matters into her own hands and dragged her out. Rajani waved to her mother and brother and sat glumly – for about half a minute.
Shikha’s excitement was infectious and she allowed herself to be swept away in the novelty of the moment – an adventure of her own! Besides how did it matter if Bhai saw a movie or two – he deserved it and it couldn’t compare to her treat. One whole month! So many new things to see, so many new things to do – for once she would be the one regaling Bhai with stories of her own. She could just picture it – everyone at home – Mamma, Papa and Bhai – staring at her in envious opened mouth silence as she talked and talked and talked. Lost in these pleasant images, she quite forgot to be sad leaving her Mamma (or worry about her brother’s sneaky plans).
Shaking off the remnants of her ill humor, Rajani hugged herself in excitement, while Nisha shed a tear or two in the privacy of her kitchen. She missed the adorable little face, the twinkling mischievous eyes as they peered at her from the edge of the doorway. With Rajani gone, the house was as silent as a mausoleum.
But of course the SUV that made its way northwards was vibrant with chatter interspersed with unexplained bursts of giggles and squeals. Lalit and Kirti exchanged relieved smiles. Last year’s journey was still fresh in their memory, with Shikha beginning to moan before they had turned the corner and ending only when they had returned home. Well this year was going to be different, at least Shikha would be happy, sighed Kirti to herself. She smiled – well a bit different for her as well – her husband had gifted her a mobile phone. Now she wouldn’t feel quite so cut off from the world. She would be up-to-date with the happenings and nefarious going ons in her favorite television shows – thanks to her sister who had promised to brief her daily.
“We will have lunch with Biji,” Lalit said, “you know she will be waiting for us. We should be there by 3 o’clock.”
Kirti shrugged. “Fine by me. But Shikha will definitely want to stop by her favorite food joint and enjoy the rides over there.”
“When the milestone will read 34 km, then we will come to the best part of the journey,” sure enough Shikha was explaining excitedly to a wide-eyed Rajani, “merry-go-round, a piggy train ride through a long scary dark tunnel and the best chole bhature ever!”
Rajani swallowed and she slid towards Shikha’s side as they companionably scouted for and excitedly counted milestones as the car ate up miles.
There was a sudden silence in the car.
“What happened?” Kirti turned around in surprise, “oh they are fast asleep! And just look at them, don’t they look like a pair of cute bunnies huddled on top of each other?”
Lalit laughed as he looked that them through the rear-view mirror. “Let them sleep, I don’t think either of them has slept for the last couple of nights. They have been so excited!”
“Yes.” Kirti smiled. “Their joy and excitement is infectious. Even I am quite looking forward to the trip.” She looked away.
Lalit coughed and cleared his throat. “You need to lighten up and learn to ignore Biji. Just…just forgive her. She doesn’t mean half the stuff she says.”
Would you do my parents the same courtesy? Besides, why force us to stay, when you find it difficult to stay more than a couple of days? But of course the words remained unsaid for Kirti, unwilling to spoil the trip, just smiled and nodded.
“Wake up girls.” Lalit stopped the car. “Look here we are!” He shook them awake.
Reluctantly they woke up but brightened at the sight that greeted them. “Yay, we are here,” Shikha jumped down and pulled at Rajani, “come on let’s hurry. First we will go on the merry-go-around. We can’t after we eat, right Mummy?”
Kirti nodded and let them go while Lalit arranged for the tickets. The girls had a blast trying out the rides and the Suris had to try every trick in the book to drag them away. Even the long queues weren’t a big enough deterrent. Finally, the girls were lured away by the promise of ice creams – double scoops.
Ice creams in both hands, newspapers spread out on their knees, the girls daintily licked at their favorite flavors while the fields flew by. Their car turned off the main highway on to a ragged track. Shikha sat up. “Look Rajji, those are our fields! Right Papa?”
Rajani stared wide-eyed, soaking it all in. “Such big fields!” she marveled, “what is that?” she pointed to a scarecrow standing in the middle of the field.
“What?” Shikha crowded her.
“That.” Rajani pointed, “Ouch! My ice cream!”
“Oh you dropped it on my frock Rajji,” Shikha wailed.
“That will wash off, but you jostled my arm and wasted my ice cream!” Rajani grumbled right back.
“Why were you eating so slowly? Don’t you know ice creams melt? Buddhoo.” Shikha snapped.
“I was savoring my ice cream. I don’t gobble my food without tasting,” shot back Rajani loftily.
