New Members in the House
Karthik stared at the two large bone-bleached white eggs. They felt warm in his hands, and were not like the eggs he usually saw in Baba’s hen house. “These are larger,” he exclaimed to himself. Karthik was standing in a small clearing in the forest. Leaves in the Devrakadu forest hung like millions of glittering emeralds above him, reflecting dots of yellow sunlight dancing on the ground. Karthik’s eyes glistened as he stared at those eggs, which were definitely larger than the hen’s eggs he was so used to seeing at home. “These are larger eggs, than what Ammo prepares for me every day for breakfast!” Karthik thought, and pocketed the two eggs while slowly sneaking out of the forest.
It was a bright afternoon, when Karthik had slowly tip-toed out of his red brick-walled thatched house to come to the Devrakadu forest. Every day, he would look longingly at the faraway green forest from his window, and would wait with rising impatience for a chance to sneak out. Ammo, keeping a strict vigil on her six year old son, would realize that Karthik, as usual, is just waiting to make a run into the nearby forest. So she would always caution her son “Karthik dear, you should not venture out too often in the forest. You never know what awaits you there. You could be attacked by wolves in the forest, or there might also be snakes. Snakes, you see Karthik, are very poisonous if they bite you.” But Karthik never came across wolves or snakes when he sneaked into the forest on his own, which was not too often, as Ammo’s loving dark eyes would never stop watching over him. However, some warm afternoons, when the thatched red-bricked houses in the neighbourhood went quiet, and Ammo fell into a soft nap, Karthik would slowly walk towards the wooden door, open it just a peep, slide out, and make a dash for the forest. Some days he would not even slip into his shoes, and would run bare-feet, feeling the nettles and the yellow leaves crunch under his feet.
The forests would always welcome Karthik with plethora of sounds, which would rise to the level of cacophony by evening when all the birds would return. Karthik loved the chirping of the birds above him, whisper of the leaves, breeze blowing through the trees and the branches swaying with joy, wild fallen flowers lending its occasional colour to the golden yellow ground covered with leaves, slow dusk flowing into the sky, and the faraway mist rising high to cover the forest in its white blanket. The long warm afternoons lent enough time for Karthik to play in the forest, chase the grasshoppers, crawl with the rows of ants, run after the bees, wait for dusk to catch some fire-flies and bring them home.
Now, digging his arm into his pocket to feel the eggs, Karthik thought with glee “Better reach home before Ammo wakes up from her nap.” Excited to have pocketed them, Karthik did not wait for dusk and the fire-flies. He ignored the bees and the grasshoppers, and instead walked back slowly towards his house, holding the eggs with caution in his pocket. It was almost past sundown by the time he reached home. Entering the house, he headed straight for the kitchen to place the eggs in the rack. But his mother was already in the kitchen, humming and preparing supper. Seeing Karthik, she asked “Where have you been, Karthik?” Before she could expect a reply, Karthik went straight across the backyard to Baba’s hen house. “If Ammo gets to know that I was in the forest, she will be cross. Better avoid speaking to her today.” Standing in front of the hen house, Karthik brought the eggs out of his pocket. They were a gleaming white under the moonlight, and looked so different to Karthik. Staring at them, Karthik thought “Let me keep these in the hen house for tonight.” Having decided on a place to keep the eggs for the night, Karthik bent down, opened the door of the hen house, and placed the eggs there. There was a flurry inside as he slowly moved his hands out, the hens not too used to an intruder after sunset.
The next afternoon, when the silvery warm neighbourhood went quiet again, Karthik crept out of his red thatched house. This time he did not dash for the forest, instead he quickly reached the hen house. He peeped in and to his great excitement, the eggs were there, just the way he had left them the previous night! He stood up and looked around. Seeing no one, he knelt down again, to look at the gleaming white eggs. “Now I can take them out to boil them!” thought Karthik with glee. Just then Ammo’s words floated in his head “There are snakes in the forest, Karthik. Snakes can be very poisonous.” Karthik thought “What if these are snake’s eggs? I might be poisoned if I have these.” With this thought, Karthik stood there for a long time, unable to decide if he should just leave them there. Karthik, deep in thoughts, never realized Baba standing beside him, and almost jumped out of his skin when he heard Baba’s gruff friendly voice talk to him “What are you doing here Karthik? I hope you don’t have any pranks up your sleeve this time with my hens. Last time when my hens ran crazy out of an open hen house, you were the last one to be seen around. They were all across the yard, and I had the toughest time chasing them back in. What have you got in your head this time, eh?”
“Nothing Baba, I was just looking at the hens.”
