Boom! Boom! An ear-splitting firecracker. The boys who lit it scuttled off fast and hid. An old lady came out of her house, shouting and screaming, “You wretched boys. How often must I tell you not to burst these loud crackers near my house? I was so startled my heart is still throbbing … May you get hurt. May the crackers burn you…may your parents lock you up in the house…” She ranted on much to the delight of the boys who were ready with one more as soon as she went in. At the same time another old lady groaned aloud from another house on the street. “Oh, my. Oh God. These boys will give me a heart-attack. Oh, oh. Can’t anyone stop them?”
Dina and Alice sat in the verandah of their huge house smiling meanly. Scaring these old ladies was a sport they sometimes indulged in and today they had instigated the neighbors' boys to burst loud crackers in the street just for this purpose.
Basically they were good girls, did well in school and were otherwise helpful and well behaved. But once accidentally, they had scared an old aunt in their village by going up quietly behind her. From then on Alice thought up novel ways of startling these poor old ladies of the neighborhood. No punishment could deter her and Dina used to follow her willy-nilly. After all they came home only for these few days of vacation and they were going to have their fun. Didn’t the seniors in the boarding have a great time frightening them with ghost stories?
One evening, as their mother was settling down with a book after a busy day, she heard the old lady next door shouting out her name. When she went to the side entrance of the house, Alice who had gone to play next door was waiting outside.
“Katy, if your daughter doesn’t stop this I will have to punish her very severely. You know what happened today? She gave such a fright to my elder sister that the poor thing almost fell down the stairs. She is so shaken up she is lying in bed with a sedative.”
“Aunty, I have told you so often to punish her. When I scold her you side with her saying she is only a small girl. I am sorry and I will deal with this my way now,” she said in exasperation.
Alice stifles a smile as she entered her own house. She was also ready for a spanking. To her great surprise all her Mom said very sternly was, “Go upstairs to your room. You will come down only at dinner time”.
Rejoicing inwardly for getting away so easily Alice went up without a murmur. She wished Dina had not gone with Dad to the village. It was so lonely without her. Not knowing what to do, she began to plan some way to get back at the old lady for tattling on her.
After dinner too her mother was unusually quiet; nor did she complain to her father. Alice wondered uneasily about it. She was dying to go upstairs and talk about this to Dina. Every night after the lights were out, she was in the habit of praying before the picture of a deity. She always asked to be able to sleep well at night and not remember any of the chilling ghost stories she had heard in school. That was about the only thing that scared her. As she finished praying, she turned around and opening her eyes, let out a panic stricken scream. A white figure with blood shot eyes stood grinning wickedly at her in the faint street light that came into the room.
Dina sprang out of her bed and switched on the light.
“What happened? Why did you scream so?”
Alice was ashen faced and couldn’t speak for a while, her teeth chattered and she trembled like a dry leaf in a gale. Her heart thumped loudly as she clung to her sister and began to cry. “A
g..g..ghost. I s. .s..s..aw one, I s..s..s..swear,” she stammered between sobs.
Dina looked around the room but saw nothing unusual. She tried to comfort her younger sister. “Calm down Alice. I am here with you. You must have just imagined something.”
“No, I tell you. There was definitely a ghost here. It was standing right in the doorway and disappeared because you switched on the light,” she whispered. “I want to go down to Mom and Dad. Come with me.”
Just then their dad and mom came into the room. He had covered himself with a white sheet and only his face could be seen. He had held a torch under his nose, which emitted the red glow. This then was Alice’s ghost.
He looked at Alice and said kindly, “So now you know how it feels to be scared out of your wits.”
“That was a very mean thing to do dad. I will never talk to you,” sobbed Alice, hitting him on his chest with her fists. “You know I could have died from the shock of seeing a ghost?”
Dad gently pulled her to him and held her close to quieten her.
“Do you understand what you have been doing to the poor old ladies in our neighborhood? You didn’t like a taste of your own medicine, isn’t it? And there is another lesson for you in this. There are no ghosts.”