“Enough girls!” Lalit called out to them. “We are home.” The car screeched to a halt on a patch of barren land alongside his home.
“I want my ice cream…”
“Stop arguing you two. Look around you.” Lalit urged. “Isn’t it beautiful, green fields, the blue mountains in the distance, the chugging sound of the water pump…”
“Oh!” Rajani stared around in confusion. “But…”
“But what dear?” Lalit jumped out of the car and opened the rear door.
Rajani shrank back and shook her head wordlessly. She got down from the car looking about her curiously. Her brow was furrowed.
Shikha too followed her out of the car. “Shikha,” Rajani whispered (or what she thought was a whisper), “Where are the mud huts?”
“Yes,” Rajani nodded her head vigorously, “villages have mud huts. Bhai told me but here I can see,” she nodded to the house in front of them.
The others burst out laughing.
“No dear,” Kirti said kindly pulling the dupatta over her head, “in this village we don’t have any mud huts. Well, maybe a few but they are mostly used as storehouses.”
“Yes Rajani. And that two-storey house, over there, is our house,” Lalit added proudly. Come let us go and meet Biji. Look she is waving to us.” He urged them ahead and waved enthusiastically to a bunch of boys who had gathered about their car.
Rajani stumbled on behind them, she looked behind her once or twice, curious about the children – they too peeped at her, chattering amongst themselves in a language that sounded familiar yet was incomprehensible. “What are they saying?” she whispered to Shikha, who shrugged. “I don’t know. I can never understand what they say. They speak funny,” she said morosely.
Biji was upon them, but instead of stopping to greet them, she passed them and raised her stick. “Go on, go away,” she shooed the children.
“Arre Biji, let them be,” Lalit said smiling at them, “it’s ok, they are just curious.”
“Curious indeed,” said Biji grimly, “I know these rascals, at the first opportunity they will damage your car. Shoo, go away and wreck havoc elsewhere,” she shouted. She bent down to pick up a stone.
“Biji!” expostulated Lalit.
But thankfully, the children decided not to call her bluff (or perhaps they knew she wasn’t bluffing) and ran away shouting and screaming.
Biji huffed and puffed her way back to the house. She beckoned a teenaged boy who stood aloof watching them, “Go and guard that car. I will give you 2 rupees. But,” she shook her finger threateningly, “if I see one scratch on it,” she shook her head in warning.
The boy grabbed a stick and ran towards the car with a yell. He waved it threateningly at the boys who had come swarming back. He swiftly drew a square around it and sang out quite incomprehensibly – but the boys immediately drew back and slowly scattered. He raised a hand in a triumphant salute and a cocky smile at Biji and Lalit.
Biji nodded approvingly, “Come along now Lallu, you car is safe.”
Rajani chortled – Lallu – Shikha glared fiercely at her. Rajani hastily bit her lips but her nostrils flared and she clutched her stomach – Lallu.
Shikha stomped on ahead as Rajani went RALWS – rolling about laughing while standing.
“But Biji,” Lallu was saying, “2 rupees!”
“Yes and don’t you dare give him more than that – it’s better than zero isn’t it, which is what he would have got otherwise, apart from a thrashing or two for getting into some mischief or the other. Wash up and have a cup of tea and then he can get your bags from the car as well. Bahu make us all some tea. With ginger. And aloo paratha. I have kept everything ready for you,” she sniffed.
“No Biji, we had lunch on the way, tea is fine,” Lalit butt in hastily with a glance to his wife, who had stiffened at the barrage of orders before she had stepped inside the house.
“Had lunch?” Biji was taken aback. “But I have been waiting for you!”
“Kirti will make paratha for you Biji, don’t worry. The girls were hungry so we stopped on the way.”
Dadi sniffed. “Anyway, make a paratha for me, crisp with lots of ghee and make some pakoras for my son and the girls. Go on now.”
Kirti nodded stiffly and pulled at the slipping dupatta over her head. She looked around. “Where are the others?” Two older brothers of Lalit stayed with here with their respective wives and children.
“Oh,” Biji waved her hand and sank down on a wooden charpoy, “they have gone for a wedding. The village chief’s son is getting married today. It would have not looked nice if they had not gone,” Lalit nodded in understanding. “They will be back soon. I would have also gone but then who would have been here?”
“If you had told us Biji, we would have postponed our trip.” Kirti said.
“Yes, you would obviously like to do that right? And why have you brought this girl along?” she stared disapprovingly at Rajani, whose giggles instantly dried up. She slid behind Kirti.
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