“Yes Biji.” Kirti smiled and drew Rajani out. “You know her right? Rajani, Shikha’s best friend.” She patted Rajani reassuringly who was clutching her kurta, “A very good girl. Shikha gets very bored over here so this year we thought of getting her along.” She looked at Lalit questioningly didn’t you inform your mother? But Lalit, suddenly very interested in his camera, was conveniently oblivious to the ongoing conversation.
Biji frowned. “Now that she has come, she may as well stay I suppose,” she said ungraciously.
Rajani stiffened – if she wasn’t welcome here, she didnt want to stay here either. “Aunty.” she tugged Kirti’s kurta but Biji was still speaking. “Why does Shikha get bored here that she needs a town girl to entertain her? How will she open up with her cousins, if she is busy with her own friend? Or do you think us below your daughter’s standards?” Biji lashed out.
“No, no Biji, please don’t misunderstand. Shikha is a bit reserved while Rajani is more open and friendly. She will help bridge the gap, please trust me on this.” Kirti tried to smooth her mother-in-laws ruffled feathers.
Biji sniffed. “I am hungry, even if you all aren’t.”
Kirti hurried to the kitchen.
“Girls you can wash up over there.” Biji waved to a hand pump.
Rajani stared. “What’s that?” she whispered. She had been severely hurt by Biji’s thoughtless comments regarding her and made her wish she could return home this very instant. But then Kirti’s words were balm to her wounded ego and she vowed to show Biji how good she was by making sure Shikha became fast friends with her cousins. But, her heart sank a bit, what if in the process Shikha forgot her?
“Oh that?” Shikha dragged her to the hand pump. “It’s a tap. A big tap.”
“Yes. See this handle? If you push it up and down, you get water.” Shikha pulled at the handle but was unsuccessful in putting adequate pressure.
“Let me do it.” Lalit hurried over.
“No Papa, I want to do it.” Shikha tried again but in vain.
“Maybe both of you can do it together?” He suggested.
And it worked.
The girls, especially Rajani stared in delight at the apparent magic they had wrecked – a thick column of water came gushing out. “Hurry, hurry and wash your hands,” Shikha used to the workings of the hand pump rushed to catch the water before it went down the drain.
“Put a bucket underneath.” Lalit said.
“No Papa, I want to use it like a tap,” Shikha panted as they pumped and ran out to catch the water.
He laughed. “Okay first let me wash up.” He allowed the girls to crank the handle while he washed up.
“Okay now your turn.” He took the handle from them and pushed them forward. “See even I needed help, now go on, isn’t the water refreshingly cool?”
Squealing, the girls washed their hands and face. Feeling adventurous, Rajani took off her shoes and splashed about in the water until Biji called out. “You’ll catch a cold, girl, you aren’t used to the cold water, get away from there, come on.”
Scared, she hurriedly backed off and the girls ran off behind Lalit who was going to the car to fetch their luggage.
By the time they came back, Kirti had served tea. The girls weren’t too keen on tea but they demolished the pakoras.
“See! They were hungry.” Biji noted with satisfaction, “Make some parathas for them as well,” she ordered, “even Lallu will have, wont you beta?”
“No Ma, I wont thanks, maybe the girls?” he looked apologetically at Kirti. She shook her head. “No, I would rather give them milk, if there is?” she looked at Biji. “Best if I gave them an early dinner otherwise they will fall asleep without eating anything. And if they eat parathas now…”
“Milk? Of course there is milk,” Biji bristled, “there is no dearth of milk and dairy products in our village, that too absolutely fresh from our own personal dairy.”
“Yes, yes of course Biji, what I meant was, at home, ready to serve,” she clarified in an attempt to soothe ruffled feathers.
“Hmmph.” Biji snorted and pulled at the hookah lying by her side.
Rajani’s eyes nearly popped out. “What is Biji doing?”
“That is the villager’s cigarette,” Shikha informed knowledgeably in a loud whisper.
