Like most kids Bunul loved to listen to stories, particularly loved to hear them at bedtime. Not all stories delighted her and lulled her to sleep. At bedtime, she would repeat her request sometimes annoying her father when he was too tired to tell a tale. But she would persist in her request that he tells her about Pinku. We did not know when and how she had picked up the name Pinku and had developed an interest in Pinku. Bunul’s Uncle lived in the next building, the last and the oldest one in a line of several apartment buildings. She was always eager to go there for the simple and interesting reason that her playmates, her cousins: Mridul and and Sudeshna are there, what's more, a dressed-like-a-lad housekeeper who she called Bhaiya was her playmate too! Their meetings would begin with playing with toys and then laughter and shouting and a clamor then running and bumping into each other and the mothers run with fear and anger holding them with love mixed with expected apprehensions coaxing them to restore normalcy to their tiny but mighty universe.
Their apartments in which they lived were too small for their movements, their movements were restricted by numerous objects stored with both aesthetic and handy commonsense to go well with the diverse demands of life without yielding to Time, the tough monitor of a metropolis, the giver of opportunities and freedom who kept an eye on the downtown sometimes hanging near the door of a local train, sometimes riding in a bus, sometimes in a three wheeler and one might see him in a taxi measuring unimaginable distances. He looked well-groomed and smart but having dust-colored demeanour, possibly because he had to walk a lot. But he always looked preoccupied, locked up behind his own timeless face. These children of this suburb of a metropolis, the largest in India, loved to listen to stories. They too had developed an interest in Pinku. With wide eyes they listened and listened and listened and seemed to devour all the instantly concocted anecdotes which were related to Pinku. Bit by bit but steadily, new residential buildings had devoured the agricultural land in the region surrounding Thana rivulet and eclipsed the hills too, sometimes they were caught in the morning mist peeping through between them. Perhaps they wanted to know what was going on inside them; they seemed to wonder where the local farmers had gone to. Were they hiding themselves in those tall buildings trying to touch the moon? The moon seemed pale and weary, crossing the clouds in a hurried pace to reach her place lest she should be made invisible by the rising sun.
Bunul was affectionate and intelligent, as her Nani said fittingly of her, and friendly, if you just ignored her pulling the hairs of other girls and frequent sharp clandestine pinches. What was distinctive of her was that she was mighty lively . Loved to slip her feet into the shoes and slippers of other children, to open the toys from any place in no time, to read books by writing on them, to paint them all in unreadable lines and to try to know what was written in them by tearing them, to write on the floor and on the walls, to swing evermore in the park and to feed her meals to her father and mother like a grandmother instead of herself eating her meals in time. Just before midnight when the suburb stirred in sympathy with the movements of the Metro that would be the right time when Bunul asked her father, “Daddy, tell me about Pinku.” Her father touched her forehead gently and kissed her and began:
“One day I saw Pinku going with his father with a bag; perhaps they were on their way to market to buy vegetables and fish. I was in the midst of a crowd and when I greeted his father, he did not hear or see me and he went ahead. Pinku was following him like a calf followed a cow, her mother.”
“But Pinku was with his Daddy, not with his mother,” Bunul corrected her father.
Her father said, “I was just giving an example of how he was walking behind his father. Don’t worry if you don’t understand it now. You are going to understand it when you grow up.”
“Yes, Mamma told me that, if I eat lot of green vegetable I will be tall and my hair will be long.”
“Yes, dear, that’s true.” And her father continued:
“And then after an hour or two when I came up to the main road I ran into Pinku who was carrying a bag full of vegetables and a fish looked out of the bag as if searching for something familiar. Pinku stopped me. He looked frightened. I asked him, “What is wrong with you, Pinku?” He hushed me up by putting his index finger on his lips, “Uncle, listen to what the fish is saying.” The fish was crying and saying, “Pinku, please make me free, do not take me home, take me to the river, drop me into the water over there where my brothers and sisters and friends and father and mother are searching for me.” The fish gasped for breath. Her gills opened and closed as if she was taking her last breath.
“Then, what happened?” Bunul asked, her eyes were wide with curiosity.
Her father continued:
“Then I called Pinku’s father on his cell phone. He was somewhere nearby. I told him all about the fish’s request and he himself heard her entreaties. We all three went to the beach and slowly put the fish in water, her home.”
