The girls grumbled and brooded endlessly amongst themselves but just couldn’t find any justifiable reason for this uncalled for apology. But Kirti wore such a forbidding expression that they didn’t dare question her further – besides, she was busy with Biji and the others. Neither of them felt brave enough to take on everybody at the same time.
Shuffling and shoving, the two mutinous yet dutiful girls landed outside the doctor’s door.
“Yes beta?” The doctor was taken aback. “Something wrong?”
They shook their heads wordlessly then shamefacedly nodded their heads.
Rajani was tongue-tied and was quite unable to speak. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Come on tell me. Don’t be afraid.” The doctor said kindly.
Shikha bit the bullet and said, “I…we are sorry,” Shikha mumbled, tears rained down her cheeks as well.
“For what?” The doctor was surprised.
“For…for saying that…that you would get the ration.”
“Oh that!” The doctor laughed and waved it away. “There was no need to apologize. Just forget it. Now come in and have breakfast with us. No, I insist, come on in otherwise both of you will get this big injections!”
Shikha squealed and made a dash for the door while a sobbing Rajani hiccupped and sniffled. She was very mystified – even the doctor had found nothing insulting in their question so what were they supposed to be apologizing for? It was so humiliating to apologize when it wasn’t their fault – she chafed at the injustice of it all.
The doctor was a jovial man (and indebted to Shikha’s father for taking his saale-sahab off his back) and made the girls feel welcome and precious – ruffled feathers had smoothed out in no time. They thirstily gulped down some cool refreshing aam panna while playing with their now married daughter’s earthen doll set before making their excuses. After all, a more important event awaited their esteemed presence.
The village boys had organized a marble playing competition and after much coaxing, Bholu Bhaiyya promised to take them along. The promised treat was especially precious because Biji had frowned upon it – she had not explicitly said no but disapproval had been clearly writ on her face when she caught the boys showing off their individual collections won over at the many a bloody battle fought on the fields of their village. Once there had even been an inter-village completion at a fair! The winners? Their village team – Chote Papa and the doctor! The boys were gratified with the stunned silence of the girls.
“What! Chote Papa and Doctor Uncle won the competition? Impossible.” Rajani found her voice first. “You boys are such liars.”
“Ask my father,” boasted a proud Chotu.
“I might just ask him,” Rajani shot back, “then don’t blame me if you get into trouble.” She sniffed superiorly.
“Go on, I dare you.” Kallu bristled. “You don’t have the guts to talk to him even.” He sneered.
“I do!” huffed Rajani.
“You do not,” the boys chorused in unison.
“You just want to get me into trouble with Biji once again,” she accused.
“Make up your mind Rajji, will we get into trouble or will you?” Golu laughed at her. “Stop making excuses.”
Rajani flared up but Shikha pulled her down. “Stop it Rajji. They are just teasing you can’t you see. Leave it.” She urged.
Rajani faltered. The boys hooted and chanted, “Coward, coward, coward.”
Rajani flushed a bright red and stamped her foot. “I am not a coward. I will show you all. And get prepared for a thrashing for when Chote Papa gets to know what big liars you are.” She ran off but faltered. They were of course bluffing but what if they got a thrashing? She didn’t want them to be punished. Not because of her. Besides they were friends now. But she couldn’t face their mocking smiles and hoots could she? She nibbled on a fingernail.
“There! I asked.” She was back and it was her turn to crow. “I am not a coward.” She sniffed her button nose up in the air.
“And?” They snickered.
“That Chote Papa won the competition with Doctor uncle.” She admitted a bit reluctantly. The boys hooted but Rajani just stuck out her tongue at them.
Just then Chote Papa entered through the main doorway.
“Hey! Wait a minute.” Golu pounced. “Now who’s the liar?” he attacked. “Chote Papa just entered the house. Liar! Liar! Liar.” They all began chanting.
“I didn’t lie!” Rajani screamed over the din. “I didn’t! I asked. I promise. I really asked.”
“Yeah right. Whom did you ask?”
“I asked Choti Ammi and I didn’t lie because I didn’t say whom I asked,” Rajani said triumphantly.
“Cheater, cheater, cheater!”
Rajani ran to attack her tormentors (including Shikha!) but they scattered here and there teasing, taunting and generally having a good time – Ganga Yamuna notwithstanding.
