“Mummy look!” Shikha called. But of course she wasn’t there. “Mummy?” She looked up from the inspection of their stone collection. “Where’s Mummy?” she started but Ramu blocked her way.
“Wait here,” he said brusquely, “she will soon be back.”
“But where is she?” Shikha made a dash.
“That we don’t know. All we know that you children are not supposed to move from here.” Ramu barred her way while Birju banged his stick and twirled his substantial mustache for good measure. With his pan stained lips and red tilak on his forehead, he looked pretty much like the dacoits of Hindi movies who infested the Chambal valley.
“Shikha don’t!” Rajani tugged her arm from behind Shikha, “he will eat us up.”
“Yes!” Happy whispered in her ear, making her jump. “He especially likes little girls and that too plump little girls. Right Birju kaka?”
Birju smiled menacingly, his blood shot eyes protruding from thick bushy brows. Rajani whimpered and hid behind Biji’s chair. A burst of laughter – Birju the loudest waking up Biji.
“Eh? What happened?” She looked around a bit dazed.
Birju slunk away
“Nothing Biji, nothing,” Ramu kaka soothed her. “Just the children having some fun.” Satisfied, Biji closed her eyes and succumbed to sleep – after all she too was human and had dug into the kadi-chawal like there was no tomorrow.
Rajani emerged a from behind Biji’s chair, her legs all shaky and heart thudding. What if Biji had caught her there? Suppose she had gotten angry and left her here? “Where’s your mother?” Rajani whispered to Shikha.
“Shh! Birju kaka said she would come soon, but I can’t see her…”
“Why isn’t our bus coming Ramu kaka?” Happy was getting antsy.
“It’s not time yet probably. Don’t worry,” was the bracing answer, “play some game-shame, in the meanwhile.”
The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm but consensus was difficult to arrive at. Especially, because the girls wanted to play stapu or hopscotch but this didn’t find favor with the boys. They were more interested in hide-and-seek, which the girls did agree to but then their guardians put a spoke in those wheels.
“Whatever you play has to be within this patch,” Ramu kaka clearly demarcated the area, “if anyone steps outside, he or she will not only be disqualified but complaint will also be lodged once Biji wakes up.”
They looked at each other in dismay. Now what?
“I know!” Chotu piped up. “Let’s play oonch-neech!”
“What’s that?” the girls were all at sea.
“See it’s pretty simple,” explained Kallu, “there is a catcher. For instance me – now I will call out either oonch or neech. Whatever I call out will be mine and the rest will have to run to a place which is other than what I called.”
“Like if I say neech, then the entire ground is mine.”
“So where will we go?”
“You are free to go on anything that is oonch, like that stone, or that branch, anything that is not the ground. And whoever doesn’t manage to do so is out and becomes the next catcher. Unless the catcher cannot catch him before he finds a suitable high place. Understand?”
The girls nodded, albeit doubtfully. It did seem interesting and worth a try.
“Come on, we will give you two free chances since you don’t know the game rules okay?” The boys were feeling generous. Besides, time was precious.
“Okay ready?” Kallu asked while everyone took positions. “One, two, oonch!”
Rajani promptly leaped on to a convenient rock.
“Oh no!” they moaned collectively (Ramu and Birju included). She came down a bit shame-facedly.
“I am sorry. I understand now. Opposite of what he asks!”
“Okay ready? One two oonch!”
This time nobody moved. Though Rajani did twitch rather dangerously for a moment or two before controlling herself.
Kallu was most pleased. Now they could get on with the game.
“One two neech!”
The children ran helter skelter. Rajani and Shikha shared the rock, while Bholu swung from a branch; Golu balanced precariously on a stone but the best was Chotu. He jumped into Ramu kaka’s arms. Happy ran around searching for something to step on to but was caught after a short chase. Cheers and jeers rang out loud and clear.
