Chotti rubbed her eyes sleepily and slid her arms around her daddy’s neck as she laid her head on his shoulder while he strode out of the crowded movie hall. Once outside, where the air was fresher and cooler, she perked up a little bit. Ooohhh there was the balloon man, there! A pink dinosaur too, Da really didn’t know anything! She clamored for the balloon and Arnav stopped to buy her one, on second thoughts he decided to buy two of them otherwise they were sure to have a scuffle on their hands. Chotti was thrilled, she insisted on carrying each balloon in her hand, her tiny fists clutching the thread. Arnav reached Khushi where she stood outside the toy shop holding Devansh’s hand (who pointedly ignored Chotti drooling at the dinosaurs in the showcase) talking animatedly to Mr and Mrs Mehta.
Arnav pulled Angel closer and shook hands, while exchanging pleasantries with their acquaintances. Chotti’s cheeks were pinched and caressed, she backed off irritated, Khushi called out to her warningly and waved to Arnav to pick her up, just as another acquaintance came up and greeted them. Another round of social niceties followed; one of the threads slipped from Chotti’s hand and floated away. Naturally Chotti trotted rather hurriedly after it holding the other one tightly in her clenched fist. It happened so quickly, almost within the blink of an eye that neither Arnav nor Khushi noticed when Chotti had be swallowed in the jostling crowd, each thinking that the other had the little girl.
Devansh of course had been otherwise preoccupied with the love of his life, but then it was no fun if he couldn’t talk about them to somebody and who better than a captive audience like Chotti, besides she was chotti, she didn’t know anything and it was his kartavya and dharm to teach her right from wrong; he would forgive her he decided, he looked around for her, “Mamma, Chotti kahan hai?” Devansh tugged insistently at his mother’s hand, Khushi smilingly waved away their friends and turned to him, “Chotti…” she froze in shock, “Chotti!!!” she squeaked in alarm; she was nowhere to be seen, horrified she turned to Arnav.
He too was looking at her in consternation, “Khushi! How could you be so careless!” he snapped instantly. She instantly flared up, “Humne socha that you had her!” she closed her eyes and took a deep breath and dashed off towards the direction she thought Chotti had gone pulling Devansh along with her. Arnav googled the mall, he extracted the number of the help desk and left an urgent request to trace his lost Angel.
Khushi was terrified, the cold hand of fear clutched her heart, Chottiii she called silently, willing her to appear in front of her magically, where are you? What if they never found her, what if somebody kidna….nahi nahi, she wouldn’t think like that! Hey DM raksha karna, she prayed. Devansh bhi kuch kam pareshaan nahi tha, he was almost in tears and totally panic striken, “Chotti kahan hai, Chotti kahan hai,” getting on Khushi’s already agitated and irritated nerves; she tried to calm herself (perhaps her panic was adversely affecting him), “Bas bas Guddu, yehin kahin hogi, Daddy will talk to security and get everything sorted out,” she assured him, gaining some comfort from it herself. She took a deep breath and steadied herself as she eagerly scanned the mall. Her heart sank, no sight of that pink ponytail or the pink dinosaur.
“Khushiii,” She turned around hopefully at the sound of his voice, she was disappointed to see him alone; unable to control herself, she burst into tears instantly followed by Devansh. Arnav had his hands full as you can see, plus their surroundings rather cramped his style. Waise uska bas chalta toh he would have loved to give them company. Fortunately Khushi decided to pull herself together in deference to Devansh (not to mention ASR). She hurriedly wiped away her tears, “What did the security people say?”
Arnav curtly nodded his head, “Haan they are checking the CCTV footage, yehin kahin hogi,” he muttered through lips that were a thin straight line.
Raksha karna DM, Khushi closed her eyes and hugged Devansh; he angrily pushed her away and began running, screaming loudly “Chottttiiiiiiii.” The people around stopped and stared in surprise as Arnav dashed off behind him.
