Kallu identified Chotu first and then Shikha, who were both hiding behind the boulder.
“Where’s Rajani?” Shikha whispered to Chotu, but he just shrugged and scampered off to assist Kallu in his search. Shikha tagged along, wondering where Rajani could be.
One by one, the other boys were sighted but there was no sign of Rajani.
“Where could she be?” Shikha wondered aloud.
“Why are you asking me?” snapped Kallu, “If I knew, my turn would be over. Now only she is missing. What a big bore.” He grumbled.
“Perhaps she has gone off home?” suggested Happy.
Kallu brightened. “Yes that’s must be it. Chotu you go and count, come let’s go and hide.”
Shikha frowned. “But that’s not fair! You have to hunt her out first.”
“But she shouldn’t have gone back home. That isn’t fair either is it?”
“She wouldn’t go off home without telling me,” Shikha protested.
“But you were hiding, how would she tell you? Maybe she got bored or had other matters to attend to at home.” Kallu looked at the others meaningfully. They snickered.
“Nonsense!” Shikha defended her friend stoutly. But the seed of doubt was sown. Rajani could have gone back to the house – but then it wasn’t like her to go off alone – what with bhoots and all around. No, very unlikely.
“I am going home to check.” Shikha walked away.
But of course there was no sign of Rajani at home. On the other hand, Kirti had had a relapse. She had high fever and Meett was putting cold compress on her. “Mummy!” Shikha rushed to her all other thoughts forgotten. “What happened to her?” she couldn’t help but be alarmed at the pale gaunt look of her mother.
“Nothing dear,” Meett tried to hold her off but Shikha climbed on the bed and called, “Mummy! Open your eyes Mummy! Mummy.”
“Shush beta, she is resting, let her be…”
Kirti opened her eyes with an effort and smiled. “I am fine dear. The doctor has give some medicines and your aunt is also here to take care of me. You go and play with the others.” She looked around vaguely. “Where’s Rajani?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care,” declared Shikha. “She left without telling me.”
Kirti frowned. “What you mean you don’t know? Wasn’t she with you?”
“Yes, she was. But then we were playing hide and seek and now we can’t find her. I thought she would be at home. But she isn’t here as well.”
Kirti was worried enough to sit up. “Well find out then!”
Meett pushed her down. “Rest.” She urged. “I will ask the boys to look for her. Don’t worry.”
Kirti subsided but not before she ordered Shikha. “You also go and look for her. Suppose she is in some trouble?”
“She should be renamed ‘trouble’. Always in some trouble or the other.” Shikha grumbled unwilling to go out in the heat again. But at Kirti’s insistence and her cousins’ company, she obliged.
“Mammaaa, Mammmaa,” A panic stricken Rajani banged and pulled at the door. But she was well and truly trapped inside the shed infested with bhoots either scurrying from one corner to the other or flapping over her head. Terror, horror and a dreadful fear seized Rajani, she shivered and shook, and her throat was parched from screaming. She clung to the door and glued her eyes to the crack in the door, the only source of solace and light. “Mammaa, Mammaaa” she whimpered over and over again. Suddenly brushed her face – the bhoot was surely going to eat her up and she would never see her Mamma again – Rajani gave an ear-piercing shriek and fainted in a dead heap.
The seekers dragged their feet, not too keen on the task thrust upon their shoulders for different reasons.
“Why do we all have to look for her?” grumbled Chotu. “It’s Kallu’s turn.”
“But doesn’t she know the rules. She should have come out by now! Anyway, I am sure she will come back soon, when she gets tired of hiding.” Kallu yawned. “I think I will go to my friend’s house.”
He began walking off.
Shikha perked up. “What’s that?”
“That scream? Didn’t you hear it?”
“No, I didn’t hear anything.” Bholu shook his head, the others too followed suit. Kallu stopped in his tracks.
“I did! And I am sure it was Rajani.” Shikha was becoming more and more upset. “I think she is in trouble. Do you think she has fallen into the well or something?” She twisted her fingers in agitation. “I think I will go and call Bade Papa…”
“W…why disturb Bade Papa?” Kallu spoke up. “Let us hunt for her. Let me check that shed. Maybe she is hiding there.” He ran towards the shed and swiftly unlatched the door. He looked at the gang behind making good time. He made a show of shaking the door and then pulled it open.
“Rajani!” Shikha was upon her. “What happened? Get up Rajani,” she shook her. But Rajani just lay there while the others looked on curiously.
“Is she dead or something?” Chotu asked.
“Oh don’t be silly,” Kallu blustered, “let me throw some water on her, she will soon be fine.” Kallu ran to get some water.
“Rajji! Rajji!” Shikha shook her but she remained quite insensible.
Bholu suddenly woke up to the gravity of the situation. He picked her up with the help of the others and lugged her home quite inelegantly.
“Biji!” the children burst into their house.
Exhausted from the previous day’s activities, Biji had been dozing. She started. “Now what?”
“Look! Rajani is not opening her eyes. Is she dead?”
“Shush you rascal!” Biji heaved herself out of her seat and dealt Happy one tight one. But her heart sank. Rajani was pale and ghost-like.
“Call the doctor,” she snapped. “Get some water. Fan her. It’s the heat. I don’t know why you children play outside in this heat. Who gave you permission?”