Happy was the next catcher. Rather foolishly he asked for oonch and he was left high and dry – he couldn’t catch anyone even though they teased him by standing on a rock or hanging by a branch or two but they quickly landed on the ground whenever he ran to catch them. Frazzled and wiser, he next called for neech. There was a mad scramble for high places. Golu was quicker and he made for the much-coveted rock. Rajani nearly got out because she spent precious seconds trying to share it with him – like she had with Shikha. But two little roly-polys were too much for even the solid piece of rock and both of them ended up falling down. Finally catching sight of Happy arriving at top speed, Rajani had the sense to skip away and jump on to the ‘oven,’ which was still warm. But she was safe – tonguing and thumbing her nose at a tomato-red Happy. Huffing and puffing, he gheraoed Bholu who stood, or rather wobbled, alarmingly on two stones – a couple of feet apart.
Happy crossed his arms and just stood there his eyes glued to Bholu’s feet – sure he was going to topple over any minute now. But Bholu hung on quite smug and confident. But then Bholu felt a massive sneeze coming on and everything just went for a toss – including Happy. They rolled about on the ground – one groaning and the other declaring his victory loud enough to wake Biji.
Any further contretemps came to a halt as they caught the unmistakable sounds of a vehicle. “Yay! Our bus has arrived!” Cheers and excited shouts met this news and they ran towards the road but of course their guardians Shumbha and Nishumbha err Ramu and Birju blocked their paths.
“Not without Biji’s say so.” They had their orders and they were sticking to it.
“Ramu, go and see if it is our bus that has come.”
“Yes Biji.” He trotted off while Birju banged his stick and twirled his mustache.
“Bahoo? Where are they?”
“Yes Biji?” the three musketeers landed up just in time. But despite their efforts to camouflage their activities with the dry dupattas it was of course too much to hope that it would escape Biji’s notice.
“Just look at you three!” Biji declared quite put out.
“Yes Biji,” Kirti spoke up, “we just went to wash our hands and feet, but I tripped over a root and then while trying to save me, they also got wet.”
“Hmm a likely story,” Biji muttered, feeling quite jealous. It was so hot and the stream looked so cool and inviting. She wished she could have a dip or maybe stay there till the circus was over. Who cared about the circus anyway? But what about her image as the Biji? Could she risk it?
“Biji!” It was Ramu.
“Well is it our bus?”
“What!” The entire jungle seemed to fall silent. Only the stream gurgled away blissfully unaware and uncaring.
“The bus has still not been repaired.” Ramu volunteered some more dreadful information.
Rajani burst into tears, while Happy picked up a stone and threw it into the stream with a loud splash. He then prepared to follow suit.
“Wait a minute!” Biji’s voice rang out loud and clear. “How do you know?” she asked Ramu penetratingly.
“Oh Hariya told me.”
“When did he tell you?” Biji was fast losing her patience.
“Just now. He has brought the tractor to take everyone to the circus.”
Uproar greeted this vital piece of life saving information.
Biji clapped a hand to her head. “Hey Bhagwan! Couldn’t you have said that first rather than make a song and dance about not being our bus…”
“But Biji you only asked if it was our bus or not?”
“RAMU,” Biji went red in the face and looked ready to burst a vessel. Meett thought it prudent to take matters into her own hands. “Ramu bhaiyya, please escort the children to the tractor. Birju bhaiyaa, please make sure nobody strays. And each of them should carry a bag or two.” She pushed Kirti and Chanda to oversee transfer of picnic paraphernalia, whilst she assisted Biji in rising from her chair. “Biji, how would you like to freshen up?”
Biji grunted and allowed herself to be convinced after of course putting up the mandatory resistance (but not strong enough to actually put off Meett who was well versed with the shades of Biji’s moods). Meett helped Biji navigate her way through the undergrowth and led her to a convenient spot from where she could easily step into the inviting waters of the stream.
Rajani and Shikha would have stared if they could see this avatar of Biji – splashing about the cool waters with childish glee and abandon.
Just a reminder - the 2016 A to Z blogging challenge begins today. Check it out here. And up next is Chapter 50: Jinxed