Alice realized the seriousness of what she had done. She was truly sorry and promised she would never again play such pranks on anyone. Next morning, a very subdued but wise Alice went to her neighbors and apologized. They were so sweet that they not only forgave her, but chided her parents for teaching her a ‘ghostly’ lesson. And the best part was she stopped being afraid of ghosts.
A Birthday with a Difference
Earlier in the day, as he watched all the preparations going on, he had seen the gap in the hedge to the far end of the compound. Now the little boy stood in the shadows watching cars and the people trooping out of them. Wistfully he took in the children’s happy faces, their expensive clothes and the brightly packaged gifts in their hands. He had seen such scenes in movies and guessed this was a child’s birthday celebration.
Inside, the festivity had already begun. Laughter and voices wafted out from the lawn. To the left just inside the gate was the indispensable balloon seller. A little further was a popcorn stall, next to him was a man selling candy-floss. In the further corner was a clown amusing the kids with his tricks and pranks. Blue and green lights twinkling on the trees and bushes had turned the place into a small fairyland.
A while later everyone started shouting and cheering as grand fireworks displays splattered the night sky and then spluttered out. It was all awesome but senseless to that little boy. He had only one agenda – to slink in unnoticed and steal some food. With great dismay he saw how so much lovely food was being thrown away, half eaten or with just a bite taken from a tempting sandwich or a mouth-watering samosa.
When he realized that everyone was reveling in the colorful fireworks display, he hedged in through the hole and looked around for a plate of wasted goodies. Soon he spotted one on a chair some distance away. Slowly he inched his way towards it, grabbed it and lurched for another half eaten one when he was caught. A loud shout of ‘thief’ and a resounding slap on his back threw him down and the food flew out on every side. He was pulled up by his tattered shirt, dragged, beaten and thrown out of the gate. He pleaded and cried that he and his brother had had nothing to eat all day, all he wanted was the food they were throwing away but no one cared for him.
Shrey smartly attired in expensive clothes and shoes looked on with distant snobbery. His birthday was coming up next month and he had been pestering his dad to throw a lavish and novel party for his friends. He remembered one friend of theirs had taken them all to Singapore for his birthday. Another had celebrated his in great style in a five-star hotel. Parthu, who was always addicted to animated films, had thrown a costume party and all his guests had to come dressed as characters from his favorite shows. There were Batmen, Spidermen, Ninja Turtles, Shaktimans, Tin Tins and many others. This particular party was good but there was nothing new or exciting about it. His would have to be something very different from all others.
That night, before he fell asleep he prayed “God, please, please let me have a fantastic idea when I wake up tomorrow morning. Good night God.”
And he did get a new idea for his party.
Next morning he went bounding and skipping to his father.
“Da-ad, I have a superb plan for my party.”
His Dad smiled indulgently and asked, “Where do you want to take your friends? Not to Seychelles I hope?”
“No, Papa. First listen to this lovely dream I had. A beautiful fairy entered my room and filled it with a golden light. She wore a snow white dress, had the most gorgeous wings and held a wand that twinkled like a thousand stars.” Shrey’s own eyes glowed like bright stars as he spoke.
“And Dad she said to me “Shrey you want to celebrate your birthday differently this year, right?”
I nodded my head.
Then she waved her wand and all at once I saw two boys huddled together. Their clothes were dirty rags. As I looked at them closely I realized they were crying and the older of the two was the same boy who had been thrown out from the party. They were sobbing and I felt very sad for them. The fairy waved again and then I was standing in front of a huge gate. I had seen it on my way to school. Behind the gate were many little children, some with very sad faces. They had worn clean but old clothes; some had no shoes or slippers. Puzzled I looked up and the board said ...Orphanage. Before I could say anything I was again with the fairy who had the kindest eyes in the world and Dad her face was like Mom’s! Mom is in heaven, yes?”
His Dad smiled and asked him to continue with the dream.
So Shrey continued: “Dad then she told me “All your friends are very rich and have more than they can use and eat, isn’t it?”
“Yes” I whispered not able to understand her.
“Shrey, this year instead of receiving gifts why don’t you give something on your great day? Wouldn’t you like to make these children without Moms and Dads happy?” And with a sweet smile she disappeared.”