“It better be that, young boy, even though I don’t know what it is that you find so interesting with the hens today. If I find the hens running crazy this time across the yard, I certainly will ensure you stay indoors for at least a week.”
With a small determined nod, Baba went back into the house to his evening supper.
Karthik, quite undecided by now, did not want trouble with the hens today. Leaving the eggs in the hen house, he slowly walked across the backyard. “Well, now that the eggs are already in there, I might as well see if it hatches.” Settling the matter, Karthik never went near the hen house again till the next day.
The next morning, Karthik’s eyes fell on the faraway forest when he woke up. There was a slow mist rising above the forest, and the green horizon looked inviting, it was after all almost two days now that Karthik had not ventured out there. Thinking of the forest, he remembered the large eggs that he had left in the hen house. Quickly running out of the room, around the house he went. At the same time, Baba too came out of the house after him and called out “Karthik, the other day I knew you were definitely up to some mischief.” Pointing at a far corner of the yard Baba added “Look what you have brought in.” Karthik quickly turned to the direction that Baba was pointing at. The sun’s rays fell squarely on the yard at a far corner, and the morning dew shone like small pearls on the grass blades. Karthik saw some hens picking on the ground, and could not make sense of what Baba was pointing at. Upon looking closely, he saw two chicks following one of the hens. Karthik smiled “So Baba, we have two new chicks from our hens?” Baba replied “Those sure are chicks alright, but they don’t belong to my hens. Never in my life have I seen peacock chicks hatching out of hen’s eggs!”
Karthik’s eyes almost popped out with amazement “What? Are those peachicks Baba?”
“They definitely are, and I am quite sure that you have been bringing peacock eggs in my hen house. Where you got hold of these eggs? You have not ventured into the forest, have you?” Baba looked suspicious.
Ignoring Baba’s last question, Karthik slowly walked towards the chicks. He stopped some distance away and peered closely at them. “How do you know these are peachicks Baba? They don’t even look anywhere close to a peacock to me, all brown and ugly little chicks” he called out. Baba laughed in this loud throaty voice, his head tossing back “Wait a couple of days son, you will know.” To Karthik, these chicks looked nowhere close to a peacock, they were not colourful, and had no coloured feathers on them. And they ran after the hen, as the hen slowly walked across the yard picking at worms and grains. “If they were peachicks, they are rather dumb peachicks, otherwise why would they run after a hen, as if it’s their mother?” he thought. Karthik was sure that Baba was wrong; these ugly brown chicks could not be peachicks.
The next morning, waking with a start, Karthik quickly jumped out of bed, and ran into the backyard, to Ammo’s surprise. He wanted to see those chicks again. Running into the yard, he could hardly believe his eyes. The chicks had grown. They were now half the size of the hens. “How did they grow so fast overnight?” Karthik thought. Baba was already standing near the hen house that morning, his face gleaming, as the golden sun fell on his face. “Young man, up early today, eh?” Karthik did not reply, and kept staring at the grown chicks.
“Wondering how they have grown so fast? They are peachicks after all.” Baba’s I-had-told-you-so voice teased Karthik. “In a few days, they will grow all the more, and mind you, they will grow colours as well.”
Just as Baba had predicted, the chicks had grown all the more in a few days, as big as the hen they had been walking after. He could not believe his luck. He had managed to bring peacock eggs in his house and now he will have two peacock pets to himself. Ammo must allow him to keep pets in the house. He ran to the backyard, across to Baba’s hen house and called out “Baba! Baba! If these are peacocks, please tell Ammo to let me keep them as my pets.”
Baba was tending to his hens, and hearing his boy so excited, walked across with large steps and exclaimed loudly “What a ruckus you create early in the morning, Karthik.”
“Please Baba; I want them as my pets.”
“Okay, okay; you can have them as your pets as long as you promise never to venture out alone in the woods again.” Baba said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Okay sure I promise! Now can I keep them as my pets?”
“Yes sure you can.” Ammo’s soft laughing voice spoke to Karthik from behind him. He turned around to see Ammo smiling down at him, her kind face a soft glow in the morning brightness.
The next few days were tremendously busy for Karthik. Almost the whole day he would follow the peachicks around in the yard, from morning till sundown, except for the forced intervals where Ammo would run after him, catch hold of him, and push food into the busy boy’s mouth, or except the time when Ammo would pull him inside the house and force him into a bath. These intervals, which Karthik felt were quite unnecessary, were almost unbearable for him, and he would escape Ammo’s tyranny and run into the yard to watch over the peachicks again, regretting these unwanted intervals forced upon him from time to time.