Khushi followed them at a trot, she didn’t want to lose Devansh as well; hey DM raksha karna, pleaaaassseeee.
Panic stricken, the Raizada’s searched the mall from shop to shop while Arnav barked orders into the phone, Khushi was feeling faint and dizzy with shock; Devansh was of no help with his constant dire predictions, “Mamma Chotti kahan hain? Mamma Chotti ko doondho, Chottiiiii,” he stamped his foot angrily, “Just you wait, Chotti, yeh bhi koi hide and seek khelne ki jagah hai? Kabhi bhi usse trike par nahi bithaoona, kabhi bhi mere toys ko haath nahi lagane doonga,” he muttered darkly; sudden fear clutched him, he tugged Khushi’s hand insistently, “What if the aliens kidnapped her, what if we never find her?”
“Shubh shubh bolo Guddu, shubh shubh bolo,” Khushi managed to whisper, ‘hey DM raksha karna; her phone rang, it was an unknown number, but Khushi took it, who knew, perhaps, “Hello?”
“Mammma, hum Chotti bol rahe hain,” Khushi’s legs almost gave way and she leaned against the wall, “Chotttiiiiii kahann ho aaap?” she ruffled Devansh’s hair and whispered urgently, “Daddy ko bulaao,” they weren’t out of the woods yet, how come she was calling? How did she get her number? Was Devansh right, had somebody kidnapped her? “Chotti!” she called urgently, “Kahan ho? Jaldi batao,” she entreated, her eyes fixed on Devansh as he trotted across the aisle to Arnav facing the other way scanning the mall from above whilst speaking to the Mall security in-charge. He was with her in two strides, “Khushi?” he held Devansh’s hand firmly; Khushi hurriedly put the phone on speaker phone, “Chotti! Yeh lo Daddy bhi aa gaye, ab batao kahan ho?” Arnav grabbed the phone eagerly, “Chotti jaaldi batao, kahan ho aur kiske saath ho?”
POP! Went her second balloon. Chotti started and stared dolefully at the string with the bit of pink elastic stuff hanging from one end. Oho she had first lost Da’s balloon (yeah the one that got away was Da’s 😀) and now she had burst hers as well. Her lower lip trembled and tears filled her eyes suddenly she recalled Da’s angry words, PINK dinosaur nahi hota! She swallowed, maybe it was all for the best, didn’t mamma say jo bhi hota hai achcha hota hai? Da would have been really mad if she had given him or even showed him the pink dinosaur. He was really strange! He didn’t like pink! How could he not? “Da?” she turned to clarify the mystery right there and then.
But where was Da? She looked around carefully, nope, no Da, no mamma, no daddy. She stiffened and her face went red – with anger, how dare they leave her and go off alone, just because of a pink dinosaur! Da bhi na! Or maybe they were playing hide and seek with her, she thought hopefully. Yes that must be it, she cheered up, she loved hide and seek and what a lovely place to play it too. RM was now passé. She knew all the hiding places and it was no fun with the two of them playing, now that everyone was playing, she was all game. She looked around brightly. But then there were so many people and all she could see were legs and shoes, it was too much of an effort to walk with her head thrown back to see the faces; twice she had run up to a pair of black shoes and grabbed his hand only to find that he wasn’t Daddy.
She was getting tired of this game. Her legs hurt, besides she was hungry and she wanted Mamma; she wanted to go home and play hide and seek at RM, maybe with Poo.
She looked around despondently, no one was paying her any attention, her lips turned down, something got caught in her throat, she felt like she was choking and her breaths were beginning to come in short gasps, when suddenly, the clutch eased.
A brilliant smile lit her face.
Naaaniii!! Ah there she was sitting in that corner in a chair with a lot of bags piled up around her. Chotti ran on her chubby little legs towards the lady and stopped in dismay oh this wasn’t Nani, not exactly, but she did have those kind eyes of Nani, “Naani?” she quavered in her childish treble. The old lady sitting in the wheelchair started and looked down at the little girl; her face broke into a warm welcoming smile, she put out a hand and caressed her cheek, “Haan Bitiya?”
