Panting, they fell on Biji who was still pulling at her hookah and chatting with her Lallu. “Ehh? Hoosh,” she shooed them away like a pair of pesky flies.
“Papaa,” Shikha ran to her father while Rajani looked on a bit enviously. She sidled closer to them.
“What happened dear?” he sat down on his haunches beside her.
“Papa bhoot.” Shikha was unable to say more.
Lalit pushed her away and looked into her face. “Papa bhoot? Were you looking for Mama bhoot?” he laughed.
“Papa!” Shikha stamped her foot. “It’s not funny.”
“What? The Papa bhoot?”
“Papa!” Shikha pushed him; he leaned away and then swiftly got up only to run away. Shikha chased him, shrieking and laughing. Rajani followed them reluctantly and then ran to catch up with them.
He led them a merry dance around the swing and they had a great time playing catch-me-if-you-can. He then took them a little distance away and waved his hands. “See there? That’s our field growing moong!” He looked at them, “You know the moong dal you eat at home? It comes right from these fields. And later, once this crop has been harvested, we will sow wheat from which we make rotis.”
“But Uncle,” Rajani piped up, “we eat dal and roti together.”
Shikha frowned and looked enquiringly at her father. He scratched his beard and said “Hmm, wonder why we never thought of that?” he said even as his lips twitched.
Shikha latched on first. She giggled. “Arre Buddoo,” she gave a light push to Rajani, “we don’t eat directly from the field do we? We buy from the market right Papa?”
Rajani went a bright red. “Never mind dear,” Lalit patted her head, “it happens.”
Shikha turned back to the fields. “Bade Papa and Chote Papa look after the fields right Papa?”
“But then why don’t we stay here as well?” She hastily shook her head. “I don’t want to but still…”
Lalit Suri shook his head. “I would love to stay here and enjoy the clean fresh air and the laid back life, no traffic,” he sighed, “but we have to sell our produce and make sure we don’t get cheated of our rightful dues, so one of us has to stay in the…”
“Bhooot!” Rajani screamed and dashed off. Instantly, Shikha too ran for dear life. Lalit caught up with them easily.
“Wait! What happened? What did you see? Don’t you know there’s nothing called Bhoot?”
Shivering, Rajani clutched Shikha’s hand tightly and pointed a trembling finger.
Lalit burst out laughing. Even Shikha did. “Buddhoo.” Feeling foolish, she wrenched her hand away, which she too had been holding on to fiercely just a second ago.
“Oh that! That is a scarecrow. Shikha you know that right?”
Shikha nodded embarrassed. “Rajani scared me with her scream,” she said accusingly. “Didn’t you see one while we were coming?”
“What is a scarecrow?” Rajani asked in a small voice.
“That’s something to scare away the birds, so that they don’t destroy the crops,” Shikha said superiorly.
“Oh.” Embarrassment flooded her – gaffe after gaffe.
“It’s ok Rajani beta, you are new here, so it’s natural you don’t know,” consoled Lalit. He clicked his fingers. “I have an idea! Tomorrow, we will make a scarecrow.”
“Make a scarecrow!” Rajani brightened. She loved making things. Plus if it could be made, it wouldn’t be a Bhoot. And maybe she could redeem her idiocy.
“Rajani, your mother wants to speak to you dear,” Kirti called.
Rajani ran to the phone and the words tumbled out one after another – scarecrow, hand pump, swing tyre, bhoot….
“Okay okay,” her mother laughed, defeated, “I guess you are fine and not missing me,” she said with a touch of sadness.
“Of course I am missing you Mamma,” Rajani said, “I would have loved to show you all this and more. You know Lalit uncle has said we will make a scarecrow tomorrow! But,” she lowered her voice, “but Biji would have made you cook in the kitchen like Aunty is right now. Bhai would have liked to come here, but he has to study na? Papa…hmm,” she couldn’t quite imagine Papa here surrounded by his files and papers, “You know Mamma, Lalit uncle played catch-me-if-you-can with us,” she said in wondering tones, “But Papa never does…”
“Yes dear, your Lalit uncle is on a holiday na, if Papa was on a holiday he too would have…”
“Why don’t we go on a holiday Mamma?”
“Okay okay enough talk, this is a long distance call. It’s very expensive you know? Okay, you take care, be a good girl and don’t bother anyone. I don’t want to hear any complaints about you from anyone okay? Obey Bijiji and Aunty, don’t fight with Shikha or anyone else, eat your food, take care of your belongings, don’t mess up the place… okay okay bye.”
As Kirti had anticipated, no sooner had it become dark than the girls started yawning and squabbling. She hurriedly served them hot crisp parathas with a dollop of homemade white butter and creamy curd. The girls gobbled it all down without any protest and were soon fast asleep in Biji’s room quite oblivious to the world around them.
Morning brought fresh excitement.
“Aloo tikki and lassi for breakfast?” Rajani couldn’t believe her eyes. “Yummm.” She drooled.