As the peachicks grew, so did Karthik’s excitement. The colours were now visible on them, and Baba had one day explained to Karthik over dinner “It is quite obvious now that one is a peacock, and the other a peahen. The colourful one, with blue feathers turning a deeper indigo at its neck and long feathered-tail is a peacock, and the less colourful one, with golden-brown and blue colours peeping out of its shorter feathers is a peahen.”
As more days went by, the birds grew full size, and also learnt to fly. They flew short distances, perched themselves on the thatched roofs of the houses in the neighbourhood, making Karthik anxious for their return. There were days when they stayed hidden among the dense trees in the neighbourhood, and Karthik could not follow them, however he would hear them scream from the trees, or the neighbours’ roofs, and he would feel reassured that they are indeed around.
A new trouble had begun in Bhoja’s life. Earlier it was the neighbour’s nasty son Karthik, who would always trot into his property, shake the branches of the trees until the ripe fruits fell to the ground, run helter-skelter after the ducks, chase them into the pond, and then feed them by throwing titbit into his duck-pond. Bhoja had thought of putting up a sign saying ‘Trespassers will be caught and beaten up with Bhoja’s cane stick’ or ‘Trespassers throwing food into the snake-infested duck-pond, will be told to retrieve the food back’; but Bhoja did none of that, realizing that the boy was too young to understand written threats. So, Bhoja instead took up to raving and ranting, scaring the boy out of his property, not realizing that his looks were enough to scare a boy away. His belly hanging low, thanks to the pull of gravity, like an earthen pot; and a bald head on a round dark face, the walrus moustache highlighting his bloodshot eyes, and with excess of country liquor from day till night, Bhoja’s mood was always bordering on the dangerous.
Bhoja was only learning to deal with Karthik, when new troubles brewed up for him. Now it was not only Karthik, but his two new nasty pets calling out to each other with shrill shrieks and disturbing his alcoholic drowsiness. Bhoja thought with unease “Those are the weirdest pets any boy could ever have.” Bhoja flew into a rage that day when he saw the two large birds perched on his roof, calling out to each other. “The peacocks’ screams are too much for me to bear” and he started to scare the peacocks away with loud shouts. But to his dismay, he soon realized, the birds never paid heed to his voice, and remained as perched as ever on his roof and trees. Bhoja soon gave up, and started devising plans to end his troubles with the birds for once and for all. However, Bhoja soon realized his plans had to wait to take place during a more suitable time of the year.
And the Rains Came In
As the temperatures dipped, the air smelt crisp, and the sky turned a dark grey. The continuous low rumblings of thunder brought in great winds of joy in Karthik’s and his pets’ lives. Karthik loved the rains; it brought with it so many sounds and smells. The wet earth and the washed trees would all look like oil on canvas; the deep red bricks of the houses and the thatched roofs would all get a fresh lease of life. The birds went equally wild with joy, when the whole day they would run in and out of the house, run around in the yard, fly to the roofs and trees, and scream to each other with joy. As the rains tip-toed into Karthik’s life that year, he followed the birds all across the yard, followed them around in the neighbours’ yards, got himself totally drenched, and scared Ammo, lest he would catch a flu. Ammo would get into a flurry of activity, rushing to grab dry towels, run in the rains after Karthik, calling out to him to stop. At last with a smile playing on her lips, she would be able to grab hold of Karthik’s branch-thin arms, pull him aside under the shade to dry him out with the towels. Karthik never liked the interruptions, and would try slipping past Ammo out into the rains again.
One such rainy day, Karthik’s joy knew no bounds when he saw a gang of wild peacocks fly into his yard. There were around twelve to fifteen of them, some perched themselves on the roofs and trees, and some walked across the yard. Karthik’s birds acknowledged their presence with their peacock screams. The wild birds screamed back. Thus to Karthik’s surprise, a deep friendship grew among the birds. Every day, during that monsoon, the wild gang of birds would fly in from the nearby forest, stay with Karthik and his birds whole day, perch themselves on trees and roofs, run across the yard and eat the grains that Ammo kept in bowls, placed thoughtfully across the yard. By sun down, they would all fly back into the forest.
There were days when Karthik grew anxious when his birds would take off with the wild gang into the nearby forest, and not come back for the whole day. Till sun down, Karthik would sit at his window, and stare longingly at the forest, waiting for his birds to come back. Upon Ammo’s coaxing, he would refuse to eat or bathe. Ammo, with her yielding voice would coax “It is good when birds fly free, and you should be happy for them.” Karthik, inconsolable, would wail “No Ammo, I want them to be back.” No words were enough to comfort him, till he saw his birds fly back into the yard. Karthik soon learnt to live with his anxiety when everyday his birds flew back to him, and he soon gained the confident understanding that they will never leave him.
