Pushing and shoving the milling crowd, our gang made their way to the tractor. But with interruptions – someone wanted to visit the washroom, another was hungry, yet another was thirsty, sleepy. The ringmaster Biji cracked her whip – they subsided, grumbling, snarling and muttering amongst themselves they boarded the tractor-trailer. Hariya had put down the makeshift roof and was now a comfortable bed, albeit poky and tickly at instances.
Biji looked at Hariya; he nodded and drew out a rather large basket from the front. Biji nodded to Meett who opened it but she could barely see anything as the children crowded her trying to get a look.
“Halwa-puri!” Golu didn’t need to see, removing the covers was enough for his detective prowesses. Meett shooed away the children but they were not be fended off so easily. Finally Biji distracted them. She decided she wanted to sit at the back. Getting Biji up the trailer was a challenging task worthy of her grandsons’ attention. They got together – with a heave, a push and a pull Biji made a smooth landing. She grunted.
“Uff. Never again,” she fanned herself and vowed. “Never again.” She glared at Rajani who was quite hurt. What did I do?
Only Biji knew what Rajani had done but then she could never admit that she had fallen into the trap of that chit of a girl, that too a townie, paahhh.
The ladies quickly distributed the food and the querulous voices magically calmed down as they busied themselves in wolfing down the delicious snack. Hariya had also organized a pitcher of water as well. Halwa puri washed down by cool water from the earthen pitcher, took the edge off their hunger and irritation. They chattered about the day’s events, the circus overriding all else for now and shouts of Remember! And when the elephant! But the lions were the best! No! Get off me! Biji! Mummy! — cut through the lengthening shadows as the trailer, tethered to the tractor, swayed and rumbled its way home.
As darkness fell, one by one, the children dozed off. The adults too let down their guard and stretched out. Only Hariya was awake. But then he had had his nap while they were at the circus.
Rajani twitched – she was in school trying to do classwork but a lion kept scratching her cheek; she batted it away but it persisted and followed it up with a low hot growl right into her ear – shhhh teacher will hear, she mumbled incoherently and put her arm around his thick mane and settled down to pay attention to the teacher – oh no! It wasn’t her teacher it was Biji, in a top hat and a whip in her hand. Rajani! She cracked her whip.
Rajani woke with a start. She stared into Biji’s eyes inches away from her face – her arm was around Biji’s neck. She scrambled away. “Sorry Biji.” She looked around in surprise. “Oh we are home!”
“Hmmph,” Biji grunted as she sat up and rubbed her neck, “nearly strangled me,” she grumbled.
The children dropped down from the vehicle and stumbled inside, most of them still half-asleep.
“Bahu serve them dinner, quickly now,” Biji ordered, “otherwise they will go to sleep hungry. Come on hurry up, don’t waste time dawdling around.”
Meett and Chanda didn’t even blink an eye they simply marched on ahead to the kitchen, stopping only by the hand pump to wash their hands and feet. Kirti was annoyed and it showed.
“Bahoo?” Biji’s voice was hard. “Didn’t you hear what I said? The boys will fall asleep without eating.”
Big deal! They won’t starve will they? But I am ready to collapse out of sheer fatigue.
Better sense prevailed and Kirti stomped off fuming. There was only about a week or more of the holidays left and Kirti saw no point in making things any more difficult for any of them – at least not if she could help it. What if Biji decided to take out her angst on the girls? No, best to keep quiet – if her sister-in-laws who had to live here 365 days didn’t have any objections, why should she, as a temporary resident, object? Best to toe the line. Peace prevailed – at a price of course.
It was way past midnight by the time Kirti or the other ladies were free to retire to their rooms, have the much needed bath or even change their clothes – washroom visits had been quick and timed to the second with warden’s activities and distractions such as bringing her sons up to date with the day’s events and happenings.
Phewww – Kirti was relieved that she had resisted Biji’s demands to wear a heavier suit and chosen the most comfortable cotton suit for the outing. She barely escaped being broiled, grilled steamed and fried as it is.
She crawled in besides the two sleeping angels and prayed for some desperate supplies of patience, forbearance and the art of holding her tongue between her teeth and lips. Oh when would this torture end, when could she throw off the thick dupatta from her head, let the cool air blow through her hair, maybe sit under an AC, put up her feet, hold the remote, a glass of, the list was endless.
The children were irritable and short-tempered the next day. Home was boring. They wanted another fun-filled day and nagged Biji no end. The girls didn’t actually join the fray but watched the unfolding drama from a distance.