Bunul said, “Daddy tell me more about Pinku.” And he was invoking the skill of storytelling from Shaharazade to enable him to tell at least one more story about Pinku for his tyrannical daughter tonight! Her father readily made up a plot and began:
“Last week when I was returning from Shanti Nagar I happened to be in the same bus with Pinku and his parents. “Today is Pinku’s birthday and we went to take the blessings of Lord Ganapati for his well-being”, both his parents spoke at the same time. I greeted his parents with folded hands and put my hands on the head of Pinku caressing his thick curly hairs as a way of blessing him and wished him many happy returns of the day. They told me about a famous temple in this city where people go to get the blessings of Lord Ganapati. “Why has he got the head of an elephant, Daddy?” asked Bunul. This questioned seemed to bother her inquisitive mind since she had seen the idol of Ganapati which was installed in the ground floor of our building. Now it was difficult for me to make her understand different legends associated with it, but I offered the one which was the most widespread among people, “ One day when goddess Parvati went to take a bath she created Ganesh and put him at the entrance of her home to stop anyone entering. In the meanwhile her consort Lord Shiva came and wanted to enter, but the young boy who was created by goddess Parvati did not allow him to enter. He got so outraged to see the audacity of this young stranger that he cut his head with his trident. When Shiva told what had happened outside, Parvati told him that the boy was her son and implored him to make him alive by putting the severed head on his shoulders or she will not touch food or water forever. Then Shiva cut the head of an elephant and put it on the shoulders of the dead boy and made him alive. When Parvati saw this spectacle she was filled with shock. Shiva told her that he will be known as Ganapati and he will be the first one to be worshipped in any religious ceremony.
“And I will be the first in my class” Bunul said raising her hand towards the sky touching the mosquito net. “But what happened to that elephant whose head was given to Ganesh?”
“I don’t know exactly what happened to the elephant but I will ask your mother about it,” I tried to evade the question.
“Daddy, tell me more about Pinku.” Bunul insisted.
“One day, after the school, when Pinku was waiting for his mother” I began, “he saw a small boy who was selling small idols of Ganapati…”
“Then, what happened?” Bunul’s eyes were half-shut and were closing slowly. She saw in her dream that she was playing with baby elephants on the beach. Her colored balls were there being played by the baby elephants. She wondered how they could bring her balls from her home. She laughed and shouted and slipped on the sand and flipped water and fell into it. They made her stand with the help of their trunks. Later one of them took her on his shoulders in a mango orchard full of ripe yellow mangoes. She plucked a ripe golden mango which smelled like the tang juice; she was so fond of drinking and kept it in her hand to show it to her Daddy in the morning.
Next morning, Bunul opened her eyes and asked about the ripe golden mango which was not there in her hand. She searched for it everywhere on the bed and felt very sad because it was not there. She slipped down from the bed and went out of the bedroom and headed towards her favourite place near the window. She climbed on the divan in the living room near the window which gave a view over the rows of apartment buildings from where she could see the city bus coming and going, from where she could see sparrows flying into the box-shaped iron grill of the window, sitting for a moment, saying something as if talking to her and again flying away, from where she could see the big pool of green water being slowly circumscribed by the constant dumping of soil to be made ready for new buildings to be erected. Her father had gone out to buy bread and her mother was preparing milk for her when the sun was seen unsuccessfully trying to dry up seepage in the walls which was a very familiar sight in and outside the apartments of this suburb. Like the figures of snakes painted on the mud huts in the villages of India the apartments were adorned with snake-like graffiti as if to ward off unforeseen calamities.
On her way to school one day the ever inquisitive Bunul asked her mother, “Mamma, Mamma, what is that on the wall? Is that the snake which came out last evening on the road from the water?” “No, my dear, “her Mamma replied, “that is repair work to stop seepage.” “What is seepage, Mamma?” “Oh, dear, now you are too young to understand that.” “Yes, Mamma, don’t worry, now I eat lot of vegetable and I will grow up faster and my hair too will get longer.” The mother smiled and patted Bunul who was more than two and a half years old but she looked taller than her age and smarter. Bunul started singing a nursery rhyme in Hindi, which her mother had taught her last year during her stay with her father in Yemen, “Bhagavn ham hain chote chote balak, Karen apaki kaise vinti, Bas sikhe hain akchar ginti…” (God we are too young to know how to offer our prayers to you, we have just learnt some letters and numbers.)
Suddenly she was gripped by the roar of an engine which she did not recognize and said, “ Look Mamma, it is eating earth, what is that?” A number of lorries were bringing soil from other places to fill this low-lying area which was filled with water and reeds. Two dinosaur-like engines were busy leveling the area by bringing soil from here and there and crushing them with their giant-size wheels. In the morning she used to get up with the noise of these vehicles and used to tell anyone she met that something was eating soil over there pointing towards the window. Snakes came out on the road when their habitat was encroached. Two years ago, Bunul’s Nanaji was advised by the people of this locality not to go for a walk towards the deserted areas where there was danger of an attack from the tigers who out of desperation had moved into the suburb.
Every day children of the apartments used to come out in the evening with their mothers or housekeepers to play in the garden which was given the shape of a tiny park. Some boys played football in the empty spaces and beside them keeping distance some older boys and girls rode their bicycles. The mothers sat on the platform of the national flag and chatted and watched their children. They were talking about Ganapati festival which was celebrated in this state of India with great devotion. After it got dark they all disappeared in their apartments, except those few elderly people who were sitting in the chairs near the cabin of the guards. Perhaps they were used to living in open spaces, not used to a closed, compact, and vertical living from where still the sky could touch the earth in silence bringing sudden showers of rain every now and then.
The moon came out from behind the hills and tried to climb up the dark space, stars lighted her way up and then again Bunul would ask her father to tell her about Pinku.