As soon as the monsoons were over, the gang of wild peacocks were not seen around anymore. Karthik and his birds felt as lonely as ever, as the winter cold descended. The days were now shorter, and Ammo was stricter with her rules. Karthik was not allowed to venture out into the yard after sundown. He would still try slipping out to look at his birds, but would not be able to find them in the quickly descending darkness, and would walk back into his house with drooping shoulders. Winters for him were not good; the days were too short to get his heart’s fill of playing with his birds. Even the birds fell quiet, now only perching themselves here and there, and at times calling out to each other.
Bhoja’s Wait is Over
The winters were good for one person in the neighbourhood – Bhoja, the pot-bellied drunk walrus. The whole monsoon, Bhoja could not act on his plans. He was confused with so many screaming peacocks all at once in the neighbourhood. He never liked venturing into the uncomfortable rains to scare the birds away. Having no other way out, he went through the daily disturbances of the birds and the boy, and waited patiently for the right time. Now, in the lonely cold winter days, it was easier for Bhoja to carry on with his devise. Not too many people could be seen around, and the boy was also not allowed to venture out for too long. “This is the right time for getting rid of my troubles” Bhoja realized. So, those days whenever the birds would perch themselves on Bhoja’s house, he would aim at the birds and throw stones at them. Bhoja’s plan was to break the wings of the birds so that they could never fly and perch themselves on his house. Because of his stupor of intoxication, he missed every time, the birds too fast for him, would quickly fly away, depriving Bhoja the chance to hit them.
As they say, practice makes a man perfect. So, Bhoja’s drunken aims soon improved with all the practice he had the whole winter. One lucky day for Bhoja, as he came out of the house some time before sundown, he saw Karthik’s peacock walking across his lawn. As Bhoja was standing somewhat far behind, the bird could not react when the sharp stone flew at it. Karthik’s peacock was stunned with the impact, and immediately fell limping on the ground. Bhoja was overjoyed at his first success after so many months, but soon discovered he had hit one of its legs instead of its wings, “But something is better than nothing.” Bhoja reassured himself, and walked towards the peacock. To his dismay, even after hitting one of its legs, the peacock still flew past him, into Karthik’s yard and fell limping there.
Karthik was in his house having an early evening supper with Ammo, when he heard sharp screams from his birds. The screams sounded different this time, and he could not quite understand what it meant. Quickly leaving his tray midway he rushed out into the yard. There, lying in a pool of blood was his peacock, the peahen walking close by, calling out in agony. With a cry of shock, Karthik ran towards his peacock, and bent low over it. The peacock’s leg was drenched in blood, and was twisted at an abnormal angle. “Ammo! Ammo! Quickly call Baba from the back yard.” Ammo rushed out to see what all the turmoil was about, and seeing the blood, stifled a small scream. Hearing all the noise, Baba rushed out from the backyard. Seeing all the blood, baba did not stop to ask anything, and rushed into the house to get his first aid box that he used for his hens.
Baba was fast and efficient with his first aid kit. He quickly searched among the feathers the area that hurt, neatly clipping the feathers out. The raw skin was bruised and looked almost white now. The blood had stopped flowing by now, and the skin looked swollen and puffy. Peacock was not moving, and lay down on the dust, with the twisted leg abnormally pointing towards the sky, the other leg lying limp on the ground. Its long blue-indigo tail feathers looked dusty, and it was slowly and feebly crying out, it eyes closed, its breath falling slowly. The peahen went round and round them, calling out now and then, with agony. Karthik could not contain himself any more, and the world soon became pear shaped, as large drops tricked down his cheeks. Baba was quiet, as he was washing the wound with a solution. It was quite clear to Baba that one of its legs was broken, and the bird was in obvious pain. “Baba, will he be alright?” was all Karthik could ask.
After the first-aid was done, for a long time after dusk, Baba sat beside the bird. There was no vet in the village, and the peacock had to be carried to the nearby town if its leg was to be fixed. Baba looked thoughtful when he said “I will take him to the vet in town tomorrow, it is too late today.” Ammo, stroking Karthik’s head gently coaxed him “Let us now go in, it’s getting quite dark, and the fog is already descending. Baba will bring the bird in too, and we will place him in some warmth.” Baba carried the bird in, placed the bird gently near the hearth, on a rug that Ammo had laid on the floor. Ammo placed another warm rug over the bird and tucked it safely in.
