“Shikha can we go see the dairy today? I want to see Muniya.”
“Don’t be silly Rajii. The buffaloes are scary monsters. That’s why the milk tastes so awful. I don’t know why Mummy insists we drink milk.”
Rajani frowned. “You are just saying that because you don’t want me to see her,” she accused.
Shikha was hurt. “Why would I do that? I swear that is a ghastly place. I hate that place. It smells awful and is very yucky too.”
But Rajani was hell bent. “Fine.” she crossed her arms and huffed. “I will go back to Chandigarh with Lalit Uncle tomorrow morning,” she used the ace of trumps.
Shikha was stumped. She had no choice but to give in. She couldn’t afford to risk upsetting Rajani, at least not while her father was here. Once he left, the situation would be different, she gloated silently. Then Rajani would be stuck with her, she thought gleefully. Gracefully, she admitted defeat.
“Papa can we go and see Muniya?” Shikha said. “Rajji wants to see,” she added hastily at her father’s look of surprise. Lalit was only too happy to do the honors. But Shikha insisted on waiting outside. And she didn’t have to wait long.
Rajani walked inside the buffalo enclosure wide-eyed. She had never seen a buffalo, that too so many, from such close quarters. “This is Muniya our favorite,” Lalit affectionately rubbed her nose.
Rajani clutched Lalit’s other hand tightly as she stared at the black monster. It stared beadily back at her and without any warning, belted out a massive bellow. Rajani had barely recovered when another buffalo swished its tail right in her face.
Rajani promptly turned tail and ran out at top speed shrieking in petrified disgust and horror.
A highly gratified and amused Shikha stopped her, “What happened Rajji?” she asked innocently.
Rajani shuddered quite out of breath.
“Papa, take Rajji again please, she hasn’t seen everything properly.” Shikha was enjoying herself.
“No!” Rajani shook off Shikha’s hand and ran off, terrified that she would be forced to go inside again. Shikha ran to extract her pound of flesh. “Rajji,” she panted as she caught up with her, “you have to go back inside,” Rajani shook her head, “or say sorry while doing sit ups holding your ears.”
“No! Why should I?”
“You didn’t believe me when I said you wouldn’t like it. And now you insulted Papa’s favorite place in the whole village.” Shikha crossed her arms. “Now either go back or do as I said.”
It was of course a no-brainer. Rajani promptly held her ears and sit quick sit ups chanting, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, okay?”
“Hmm.” Shikha looked like the cat that had licked a plateful of cream. “Okay now come on I will show you something nice.” She pulled Rajani by the hand and ran towards an as yet unexplored part of the village.
“Shikha!” Lalit called. “Where are you going?”
“I am right here Papa. Don’t worry I wont go far. I just want to show Rajji the well.”
“Okay but don’t go too close to it.” He cautioned.
Shikha nodded and dragged Rajani alone. “There! See it?”
“Uff Buddhoo, that’s a well! Don’t you know what a well is?” Forgetting her father’s strictures, she said, “Come let’s go near…”
“Heyyy!” A warning shout pulled them up short. They turned around guiltily. It was an old lady, clearly a local woman – she waved her hands and went off into a voluble rapid-fire rant.
Shikha denied all charges by gesticulating equally wildly. The lady calmed down. She smiled knowingly. She came up and held them both firmly by their arms and helped them peer over the side of the well. After an all too brief look-in, the woman let them off with another tongue-lashing accompanied by gestures which made it very clear that if she caught either of them anywhere near the well, she would thrash them and possibly cut them into pieces.
Suitably chastened, they dashed off to a safe distance and watched as some other women came over and crowded around the well pulling at a rope attached to a contraption.
“What are they doing?” Rajani asked in a whisper.
“They are pulling out water from the well,” Shikha said knowledgeably, “they don’t have taps or hand pumps at their homes.”
“Can we also pull out water like that?” Rajani asked enviously.
Shikha pursed her lips. She looked around. “Come.” She waved to Rajani to hurry. Rajani didn’t move. “What if that Taiji catches us again?” she objected.
“Arre buddhoo, she’s gone, didn’t you see?” she whispered, “come on now, maybe these Chachis will allow us to help them if we asked nicely.”
