Rajani felt terribly sorry and guilt smote her. She felt eyes boring into her. She looked up and froze. Biji was glaring at her and she looked just like the big bad wolf of Red Riding Hood.
Meett took him away and bathed his welts with cool water and put turmeric paste on them. She gave him a glass of hot milk with turmeric and left him sleep it off.
The next day was rather quiet, what with Kirti running a high fever and Kallu still suffering the after effects of the caning. But the real reason was Bade Papa, who for reasons best known to him, was home the whole day. A deathly silence hung about the house – even Biji appeared subdued and downcast.
In the evening, Bade Papa, made sure Kallu followed up on his punishment – to allow the girls to choose their own marbles, one for each stone he had thrown into the well.
Uncomfortable and ill at ease, the girls presented themselves in Bade Papa’s room where Kallu was waiting with his prized collection of marbles.
“Please take,” Kallu said politely, “as many as you wish.”
Unable to resist, Rajani made a dash for her much coveted blue hued marble. Shikha too picked one up.
They exchanged looks and by mutual consent, stepped back, clutching their respective compensations, “Thank you.” They turned to leave.
“Stop.” It was Bade Papa. “Take more.” He ordered glaring at Kallu.
“Yes, yes, please take more. Please take as many as you wish.”
“No, no, thank you thank you,” the girls shook their heads and vanished before Bade Papa could physically restrain them.
“See? Such decent girls,” Bade Papa remarked, “if you were in their position I am sure you would have taken the whole lot.”
Kallu pressed his lips, gritted his teeth and looked away before he disgraced himself completely. Rajani had taken his most prized marble – he would have happily given away his entire collection, if only she hadn’t taken that one.
“Puttar!” It was Biji. She came almost at a trot swaying so much that she looked in danger of toppling over sideways. “The Sarpanch wishes to talk to you, come on now, go along, let me manage this rascal,” she gave the unfortunate Kallu a shove and almost dragged out her elder son. “He wishes to discuss about something important, I think. Not good to keep a guest waiting. Bahoooo are you both dead or what? Serve them some lassi. And something to eat. Hurry up now. Bholu, switch on the fan, pull down that shade, the sun is so strong these last few days. A miracle that we aren’t all ill. The youngest bahu is, these town people are delicate, not like us…” she pattered on while the Sarpanch was flattered and humbled at the special attention and care of the Biji herself.
“Sorry Biji, I shouldn’t have disturbed you or bhaisahab at this time…”
“No formality please. This is your own house isn’t it? Don’t you call me Biji? I know it must be something important. But you must drink some cool lassi. It will protect you from the heat and cool your body. Yes, yes take your Bhaisahab along. I know work waits for no one, not even the heat, go on now, no need to apologize. Wrap a wet towel on your head. Yes, that will protect you from the heat.”
Having got rid of her son, Biji turned her entire attention on Kallu. She fell on his neck, shed bitter and sorrowful tears, all the while showering curses upon Rajani’s head. “Oh my poor dear boy, look at you, oh so much pain. All because of that good for nothing girl, who does she think she is?” and then, “Call that girl here.” She boomed.
Chotu ran with alacrity and with some difficulty managed to present her in Biji’s court. “Are you happy now? Just look at poor Kallu. Happy? Did it bring back your stones? Why did you have to say anything to your Bade Papa? You should have come and told me, I would have punished him. But no, you want to create problem. That is your fun isn’t it?”
“No Biji.” Rajani stared at her, trembling a bit but quite composed otherwise. “I wasn’t going to tell Bade Papa, he only caught hold of me and asked. But then so what if I told him? Kallu did wrong to throw the stones into the water and he was hitting Shikha…”
“Liar! What a big liar this girl is?” Biji retaliated, “my Kallu would never do such a thing…”
“Ask Bade Papa. He saw.” Rajani was pale but she held her ground. “When he comes back home, you can ask him.”
“What! You dare to argue with me? Nobody in the village dares to do so…” Biji looked ready to burst a vessel.
Biji looked so fierce that Rajani’s bravado deserted her. She shivered and shook as tears rained down her – there was no Kirti to save her either. Realizing that, Rajani bolted from the scene and fled to the comfort of Kirti’s and Shikha’s familiarity and bolted the door for safety’s sake.