Bas phir kya tha, introductions over; ice broken Chotti threw her arm around the lady and burst into tears. Horrified the lady instinctively hugged and soothed the little girl as she enfolded her in her ample embrace, “Ka hua bitiya, kho gayi ka? Mummy kahan hai?”
Comforted and tired, Chotti climbed on to her lap and rested a while; the kind lady dug out some goodies from one of her numerous bags and Chotti had no trouble identifying her favorite chocolate biscuits, she quickly gobbled up two of them and within no time, her confidence and joi-de-vivre had revived; she was chattering away, “Mamma kho gaya, Daddy kho gaya, Da mamma aur Daddy ko le kar chala gaya,” she was a real tragedy queen, her tiny pink lips pouted and trembled, teardrops clung to her lashes, “Aapka ka naam hai bitiya?” the lady asked gently.
“Chotti Ching Laijada,” she promptly responded, “Aul aapka?”
The lady laughed, “Hum hain Nani Sharma.”
Chotti leaned into the warm cushiony comfort of Nani Sharma and pleaded heartrendingly, “Mamma pass jaana hai.”
“Haan Bitiya haan, bas bas abhi phone karte hai,” she dug out her phone from within the folds of her purse, hoping that her daughter in law would pick up the phone; sale dekh kar toh uske hosh hi udd jaate hain; inta saara shopping karke bhi dil nahi bhara, she knew she had kindly brought her along to give her an outing but actually she was their as a guard and as a baggage counter. She shook her head and began dialing. Chotti was excited, “Chotti phone karega mamma ko!” she decreed.
Surprised and not a bit relieved, just the tiniest bit skeptical, she handed the phone to her imperial highness (she was quick enough to put the phone on the speaker before giving it to her – she had 4 grandchildren of her own); sure enough, Chotti confidently painstakingly keyed in the number correctly (her tongue sticking out).
“Hello? “Mammma, hum Chotti bol rahe hain,” Chotti said rather importantly.
She was immediately inundated with a barrage of questions, Chotti kahan ho tum, jaldi batao and all that, “Ufffoo!” she smacked her head, “Bolne doge toh batayega na?” she reprimanded her parents; they sagged with relief against each other, she was clearly somewhere safe, “Chotti Nani Sharma ke paas hai,” she smiled at the lady.
“Nani Sharma?” Khushi echoed and looked confused at Arnav; he grabbed the phone and said peremptorily, “Unko phone do Chotti.”
“Nahi,” Chotti refused point-blank, “Chotti baat karega.”
Arnav rolled his eyes and hissed angrily, “Chottti! Do as I say warna,” Khushi put a hand on his arm and spoke softly into the phone, “Meri gudiya, dena phone Nani ko, nahi toh kaise pata chalega aap kaahan ho? Chalo tum wahin raho hum Da ko lekar ice cream khaane jaate hain theek hai?”
“Ice cream!” she perked up, “Lo Nani se baat karo,” she offered the phone to the lady.
The lady wasn’t too sure about where exactly she was, but then she described the shops around and in no time, the Laijada’s were reunited with their Princess, the first to spy her was of course Devansh he dashed across to the wheel chair while Arnav and Khushi walked more sedately (they had made enough of a spectacle of themselves for that day), “Chotti!” he threw his arms around her, “Kahan chali gayi thi!” he gave her his first spontaneous hug.
Chotti was delighted, she hugged him back and was soon in her beloved Mamma and Daddy’s relieved arms while Nani Sharma was thanked effusively for all her help and care while she in turn praised the little girl for her confidence and intelligence.
Phewww all’s well that ends well. Actually not all quite well. There were of course certain long term repercussions of Chotti’s day out.
And a bonus – click here for Chapter 296