The whole night, Karthik was restless in bed. Almost towards dawn, Karthik got up, unable to stay put in his bed any more. He felt heavy in his heart thinking of his peacock lying alone near the hearth. Slowly creeping out of his bed, and walked towards the hearth to check how peacock was doing. When Karthik raised the rug to look at peacock, it was strangely quiet, and did not move when Karthik touched its small head. The touch felt icy to his fingers. Hearing soft movements, Ammo came out of her adjacent room and gently said “What are you doing son? Go back to bed; it is too early to be up and about, it’s not dawn yet.” Karthik exclaimed “Peacock is so cold, he needs another rug”.
Hearing this Ammo quickly walked over, bent down to touch the bird. There was a grave expression on her face when she quietly walked back in the bedroom to call Baba. Karthik could not understand, why Ammo is calling Baba, usually she would always ensure that Baba’s sleep went undisturbed, but tonight was different. Baba quickly woke up with a groan, and came out. He touched the bird, and then looked straight at Karthik.
“You see my boy, our bird is no more,” he announced in his grave voice.
“What do you mean no more? He is right here, with us.”
“No Karthik. He has left us. He is dead.”
Karthik knew what the word ‘dead’ meant. Last year when Baba said this word for grand-amma, he saw grand-amma no more. Her bed was empty and she never returned, her bright wrinkly face never told him stories, never fed him with sweets from the kitchen. Karthik knew, when someone is ‘dead’, they are not supposed to come back to tell you stories, or to play with you. So, he now knew, his peacock is ‘dead’, he will never come back to play with him, or to be with him.
It was a bright golden morning when Ammo woke up Karthik the next day. “Get up and get dressed, you have to say a good bye to your peacock today.” Karthik opened his eyes just a slit when he realized again for the second time that morning that his peacock was ‘dead’. Ammo was still speaking to him in her soft voice “Today, you have to say your farewell to peacock. You have to stay cheerful and smiling, because peacock is going on a long journey to the stars to stay there with grand-amma. If you are not cheerful today, he will go to grand-amma and say what a grumpy little friend you were to him.” That golden day, under the large dark tree, at the backyard, peacock was slowly lowered at the small pit that Baba had already dug earlier. Perched on the treetop, peahen, almost hidden in the foliage, called out its farewell to peacock with loud screams.
From the day peacock was buried, Karthik and his peahen were not the same again. Peahen walked and flew about, looking lost, not quite the same bright personality as she was before. The long warm summer days were back again. Karthik did not venture into the forests any more, nor play with his peahen the way he did last summer. He would just walk the yard, following his peahen around for some time. The peahen would never fly too far, usually stayed perched on the roof of the house that Karthik lived in, or in some nearby trees. Karthik never ventured into the neighbour’s yards, nor did he ever sneak into the forest, spending his time either with Ammo, or with his peahen.
The long summer days soon gave in to the monsoons. The days again turned into oil-on-canvas beauty, with an orchestra of sights and sounds, but Karthik could not be as happy as before. He often looked at the far off forest, smoky green, with the mist rising above it and thought of his peacock. There was a longing in his heart, to get his peacock back again, but that was not to be, according to Baba. Peahen also crowed, but it lacked the hearty scream with which it used to call out to peacock last year. The rains no more glittered for Karthik, the earth and the trees did not smell as sweet and fresh after a squall. Ammo did not have to run after him this year; Baba did not have to worry about his hen house being left open. Karthik stay put in the house, near his bed, from where he could always look at the far away forest in the day and the stars at night.
One morning the languishing atmosphere changed into a familiar delightful sight. Karthik woke with the sounds of peacock screams, so loud were they that it woke him up with a start. The sun’s rays deflecting on the trees from behind dark clouds, lent a golden hue to the morning, with a background of darkened sky, heavy with hovering rainclouds. The trees were emerald green, freshly washed after the night’s continuous rain. Karthik and Ammo rushed out to see one of the most wondrous sights they had seen in a while now. The gang of wild peacocks were back. Many were perched on the trees, some on the roof tops while some walked on the yard. Karthik’s peahen was on one of the trees, screaming out loud to her friends who had come to visit her that morning. Karthik trembled with joy, seeing so many peacocks. Fond memories from last year made him dance with elation across his yard. The peacocks at first surprised to see him dance in the soft drizzle, soon got used to him, and ignored him. By sundown, the gang flew back into the forest, only to return the next day. Many such rainy days thus passed by happily. Every morning peahen would perch herself on the rooftop and scream out looking at the sky, calling out to her friends from the forest. Karthik felt glad at the gang’s return every day. By afternoon, the birds would take flight together; with peahen too flying into the forest with them.
One such day, like every day in the rains, Karthik waited at his window with the familiar feeling of mild anxiety, looking towards the smoky green forest, with the mist rising over it. This time Karthik’s peahen did not return from the forest at sundown.
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