Shikha started from her vigil beside her flushed dozing mother and stared at the panting Rajani. “What happened?” She asked looking with foreboding at the wild look in her friend’s eye. “Mummy is very unwell,” she added, perhaps as a warning.
Rajani stiffened and gulped. She shook her head. “Nothing.” All she wanted to do was burst into tears in her mother’s arms or at least Kirti’s. But that too was denied. She had no choice but to absorb the storm of emotions. She sat by the window and stared out, trying to understand, but without much success. Her mind was stuck like a broken record – I didn’t do anything wrong. Why is everything always my fault?
Neither Shikha nor Rajani ventured out of the room that day. They stayed close to Kirti, offering her the solace of their company and nursing care. Kirti was better the next day, albeit a bit weak. The girls still preferred the confines of their room and busied themselves in completing their pending holiday homework.
“Want to play hide and seek?” Chotu came up in the evening with the olive branch.
Bored and cramped, the girls nodded. They skipped off happily after informing Kirti who was in the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Shikha asked.
“Today we are going to play outside.”
“Outside?” They looked at each other in confusion. “But it will be so difficult to seek anybody!”
“No it wont be, we have certain rules on what is allowed and what is not, just wait you will learn it soon,” Chotu brushed aside their concerns and led them to a clearing where the boys (including Kallu and some other village boys) were already playing hide and seek.
“Come on hurry up,” Bholu called, “it’s my turn to play the den. Now look here, don’t leave the field, anything in the field is allowed…”
Rajani looked around, “There is hardly any place to hide!”
“Look around, there’s that shed, the tree, behind that boulder, see and learn…”
“But by then I will get caught…”
“Okay fine don’t play then…” Bholu was short.
Rajani subsided even as Shikha tugged her arm in warning.
The game began on a subdued note – Kallu stood apart with his friends, pointedly ignoring the girls. Bholu turned his back and closed his eyes (ostensibly) and began counting to the mandatory 100 (at top speed). The children took flight and dispersed much like a flock of pigeons would and by the time Bholu turned around, the field was clear. “Rajani! I spy you! Come out from behind that tree.”
But it was Shikha who came out smiling. Rajani jumped out from behind the boulder. They laughed and jumped for joy at having fooled Bholu. At the last minute, Rajani had had a brain wave she had exchanged dupattas with Shikha and had deliberately laid the trap for Bholu. The deal was not only to spy some one but also identify the person correctly.
“Yeah yeah fine, big deal,” with poor grace, Bholu stomped off to count once again.
Flush from their victory, the girls warmed up to the game and racked their brains to better their previous record – they decided to climb a tree after giving Shikha’s dupatta to Chotu. Bholu fell for it much to the delight of the girls and of course Bholu’s annoyance. Fuming he went off to count again but was accosted by Kallu. After a brief chat, the two dispersed. This time Kallu was caught first and after all the others had been identified successfully, Kallu was the den.
He looked at his friends, who nodded. Kallu began counting and the children scattered. Having exhausted all possible places of hiding, Rajani was quite at a loss. She ran this way and that way but all the hiding places were taken. Now what – she stopped and looked around in confusion.
“Psst,” came a call. Rajani looked around. It was one of Kallu’s friends. Rajani shook her hand questioningly at him. He beckoned her and pointed to the shed a little distance away.
“No.” Rajani crept up to him and muttered, “That’s out of limits isn’t it?”
“No! Of course it isn’t. Go on, you can hide inside. I will hide outside by its side. Come on.” He all but dragged Rajani along – Kallu had reached 85 there was no time to be lost! She ran into the shed just as Kallu turned around to catch his friend hide behind a convenient shrub by the wall of the shed. Whistling, Kallu looked away and began systematically hunting out his cousins, giving the shed a wide berth.
Shivering with excitement, at first Rajani didn’t quite register her hideout; her entire focus was on the outside, she strained to hear what was happening, would Kallu find her? They were only interested in catching her first, she guessed and it was only a matter of time before she would be den. So what if she was the den, someone had to be den…but what was happening outside, she peered through a crack in the door. All the children seemed to be far away. At least Kallu was. Unable to resist her curiosity any more, she pulled at the handle gently. But it didn’t budge.
She pulled and pushed harder; then harder and harder – the door didn’t move. She was trapped – she looked around fearfully, it was dark and dank, something scurried by her feet.
She screamed. “Bhaiyyaaaaaa!”
Up next Chapter 56: The Great Escape