“Oh Dad, shall we? The fairy was sooo beautiful and sooo kind. I want to do what she told me. This year I will give happiness to less fortunate children. I don’t want anything else for my birthday.”
His father nodded proudly. Shrey shared his dream with his closest friends. And so on his birthday, they loaded the car with balloons, sweets, cake, lots of other delicacies, some toys and clothes and went to the orphanage. They spent the evening playing with and getting to know those children. They also made some new friends. The children sang for Shrey and finally thanked him over and over again with joy on their faces.
Shrey was delighted. Though he got no gifts this birthday he felt it was the best and most wonderful of all he had celebrated. Silently, he thanked the fairy who had given him this great idea.
Cheel was one of the strangest birds of prey. Smart and handsome, he could glide like a ballerina and swoop with finesse. But he was glaringly different from other kites in one respect. He was born very normal. As a fledgling he relished every beakful of the choice morsels of squirrel, rat or small bird that his mother brought him. Obediently eating whatever he was given, he grew into a strong young kite. Then began the lessons in flying. At first he was very scared and just flapped his wings or flopped down awkwardly. Like all mothers his mom too knew that eventually he would learn to fly, because that is what all birds do...well, almost all.
Then his mother began the next most important lesson – hunting. With great patience she taught him how to circle around high up in the sky and keep a keen eye for small birds and animals. In the beginning she told him to just follow her as she glided in smooth circles and scouted around for food. When she spied an unwary little prey, she would swiftly pounce, dig her talons into the poor struggling creature and fly off with a triumphant scream. Cheel would follow her eagerly to binge on what she caught, tearing away with healthful glee.
Often when she had espied something, she would play a game with Cheel. She would guide him in the general direction of the prey and ask him to spot it. At first it was difficult. Once he saw a fat rat lying near a garbage dump. To impress his mother, he circled the area without her and then in one unerring descent he scooped it up, only to throw it down instantly. It was a foul smelling piece of rag that he had mistaken for a rat. He flew off peevishly. At another time he had found a small snake in a field, but he was so amazed at it slithering away that he forgot to catch it.
His mother, who constantly watched over him, instructed him softly, “Son, you must learn to be more observant and focused. If you keep going after wrong things, or get distracted as you just did, you will not succeed. Be more watchful and teach yourself to distinguish between what is right for you and what is not.”
“Yes mama, sorry mama,” said Cheel. He thought his mother was the wisest and most beautiful in the bird kingdom and he would make her proud one day.
That day wasn’t too far away. He had been flying with other kites. Cheel did not like the boastful talk of the others, as he had not yet caught anything he could brag about. He flew far from them, away from their usual hunting area over a little hill. From way up he could see some movement, little animals scurrying about. So he decided to take a closer look. He began to fly down and then saw that they were squirrels, chasing one another and chirruping delightedly. He flew a little lower still. “Now is my chance,” thought he. He kept flying in stealthy circles and then pouncing fleetly, he scooped up one. He screeched in excitement, while the poor squirrel struggled to free himself. The rest, except one little chap, had scampered off in fear of their lives. Even as he lifted off with his booty, Cheel’s eyes met those of that fearless little squirrel who had been nicknamed Spunky. Eager to show off his catch and see the gleam of pride in his mother’s eyes, Cheel vaguely wondered why he had not caught Spunky. He was such an easy target.
Soon he became as adept as his mom and like any young adult decided it was time for him to move away from her protective shadow. Something disturbing had begun to happen to him now. Whenever he was resting, Spunky’s eyes seemed to stare at him, as if they were trying to tell him something. He tried in vain to ignore them. Finally he decided to go and see if Spunky still lived on that hill. He was disappointed. The hill had been cleared of its little vegetation and construction work had begun.
As the days progressed, he became listless. He began to fly off everyday in search of squirrel colonies to find Spunky. Those fearless eyes had cast a spell on him. They had robbed him of his peace. One particular spot had become his favorite perch. It was an antenna atop a four-storied building. Half-starved, he would sit on it and watch all the squirrels scuttling about in the surrounding trees hoping Spunky would be among them.