They were learning.
Well one can hope…
“Biji please, let’s go for a picnic again. Please! It was so much fun. Can we see the circus again – I missed so many bits because there was so much to see, I want to see it all over again, please Biji.”
But Biji would have none of it. Initially she bore their demands indulgently but as they persisted and become more vocal and insistent, she lost her patience. “Hold your peace boys otherwise none of you will be going to the fair next week.” She turned to glare at the girls who were smirking, “including you both.”
Their smirks faded and prudently edged away from the scene before she could redirect her entire ire at them.
“Oh it is so boring!” Shikha grumbled and kicked up a bit of dust.
“Let’s play something.”
“Let’s play with the stones we collected from the picnic. We haven’t even seen them properly.”
“Mummy where did you put our stone collection?”
“I made two bundles of them with the leftover suit pieces, the pink one is yours while the blue one is Rajani’s.”
They collected their precious booty and called out, “We are going out to play with them.” They left before Kirti could voice her objections. Kirti shook her head and sighed. She wasn’t feeling quite up to running after them. Perhaps it would have been better if she had.
“Let’s go near the swing and play.”
Rajani shook her head. “No let’s go near the well and play. We can get some water to wash them if needed.”
“Why do you want to wash them? They were in the water…”
“But suppose we need to wash them…
“But nothing,” Rajani interrupted, “there are too many children around the swing. What if somebody tries to steal our collection? Usually, there are Aunties near the well, they can save us if needed.”
Convinced and impressed by this logic, Shikha went along with Rajani. But the area was quite deserted.
Rajani looked around a bit fearfully. “Maybe we should go near the swing…”
Shikha rolled her eyes. “Out there also you will find bhoot or something else. Let’s play here.”
She emptied her collection on a convenient flat stone slab. After a brief hesitation, Rajani followed suit and they were soon absorbed in sorting and admiring the stones.
“Look at this one!”
“No see this one – it looks like Ganeshji doesn’t it?”
Shikha looked at it doubtfully. “I can’t make out.”
“Look, here this is the trunk and this is the stomach…”
“Hmm may be, keep it, we will ask Mummy later. I love this white stone of mine. It’s the prettiest of the lot.”
“No! My purple one is the best.”
“What nonsense. And it isn’t even purple, it’s just grey like any other stone.”
“You are just saying that because you don’t have a purple stone and I have a white stone,” Rajani scrabbled amongst her collection and held it up, “look!”
“What are you doing?” It was the boys.
“Looking at our stone collection – nice isn’t it?” Rajani displayed her collection proudly. “Just look at this, so purple and smooth and Shikha also has a lovely white stone with lines on, Shikha show him.”
They peered over their shoulders. “Where did you get these stones from?”
“From the river bed, where else?”
They stared blankly at the girls. “River bed?”
The girls nodded their heads vigorously. “Yesterday at the picnic. Didn’t you see?”
They looked at each other and shook their heads.
The girls rolled their eyes and shared long-suffering expressions (like they had seen their aunts do). “Boys.” They giggled into their hands.
“What’s so funny?” Morose and irritable from the contrast between yesterday and today (and the fair was far away – next week), they were itching for a bust up.
“You all are so funny.” Rajani stuck out her tongue at them. “Are you boys blind or what? There were literally millions of stones – each more beautiful than the other. I wish I could have brought more.”
“Stones! Pffttt!” Happy made a rude sound. “What are they worth except for being weighty? The way you girls are behaving as if they were worth thousands of rupees or something!”
“Yea so?” Shikha shot to her feet aggressively, “don’t you behave like that for your stupid marbles? How much are they worth?”
“Don’t you compare our marbles with your stupid stones,” Kallu joined the fray, “they are worth much more, besides they are hard-earned not…”
“Hard-earned is it?” It was Rajani’s turn to make a rude noise, “then go and play with your stupid marbles, why are you drooling greedily over our stone collection,” she quickly rounded up her stones, “come Shikha let’s go and play elsewhere. These boys wont leave us in peace and,” she lowered her voice but not low enough, “who knows they may run off with our…”
Kallu stepped up and loomed over Rajani where she was crouched over the slab of stone, “What did you say? We will steal your worthless stones?”
Rajani pushed him. “Get away from here!”
“How dare you push me?” Rather inexplicably and unexpectedly, Kallu pounced on the stones that the girls were gathering into a pile, snatched them up in his hands and strode off to the well and threw them into it.
Up next Chapter 54: Collision Course