The marble playing competition was a grand success and in keeping with the family tradition, the Suri boys beat the other boys of the village amidst much cheering and vocal support from the girls. Lapping up their praise and adulation, the boys dug out their individual collection of marbles and showed them off.
Shikha and Rajani were awestruck by their collection – so many colors, so many sizes! One particular purple marble, the size of a lemon caught Rajani’s fancy. She looked yearningly at it, she couldn’t bear to put it back in the box – it felt just right in her palm; smooth shiny and cool as it lay blinking and winking at her. When she held it up to the sun, the colors changed and it looked deeper and mysterious like the planets, “Just like Pluto. I think you should call it the Pluto marble,” she suggested to its rightful owner Bholu Bhaiyya who had won it from a classmate last year. If she couldn’t have it, perhaps she could have the satisfaction of naming it. “It’s the best marble ever.”
“Oh that’s nothing,” scoffed Kallu, “have you seen this one? He held up a marble from his collection.
“Oh,” gasped Rajani clapping a hand to her mouth. Now this she could kill for – hues of blue broken by streaks of red and yellow dotted with tiny colorless bubbles. She simply couldn’t tear her eyes away. She had to own it, possess it. Inexplicably, she had an almost irresistible urge to put it into her mouth and swallow it. “Oh can you give it to me?” The words tumbled out of their own accord. “Please!”
“Give it you?” deep scorn laced Kallu’s voice. “Why on earth would I do that?”
A blush of shame stained Rajani’s cheeks. Yet a desperate urge to possess seized Rajani. “Please let me have it. Please.” Worried that he might think she was begging, she bit the bullet and said, “You can have my best doll in exchange.”
All the boys fell about laughing. “Kallu is going to play with dolls!” they jeered and taunted the hapless Kallu who went red with rage. “Are you crazy! A stupid doll for this marble?”
Tears sprang to Rajani’s eyes. “M…my doll isn’t stupid. It’s the best doll ever, she can even speak.”
“Pffttt.” Kallu made a rude sound. “That’s what girls and dolls are good for – talking. Do you know that this is the best marble in the whole of our village,” he boasted, “I won it from my classmate. You can only have it if you can win it from me.”
“Fine,” seething from rejection and goaded by the need to possess the marble at all costs Rajani shot back without thinking, “I will win the marble from you.”
Pandemonium met Rajani’s foolhardy declaration. “Rajjii! What’s wrong with you?” hissed an embarrassed Shikha, “Do you even know how to play marbles?”
“I…I will win the marble after I learn how to play marbles,” Rajani hastily amended her declaration. “Bholu Bhaiyya will you teach me how to play marbles?”
Bholu rubbed his hands in glee – he anticipated a lot of fun. Teaching Rajani to play marbles was sure to provide entertainment to one and all. Besides, if by some miracle she did win, his marble would be the best one and that Kallu would get his just deserts – he really needed to be taken down a peg or two.
“Sure. Come let me show you the ropes.” He picked up a few marbles. “Shush,” he warned the hooting boys, “all of you were born knowing how to play marbles or what?” That shut them up – for a minute or two.
The children spent a vastly entertaining afternoon huddled in the shaded corner of their yard – even Shikha joined the fun and there were two groups. One taught Rajani while the other taught Shikha. Bholu and Happy had generously donated two marbles to each of the girls to practice their skills. All was going well and who knows Rajani may just have won her coveted marble from Kallu but for Biji.
Biji emerged from her afternoon nap and went over to investigate. But of course she blew her top. The boys vanished from the scene in the blink of an eye while the girls bore the brunt of her ire. “Girls playing marbles! Hey Bhagwan what is this world coming to! Just look at you two. Completely covered in dust from head to toe. Are you girls or boys? Go and wash up right this minute and if I catch either of you playing marbles again, you will get the thrashing of your life,” she glared at them, “both of you,” she clarified her eyes boring into Rajani who was dumbstruck with terror.
Kirti came running. “What happened Biji?” She successfully deflected Biji’s ire.
“All your fault Bahu,” she snapped, “can’t you manage even two girls? And if you can’t, why did you bring this girl? Nothing but trouble.”
That was the unkindest cut of all. And worse, this time, Rajani followed every word.
Rajani burst into heartrending sobs. “Mammaaa,” she wailed, “Mammaa, I want my Mamma. I want to go home now,” she bawled and bawled and was quite inconsolable.
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