“Oh Biji smokes?” Rajani stared fascinated as she leaned on a pillow and rested on hand on a bent knee pulling at the hookah, the gurgling sound. She drank it all in with her big wide eyes. She had no time to miss home or fret over her unwanted status.
“Come let us go and play on the swing,” Shikha had to pull her away.
“Where?” Rajani looked around.
“Oho buddhoo here, look,” she pointed to a big tree.
“There’s no swing there,” Rajani protested.
Shikha laughed and ran to a tyre hanging from the tree. She reached up and expertly pulled herself up and slid into the tyre while Rajani watched open-mouthed.
“Come on now, give me a push. Come on.”
Rajani roused herself and ran to push her. “What a crazy swing!” she laughed. “I have never seen anything like it.”
“My grandfather made it for Papa,” Shikha said.
“Where’s your grandfather?” Rajani looked around curiously as if expecting him to pop up from behind the tree.
“Grandfather died.” Shikha said rather unconcernedly.
“Shikha!” Kirti was upon them bearing two glasses of milk, “is this any way to speak of elders, especially of one who is no more?” She scolded her. She frowned at them. “Now come on drink up your milk, quickly. I have lots of work.”
Shikha wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like milk, especially plain milk.”
“I know. I didn’t have time to unpack the Bournvita, now drink it up quickly, otherwise Biji will feel bad that you didn’t drink milk from her favorite buffalo Muniya.”
“Muniya!” Rajani exclaimed, “This milk is from Muniya?”
“Yes, you can meet her, but tomorrow.” Kirti smiled and shook her head, “Right now Madame Muniya is ready for her nightly scrub and bed. After dinner of course. Come on now hurry up.”
Rajani needed no further persuasion although Shikha put up some resistance. But she was no match for her mother’s persistence.
“Shikha, can I sit on the swing now?”
“Yes come on up you go.” Shikha helped her and it took quite a number of tries before Rajani managed to haul herself up and into the swing – mostly because she was giggling so much.
Initially a bit scared, Rajani soon began to enjoy the swing’s gentle pace. “Shikha how did your grandfather die,” she bit her tongue – she suddenly remembered Kirti’s strictures. “I mean,” she hastily added, “how did your grandfather,” she hunted for a suitable respectful alternative to ‘die’ but being unsuccessful, she settled for acting it out like they showed in the few movies she had seen on television – shaking her head violently from side to side followed by an abrupt stop with her tongue hanging out from one side.
Shikha saw nothing odd in these proceedings and replied in the same vein. “I don’t really know. He was not well and then one day he just,” she copied Rajani’s actions of head roll and tongue act.
Rajani nodded in understanding. “I wonder why people ‘head roll and tongue act’ and where do they go after they ‘head roll and tongue act’?”
Shikha shrugged unconcerned.
“I think,” Rajani said, having given the matter some thought, “they go to another doctor, who is far away and there is a very big queue, that is why…”
“How is that possible? The body stays right here doesn’t it? And after people di…I mean ‘head roll and tongue act’ the bodies are burnt?”
Rajani eyes widened and she twisted to look at Shikha, “Burnt?” she whispered horrified, “but why?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what happens. My cousin, Bholu bhaiyya who went with grandfather after he head roll and tongue act saw it with his own eyes.”
“Haww, poor Grandfather,” Rajani was in tears, “burning must have pained him so much.”
“Arre buddhoo,” Shikha clapped a hand to her head, “when people head roll and tongue act they don’t feel any pain.”
“How do you know?”
“I know because that’s what happens when people are die.” Shikha bit her tongue and looked around guiltily. “Bholu bhaiyya said so,” clinching the argument.
“But why burn them?” wailed an unconvinced Rajani.
“Because,” Shikha lowered her voice and looked around fearfully, “if you don’t, they become ghosts.”
“Bhoo…oot?” Rajani quavered as she hastily slipped from the tyre and clutched hold of Shikha.
A gust of wind blew, the tyre spun crazily, the leaves rustled and one fell on Rajani’s head. “Bhoooootttt,” the girls ran for their lives.
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