“But Biji, it wasn’t the heat.” Shikha said. “Rajani was locked inside the shed.”
“She wasn’t locked,” Kally butted in, “she must not have been able to open the door from inside…”
“Wait!” Biji raised her hand. “Chanda call the doctor.”
“Yes Biji I sent Bholu to call the doctor. He must be coming. Shall I sprinkle some water?”
Biji waved her hand. “Shikha get my hand fan and give the girl some air.”
“What happened?” Hearing the commotion, Kirti dragged herself out of bed and descended the stairs. “Is Rajani hurt?”
“Mummy!” Shikha ran to her, “look Rajji is not getting up and Happy is saying that Rajji is dead.” She threw herself into Kirti’s arms and burst into tears.
Tottering a bit, Kirti sat down with a thump holding Shikha close. “No dear. She isn’t dead! Why would you think so? It’s just the heat. Look at me, even I am ill because of the heat and now Rajani too. You shouldn’t be playing out in the Sun…”
“But Mummy, she was in the shade…”
Rajji moaned as Chanda splashed some cool water. She opened her eyes and looked around with confusion. Memory came flooding back. “Mammaaa.” She burst into tears.
“Move away, let the doctor see…” Biji pushed the curious onlookers away as Chanda put her arms around the sobbing girl.
“Come on now, where’s my brave girl?” The doctor was at his jovial best. “Give her some cool lassi to drink, it must be the heat…”
“Mammaaa, I want Mammaaa,” Rajani just wouldn’t stop her wailing. Kirti pushed her way forward and took her into her arms and consoled her. “Okay okay fine, we will take you home. But tell us what happened at least? Are you not well? See the doctor uncle is here, tell him. He will give you medicine and you will be fine. Then we will go home okay?”
“Mammaaa,” Rajani shook her head and bawled.
“I think she is just scared Mummy. She was locked in the shed and it was dark inside…”
“It wasn’t locked,” Kallu said fiercely, “maybe she couldn’t open it from inside. Right Rajani?” He shook her.
“Yes,” sobbed Rajani, “I pulled and pushed the door, b….but the bho…bhoots had locked the door from outside. Then one ghost flew into my hair, Mammaaa,” she shuddered and clung to Kirti.
“Okay okay, everything is fine now. No bhoot or anything here. Look all of us are here.” But Rajani was quite inconsolable. She clung to Kirti shivering and shaking. In no time she had a raging fever – delirious, she incessantly called for her parents (even Abhi) to save her from marauding ghosts.
Biji and the others were in quite a fix and spoke in hushed worried tones hope it’s nothing serious, what will her parents think, what if something serious? The doctor was reassuring and prescribed some medicines and advised cool compress, preferably bathing to bring down her temperature. As the fever dissipated she fell into a restless doze starting every now and then.
Once the immediate crisis was over, the elders sat down for a chat over a much-needed cup of tea. “But what exactly happened?” asked Chotte Papa. Even the doctor wanted to know, but Biji had only a vague sketchy idea, so the children were all called in. Each of them chipped in with their versions. Slowly, painstakingly, they pieced the events together.
Biji leaned back in relief. “It’s entirely that Rajani’s fault. Why did she have to go inside the shed?”
Chote Papa was frowning. “But how did she get stuck inside? The door is very ill fitting and doesn’t even shut properly unless it is latched from the outside.”
“But Pappu, that would mean someone had deliberately locked her in?! And you tell me, who would lock her in and why?” Biji said.
Kallu got up casually and edged out of the door. Biji looked up and her eyes narrowed. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Just to my friend’s house.” Kallu said airily without looking at Biji.
Biji gave him a grim look. He looked away and shuffled restlessly. She waved him away. “Anyway nothing major happened, thanks to the merciful Bhagwanji.” She clasped her hands and sent up a heart full prayer of gratefulness. “Let us be thankful for that and move ahead. The girl is fine now and hopefully there will be no long lasting sequelae.”
But Biji was wrong. Rajani wasn’t fine – she had nightmares, which kept the ladies of the house, including Shikha, up for most of the night. Kirti’s fever returned with a vengeance but had no scope to rest. All in all a very uncomfortable night.
It is not clear how the matter would have proceeded thereon for it is unlikely Biji would have consented to send Rajani (or Kirti) back to Chandigarh in this state. After all, it was all about her reputation. But Shikha, sleepy, irritable, and worried took matters into her own hands – she called up her father.
Things moved rather rapidly after that. Lalit wasted no time in coming down and had the foresight to bring Nisha along. Rajani was overjoyed to see her mother and made no fuss about going back home (even at the cost of missing the fair). Seeing her chance for escape (and desperate for some rest), Kirti gave a gentle nudge to Shikha. Not that Shikha needed much pushing – staying on here after Rajji had left and with Mummy so unwell – she clamored to go back to Chandigarh.
Biji had no choice but to give in. Besides, Biji’s harbored certain suspicions about the incident and she wasn’t too keen on having them confirmed or leaked for everyone’s consumption. She shuddered at the consequences of that! No, no, it was better this way. Sooner, the girls went back, sooner things could go back to being normal. Girls were more bother than worth. They were better off away from here.
Thus, their summer holidays at Biji’s place came to a rather abrupt and unfortunate end.
Up next Chapter 57: Hope on the Horizon