The women were busy drawing buckets of water some had begun washing while a couple were still chattering.
“Namaste Chachiji,” instinctively the girls chose to address the youngest female in the bunch of women by the well.
Instantly all eyes were upon them; a tongue-tied Shikha nudged Rajani. Rajani flushed a bright red but she stood her ground. The lure of the well was too much. “That,” she pointed to the bucket tied with a thick rope.
They burst out laughing and blabbering amongst themselves. Try hard as they did, they couldn’t understand a word – but of course they were mocking them that much was clear.
Embarrassed, they turned to leave. The oldest among them shushed them sternly and gave a curt order. One of the women beckoned them holding out the bucket. All smiles, they rushed forward to grab it but the woman stopped them and made them watch as she expertly dropped the bucket into the well and then drew out the filled bucket. Rajani was goggle-eyed and clamored to be allowed to do it.
Laughing the women allowed them to try. They could barely hold up the empty bucket! Finally with a bit of help they heaved it over the well and leaned over as if determined to accompany it. Two women held on to them while they watched in fascination as the bucket bumped and clanged its way down – Plop. There was a faint splash. They looked victoriously at each other. They scrambled to pull the rope and again they managed only because one of the kind indulgent souls took pity on them. When the bucket arrived and was placed in front of them, they stared at it with so much pride it appeared as if they had created the water! They were keen to undertake many more such creations and willingly offered their services – in fact demanded that they be allowed to ‘help’ them draw water but they were firmly shooed away. No matter how much they wanted, the women couldn’t afford to indulge the girls anymore – after all they were on a deadline.
The girls hung around watching them wash clothes with swift brisk movements of such practiced ease that it seemed like a well-choreographed and synchronized dance.
“Let’s go home and wash our own clothes by the hand pump,” Shikha suggested.
“Yes! Let’s do that!” Rajani too couldn’t wait to try it out. “Come let’s go,” she urged.
“First let us play on the swing,” said Shikha.
“No first let us wash clothes. We already played on the swings.”
“Arre Buddhoo, once all wedding festivities are over, all the children of the village will be all over the swing, then you wont get a chance to…”
“Me first!” Rajani needed no further prodding and ran off as fast as she could.
“Hey not fair! It was my idea. My village. My swing.”
“But I sat first!” Rajani said triumphantly, “come on now push me.”
Reluctantly and accompanied by a lot of grumbling, Shikha gave her a perfunctory push or two, “Now my turn.”
“What! So quickly? Not fair.”
“As if you are fair.” Shikha said sulkily. “I am going home to wash clothes.” She turned away.
“Wait. I am coming too.” Rajani scrambled down from the makeshift swing.
Instantly, Shikha dashed back and occupied it while Rajani watched open-mouthed.
Shikha went into gales of laughter. “Buddhoo, Budhoo, Budhoo,” she chanted gleefully. “Come on now your turn to push.”
Rajani turned and walked away without saying anything.
“Rajjiiii, no cheating, your turn to push me,” Shikha called but Rajani ignored her.
She continued walking. She half turned to look back at Shikha’s reaction and shrieked, “Bhoot Bhoot, Bhoot,” and rushed off.
Petrified, Shikha hurriedly slid down from the swing and ran off behind Rajani screaming, “Wait for me, wait for me Rajani, don’t let the bhoot eat me up, wait for me!”
Rajani stopped by their gate panting as she waited for Shikha to catch up. “Budhoo Budhoo, Budhoo,” she clapped her hands and chanted gleefully.
“Just you wait,” Shikha charged at her but Rajani ran off squealing, “Aunty, help, help, see what Shikha is doing to me, Aunty help.”
“What happened?” Kirti came running out. Even Biji sat up. “Look at Shikha, Aunty. She is attacking me.”
“Mummy look at Rajji, she is a cheater, first she cheated me out of the swing then she lied about the bhoot…”
“No you cheated me on the swing, you didn’t even give me a proper push…
“You didn’t push me at all…”
“Okay okay enough!” Kirti shushed them both. “Come inside and wash up. It’s too hot to play outside in any case. In just a little while I will serve you lunch. I think you must be hungry. How about some cool lassi?”
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