One evening, as he brooded about those obsessing eyes, he noticed a slight movement very close to the antenna and then a plucky “hello” greeted him. He looked closely in the fading light. It was Spunky! Cheel was as delighted as a lover on finding his long lost sweetheart
“Ah, finally I have found you. Where were you? I have been looking all over for you. I’ve been so desperate. There is so much I want to ask you...”
Cheel and Spunky were both startled at his outburst and then they began to laugh.
“No, Cheel. You didn’t find me. I have come to you.”
“Why would you do that? I can see that you are fearless, but what has made you so? Do you have some special powers?”
“I have come to you because I know you have been looking for me. First I thought you wanted to eat me but I have been observing you and realized that something is eating away at you. You want to know the secret of my fearlessness?”
“Yes, yes, please tell it to me.”
“Actually the secret is a very simple truth, a lesson that a very kind old crow taught me.”
“Yes? Go on.”
“When I was growing up there was a bully in our group. I was the most timid so he always stole my nuts, pushed me around and terrorized me. I was so afraid of him that I stopped venturing out of my hole. I was sad, lonely and almost dying of hunger.
The crow lived in the same tree. He came to me one day and said pitifully, ‘Don’t you think you would be better dead than living this miserable life?’
I sobbed uncontrollably and decided I would end my life that same day. I asked him to show me how.
He replied compassionately, ‘Silly. I can’t teach you how to die. Instead I will tell you a little secret to help you get rid of that bully.
“Oh will you do that? Thank you so much. What should I do?”
‘Face your fear. Next time your tormentor comes, look him straight in the eye and stand your ground. Then see what happens.’
“I thought the crow had lost it. He was asking me to invite my death.
‘You anyway wanted to kill yourself. You will die but once. Why not go facing your adversary with courage?’ Those words did it. All night I pondered over them. I was dying a thousand deaths daily because of my cowardice. Might as well face it once and for all.
“The next day I took the gamble. If I didn’t go out, I would die of hunger. If I did, the ruffian would steal my food but I might still get enough to keep me alive. So thinking I began to feast and then gathered some delicious nuts to take back with me.
“Bang on schedule, the bully arrived and ordered me to hand them over to him or else...The monster bared his fangs. I was quaking inside”
“So what did you do? Did you give them away? Did you run away?” The young kite was edgy with suspense.
“Trust me, I wanted to scamper away. But the crow’s words echoed in my mind. I held on to my precious load, looked him squarely in the eye and in a firm voice said, ‘Go find your own. These are mine and you are not getting any. At the most I might share a few with you if you will stop bossing around.’ With that I stood up on my hind legs, struck a warily adamant pose, ready to throw down my treasure and dart if the need arose.
“I couldn’t believe what followed. The bully, struck speechless by this attitude just bounded off without a backward glance. I was more dumbstruck than he! I stayed rooted expecting him to return and fall upon me any minute. From that day I have romped freely and lived on my terms. I dared to look fear in the face. That is my secret.”
“Wow. Now I understand why I couldn’t pick on you that day.”
Cheel was all admiration for this brave little squirrel. There he vowed that now on he would be a friend of the squirrels and protect them. That differentiated him from all other kites. They had always suspected that he was a bit batty. Finally he had proved it.
A cool breeze blew in from over the sea. Waves lapped lazily along the shoreline, creating their own music in tandem with the breeze. They sat in the verandah of the bungalow, enjoying the sea and the palm tops flaring in a slow dance. Afreen and her mother had taken a few days off to be together in this idyllic place which they had not visited again after Afreen’s father had died.
As they sipped refreshing coconut water, they watched Afreen’s toddler playing in the sand. It was all over him – in his hair, ears, pockets - like he was bathing in it. He watched every grain with awe as it trickled through his fingers in his futile attempt to fill a pail. He squealed with excitement and looked frequently at the two women following his every action with surging pride and joy.
‘Very soon, these carefree days will be over and he will begin school. Enjoy him while you can, Afreen.’ After what seemed like a short trip down to some corner of her mind she said again, ‘It seems just a short while ago I used to watch you play this way. And before we knew it you were off to school.’ Afreen smiled.
