“Mamma,” Rajani ran inside the house, deserting her post of vigil at the gate, at least for now, “why hasn’t Papa come as yet? It’s already so dark.”
A flushed Nisha looked up from the chopping board. She wiped her face on the apron and washed her hands. “Must have some work dear. Don’t worry, he will be along soon.”
“But when? It’s so dark and scary outside. I saw a ghost hanging on the tree,” she threw her arms around her mother’s waist.
“Careful!” Nisha thrust her away. “You’ll get scalded. And why are you still outside. Go and watch some TV. Your Papa will be here soon.”
Nisha gave the pot a stir and began kneading the dough.
“But why hasn’t he come as yet? He is never this late. Mamma you come and see.” Rajani pulled her arm.
“Oho Rani, how will my going outside help? And who will do the cooking? Your ghosts?”
“Mamma,” Rajani wailed. But Mamma was neck deep in cooking. Plus Papa would be hungry when he came – but why hadn’t he come as yet? What if something had happened to him?
Rajani ran back to her post. She climbed on to the gate and peered fearfully over her shoulder at the overhanging branches. She turned away and determinedly began chanting the Hanuman chalisa.
Suryakant Ahuja changed gears and prepared to turn right. He smiled to himself. He could visualize the scene that he would be greeted with –Rani swinging on the gate. She had an uncanny sense of his return – or just that she hung around the gate till he returned. He gave a soft laugh – ah there she was – the plump cute little apple of his eye.
Rajani perked up as she caught the familiar growl of her father’s scooter. She jumped off the gate and held it open so that he could ride in without having to get off.
“Papa!” She rushed up to him, “Why are you late today? It’s past 8 pm and so dark.” She scolded him.
“Exactly my dear Rani bitiya,” he heaved the scooter on to its stand, “what are you doing outside at this time, haven’t we told you not to come out alone when it is dark?”
“I was waiting for you Papa.” she took his bag. “If you don’t want me to be outside in the dark, you should come home early.” She looked at him reproachfully. “And you know I am afraid of the dark.” She looked around fearfully. “Creepy strange shadows were leering at me.” She shuddered and crept close to her father.
Suryakant laughed and awkwardly patted her. “Then you should have gone in Rani.”
“If I had gone in, who would have opened the gate for you?” Rajani, shot back pertly as she led the way inside.
“But who will open the gate when you get married and go away?”
“I am never going to get married so I am never going to go away from home.” She paused and then looked at him, thoughtfully tapping her cheek. “Or maybe I will first install an automatic door like they had in the English movie we saw, remember?”
Suryakant burst out laughing.
Rajani stopped at the doorway and frowned at him. “Why aren’t you wearing your helmet? You know it’s not safe to drive without it? And it is against the law as well.” She wore a prim schoolteacher expression. “What if some policeman had caught you?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Suryakant indulgently pulled at her thick braid. “I know Ma’am. But I took it off just at the corner where I had stopped to buy mangoes for my little daughter,” he held up the packet.
“Mangoes!” Rajani made a grab for them. “Yummy.” She buried her nose into the packet and drooled. She looked up and frowned at him again. “Why did you buy them? Didn’t Mamma say they were very expensive?”
“Haan meri Nani, at least let me go inside will you?”
“Sorry.” Rajani was instantly contrite. She ran off inside with her baggage. She opened the fridge and carefully mixed some cold water from the fridge and some from a bottle lying outside in a glass and brought it to her father. “Oho, you haven’t even put on the fan.” She fussed. “It’s so hot, shall I put on the cooler?” She brought his slippers and tidily put away his shoes.
“How come you are so late?” Nisha popped out from the kitchen.
“There was work.”
“Why did you buy the mangoes?” Nisha was annoyed. “They are so expensive over here. I would have bought them from the wholesale market, they are so much cheaper over there.”
Suryakant drained the glass of water. “I know but then Rani loves mangoes.”
“You really spoil her.” Nisha grumbled.
“Arre,” called out Suryakant urgently, “Nisha just look at her.”
“Oho,” Nisha rushed to the corner where Rani was fiddling with the cooler trying to get it to work, “Leave that,” she snapped, “how many times have I told you not to play with that? The switch is loose, you may get an electric shock.”