Kirti smiled at her. “You can have paratha as well.”
Rajani nodded eagerly.
“What’s for lunch Mummy?” Shikha asked.
“Kadi-chawal, do you like Rajani?”
Too busy eating and mouth full, Rajani nodded happily.
“Papa, when are we going to make the scarecrow? You know Mummy, Rajani sat up with a screech when the cock crowed early in the morning!” she giggled and lowered her voice, “I wonder what she will do when she hears Biji snore?”
“I don’t snore.” Biji glared at Shikha.
“Yes Biji, sorry Biji,” Shikha parroted, having learnt the hard way the futility to trying to convince Biji otherwise.
“You know she wanted to get up then and wake you up to make the scarecrow!”
Lalit laughed. “It’s good to know that you are so keen on making a scarecrow. Come on now finish your breakfast and then collect the stuff needed to make it. Put the things outside on the verandah.”
“What all do we need?” The girls finished their food at top speed and presented themselves to Lalit, who had just begun his breakfast.
“Not so fast young ladies.” Biji spoke up. “Go and straighten up your room and then your parents’ room.”
The girls ran off and returned soon afterwards. “All done Biji.”
“Hmm.” She frowned suspiciously. “Take that broom and sweep the floor…” she slapped her thigh and went off into delighted cackles at their twin expressions of horror and disbelief. She caught herself and frowned at them. “From tomorrow. After Lallu leaves.” She waved her hands, releasing the invisible bonds.
“What material do we need Papa, what material?” They could barely contain their excitement.
Laughing and obligingly, Lalit dictated, “A couple of sticks, some rope, some hay, an earthen pot, some coal, some clothes.”
He sat down to enjoy his breakfast and washed it down with a cup of hot ginger tea while the girls scrabbled around for the desired articles.
“Papa, can I take this shirt of yours? It’s dirty now,” Shikha held up the shirt he was wearing yesterday.
Before Lalit could protest, Biji gave such a yell that Rajani ran for cover. She stood cowering behind the door. “What happened Biji?” Shikha stood her ground, although there was a distinct quaver in her voice.
“Biji!” Lalit called urgently, “let it be,” he soothed, “no harm done. He turned to Shikha. “No dear, that’s a good shirt, albeit a bit dirty. I am sure your Biji can spare an old shirt or two, right Biji?”
“Hmmph,” Biji snorted as she heaved herself to her feet, “you really spoil that girl of yours. There’s still time, mark my words, consult a doctor, have another child, a boy this time,” quite uncaring of the fact that two sharp ears were determinedly following her rant as she rummaged through a dilapidated trunk, “here,” she threw a faded darned shirt at Shikha, “or,” she turned to Lalit even as Kirti came swiftly into the room and hustled the two girls away, “get married again.”
Thankfully, the girls even though within earshot, couldn’t really follow Biji for she spoke in the regional dialect, which was in any case highly accented. As it is Kirti, had to face a number of questions. “What did Biji say Mummy?”
“Never mind dear, you shouldn’t poke your nose in adult conversation.”
“Are you okay Mummy?”
“I don’t know, you look funny and your voice is strange too, right Rajani?
Rajani looked at her critically. “Aunty looks as if she is going to cry.”
“Nonsense!” blustered Kirti, “why would I cry? Come on now let’s make the scarecrow.”
“No! We want Papa to help us.”
“Okay I am going,” Kirti turned away, “Rajani go and ask your uncle to come out and help you make the scarecrow.”
“Mummy!” Shikha piped up. “Why does Biji like boys so much Mummy? Am I not a good girl?”
“It’s nothing of the sort dear. Just that she likes both girls and boys. We have a girl, so she wants a boy. If he had a boy, she would have wanted a girl. I guess if we had one of each, your Biji would have been happy.”
“No Aunty,” Rajani butted in, “Bijis like boys better than girls. My grandmother also likes Bhai more than me. She calls him up on his birthday, but she doesn’t on mine. Why doesn’t she like me Aunty?”
“Come on girls, what are you waiting for? Let’s go and make a super scary scarecrow!” Lalit came and swept the girls away.
The girls spent a couple of happy hours shaping and painting a suitably horrifying scarecrow. Once it was done to everyone’s gory satisfaction, the sentinel was ceremoniously carried to the fields and after much debate and heated discussion placed right in the middle of a green field. Rajani was most upset – she wanted it to be put under the shade of the peepal tree.
“But beta, it wouldn’t be of any use under the tree, it would be hidden from sight and away from the fields it is meant to protect,” Lalit tried to explain.
But Rajani was on her own trip. “But it’s so hot and sunny out there! Scary crow will fall ill.”
“No he won’t.”
“Arre Buddhoo, it’s not even alive.”
But Rajani wasn’t quite convinced and wore a mutinous expression until Lalit had a brainwave. “How about if we give him a hat?”
Rajani brightened and ran back home to fashion a hat for him. Peace reigned as they surveyed their handiwork and each other with congratulatory expressions.
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