Her mother continued, “I remember the day I took you for your interview for pre-primary. When the Sister came for you, you refused to enter the class. You just pouted at her and turned away. About an hour later, after she had conducted some more interviews, she was called away. Most of the interviews were over and the children and parents had left. I was afraid that was the end of you getting admission in this school. But no sooner you saw the nun leave, you were ready to enter the classroom!! The other teachers found it very amusing and they took you in. Immediately, you started questioning them. ‘What is this? Why is that so? Why was that lady (nun) wearing such funny clothes?’ You delighted them so much, they knew they wanted you as their student.”
Again Afreen said nothing. She had heard this one before as she had about other childhood incidents. In the ensuing silence it was her turn to slip into memories. She remembered two little books her mother had carefully saved till this day. Other prizes had followed but these being the first two held place of pride.
“Little Pets” was a prize she had won for ‘enthusiasm shown in class activity, good grasping power and poetry’. That was in nursery class.
In senior K. G. she had been awarded “Big Animals” for general knowledge. She remembered being told that there had been a little hoo-ha at that time. The prizes were to be given away on the sports day. The Senior K. G. class were to perform exercises to music, holding colorful flags. For that the school was to make a special dress for each girl. The parents were asked to cough up Rs. 350/- each. In those days it was an exorbitant amount for what would be a little dress with a skimpy, tutu-like skirt, which no girl would be able to wear again. Afreen’s father refused to pay. He asked them to make the dresses slightly bigger so the girls would be able to use them again later. The principal would not budge. Instead she tried to cajole him saying that they would have to leave Afreen out from the performance and it would reflect badly on her relationship with her parents. ‘She may never understand and may not forgive you for being the only girl left out because her parents would not pay.’
‘I am sorry,’ replied her father. ‘Today she may not understand, but she will when she grows up. This is not so much about money as about values and principles.’
So Afreen stayed back in the room while the rest of her classmates performed to the delight of their indulgent parents who had buckled to authority without a whimper. But she was told that she had not been left alone there. Her mother was with her all the time reassuring her, telling her how proud they were of her; how, soon her name would be called out and she would walk up to receive her prize.
She also recollected a party she had attended with her parents. Some of the men were drinking and soon the atmosphere lightened with people laughing and joking. Suddenly, one of the men, quite drunk, addressed her dad rather loudly: ‘Arre, yaar. What clothes are you wearing? You should wear smart expensive clothes, not such rags.’ There was total silence. All eyes were apprehensively on her father. Very calmly, with absolute poise and dignity he replied, ‘Oh, I am so sorry. I thought people mattered. Not their clothes. Next time around I’ll send rich clothes to the party.’ The tension immediately dissipated and her father had won the day. Next morning, when he was sober, the man who had made this remark, called to apologize to her dad. She was so proud of her beloved father.
Afreen got up from her chair, went over to her mother and kissed her, after hugging her warmly. ‘Ma,’ she said, ‘I am so proud of you and Daddy. You have instilled wonderful values by your example and the courage to stand up for them against all odds. Today, I am respected and loved for who I am and not for the things I possess. I do not need outer embellishments like branded clothes, the latest in fashion accessories, regular visits to beauty parlors or anything else considered a status symbol to feel good and confident. I can meet the world on my own terms. Thank you Ma. And thank you Dad, wherever you may be.’
Mother and daughter sat holding hands, secure in the warmth of their love and understanding, reflected in the sun setting over the horizon.
They lolled around sipping coke, munching on Lays and Bingo. It was like any other evening at their favorite ‘katta’; jokes, laughter, back-slapping with a lot of ‘yaars’ thrown in. Soon, tall and lanky Cyrus, started off with another one of his tales which, Mohan always teased, were double his height.
“This happened to my own uncle. You know him Ravi, the priest. Well, last year, just a few days before our New Year, he was returning from the fire-temple. It had been a hard day; he had had to stay there later than usual, because someone had wanted a special ceremony which has to be performed after midnight.”
“What kind of ceremony is that? Was it to drive away one of your ghosts?” laughed Mohan.
“Just shut up, you clown, let him finish,” someone slapped him hard on his head from behind.
“Look, I am not getting into the religious part here. You don’t want to listen get lost.”