“But I wasn’t playing Mamma,” said Rani earnestly, “Papa was feeling so hot so I was trying to…”
“Achcha achcha,” Nisha raised her hand, “enough talk now, let him rest, go and do your homework.”
“But I already did my homework. Bhai still hasn’t done his,” she reported in a gloating tone.
Suryakant frowned even as Nisha flashed her eyes at Rani, who wasn’t the least cowed. “It’s the truth. Bhai is still outside playing football.”
“Chatter, chatter, chatter, that’s all you do the whole day,” Nisha shot a worried look at her husband’s darkening expression. “Abhi went out just a little while ago and he is in Class X, he gets a lot of homework not one or two pages like those in Class V. Poor thing had been slogging the whole afternoon, first school, then tutors. Hey Bhagwan, I only sent him out a little while ago for a breath of fresh air.”
“But…” began Rani with a self-righteous expression.
“That’s enough Rani, go in and clean up the mess on your bed, and clear up Bhai’s room as well.”
“But…” Rani wore a mutinous expression but Nisha wasn’t having any of it.
“Mamma always scolds me but she never scolds Bhai.” With that parting shot Rani went off to do her mother’s bidding.
“She is right you know.” Suryakant waited till Rani was out of earshot. “You are always scolding Rani but where Abhi is concerned, you are blind, deaf and dumb.” Suryakant was blunt. “That boy is not serious about his studies Nisha and you make matters worse by protecting him.”
Nisha flushed but held her peace. This wasn’t the right time to defend her darling son. It was hot; Suryakant was tired and hungry. Plus her husband was right.
“Ok, ok, please wash up and come for dinner. You must be hungry.” She paused. “It’s your favorite – kadi chawal.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
“Put the mangoes into the freezer otherwise they wont be cold enough,” he called.
“I already did that,” Nisha called back. “It’s not only Rani who is fond of mangoes,” she muttered to herself.
“Mamma, I cleaned up my room and Bhai’s room as well.” There was emphasis and a strong accusatory note in Rani’s voice and face as she stood at the kitchen door.
Nisha spared a glance for her as she set about collecting the dinner things, “Why did you say that about Abhi? Do you want him to get a thrashing from your father?”
Rani scrapped at the door with her nail, “I don’t want him to get a thrashing.” She looked at her mother defiance clearly written on her face. “I only spoke the truth.”
“Yes, yes and you are Raja Harishchandra incarnate is it? Do you have any idea how much one has to study in Class X? Poor thing is always studying, after all he is just a baby; how can he be expected to study 24 hours a day?” She waved a ladle threateningly at Rajani. “I will see how much you study when you are in Class X. Now just don’t stand there. Go and lay the table.”
Rajani began collecting the plates and cutlery, “What’s for dinner Mamma?”
“Yummy!” Rajani stopped in her tracks her eyes wide. “Oh but Bhai doesn’t like kadi-chawal. What will he eat?”
“Now all of a sudden you are concerned about your Bhai huh?” Nisha said. “Don’t worry, I am making parathas for him.”
“Aloo paratha? Yumm,” Rajani drooled holding the plates in her hands. “I also want to have.”
“But you like kadi-chawal don’t you?”
Rajani nodded. “But I also like aloo paratha.”
“No Rajani, make a choice, you can’t have both.” Nisha was very firm.
“Paratha.” Rajani disappeared with her burden. She carefully laid the table, poured water into the glasses. “No!” She dashed back into the kitchen. “Kadi-chawal.”
Nisha smiled to herself as Rajani dithered and vacillated whilst oscillating between the kitchen and the dining table.
“Rani,” she called, “now go and call your brother from Ankur’s house. Don’t go out of the gate,” she cautioned. “Just stand on the big flower pot near their wall and call out from there. Tell him to hurry and that Papa is home.”
“Rani! You don’t have to let whole of Chandigarh know!” Nisha snapped. “How many times have I told you not to shout like this? You are big girl now and it is time you learnt some decorum. Tomorrow you will be married, what will your in-laws say – that my daughter has no manners?”
But of course Nisha was talking to thin air.
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