Mohan got another whack and then all fell silent. Soon, even the munching stopped, as the dramatic rise and fall of Cyrus’ voice, gripped all ears. Mohan had a sarcastic grin on his face.
“Okay, so as I was saying, it was around three in the morning when uncle decided to finally call it a day. The August rain was a torrent and the howling wind wanted to run away with his umbrella. Not a soul was around, not even a dog. If frogs croaked no one would have heard them. He didn’t have far to go, but the inclemency made him shuffle and drenched to the bone he started to shiver. Buddhe ho gaye hain, yaar. He is rather old, you know. Poor guy. Hardly a yard away from the temple and a cycle braked near him.”
Maninder (the youngest) began to get goose bumps. Cyrus’ stories always had that effect on him and he listened on, lips slightly ajar, a tremor of anticipated fear going through him.
“Sahib, what are you doing out at this unearthly hour? And in such weather!” shouted the cyclist.
“A startled uncle recognized their milkman from his voice. Instead of shouting again, he gestured with his hands, made uncle sit on the bar and pedaled off as fast as he could towards home.
“Uncle was in no state for any niceties. He just thanked him and got into the house. Next morning, he narrated the incident to his wife and asked her to give something extra to ‘that poor Champak’ who had been so kind to him.
“My aunt went pale and uncle was dumbstruck when it suddenly hit him that Champak had been dead three years, almost to the date!”
Maninder’s empty packet of Lays, slipped to the floor. He was pale and hoped someone would say something soon. He wanted to be safe home before it was too dark but he couldn’t move out from there. He knew they would rag him no end later.
“So now, Mohan, will you still insist there are no ghosts?” This was Shruti, the only girl in the gang and the shrewdest of all.
“Nah! I still say it is all poppy-cock. It is all in the mind. And this Bawa always takes you dumbos for a ride. He is like his name-sake on MTV.”
“Fine. Then prove it to us,” piped in Ravi.
“I will. This kali chaudash day I will go to the graveyard at the end of your road at exactly midnight. No spook can scare me, you silly wimps.”
“So how will we know you really went there? I’ll tell you what. You take a nail and hammer it into the ground under the custard apple tree at the farthest end of the cemetery. And we will all stay over at Ravi’s that night, so we all know you at least went out of the house at the stroke of twelve,” sneered Shruti.
~ * ~
So at the appointed hour, Mohan left for his ‘tryst with destiny’, a hammer and nail in hand. He had dared himself to stay there the rest of the night, so he carried a light shawl with him.
Fifteen minutes after he left, the friends followed him. Maninder had implored them not to, but they didn’t listen. They were scared too, but they couldn’t leave him alone on a dangerous mission like this. Maninder had no choice but to tag along. Cyrus was a little ahead of them. They did not dare to look farther than a few steps in front. When they reached the gate they heard the muffled strokes of the hammer.
Surreptitiously, holding hands, they crept in. “Damn it. Me and my big mouth! I shouldn’t have dared him”, thought Shruti.
“Wahe Guru, please don’t let any of us die. And no ghosts,” begged Maninder.
As they reached half way, Shruti hung tight on to Ravi’s hand, her nails clawing into his arm even as he began to drip perspiration. Petrified, they were rooted like upright grave stones!. Maninder swooned and fell with a thud!! Out of nowhere an apparition loomed into view and then spoof! it was a yard away. Then with a low, blood-curdling laugh, it began to move towards them. Another one sprang up just at arm’s length from them and a strong flash light beamed into their faces as Mohan, Cyrus and a third conspirator doubled up with laughter.
Ravi and Maninder, who had come to by now, sprang on them, floored them and bashed them up. Shruti wouldn’t be left behind. She slapped them real hard.
“You idiots, we could have all died! Don’t you ever again do this to us! And Cyrus, no more of your scary tales,” she hissed.
And then all sat down right in the middle of the small graveyard discussing the experience.
Mohan had the last word, “See, I told you nincompoops. The ghosts and spooks are in our minds. Fear is the biggest ghost. And this *#@#*^ Bawa’s made-up stories add to it. I hope we have finally exorcised it from your bird-brains!”
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