Sh-sh-sh, whispered the pines. It was a warm summer afternoon. A heat haze hung in the air like an uncomfortable curtain, blotting out the distant hills.
Puja and Mitu were perched on the hillside, just at the edge of the patch of forest above Puja’s house. “Oh, what a lazy-lazy afternoon,” Puja breathed. She lay back, trying to ignore the pine needles pricking her back.
Through half-closed eyes she gazed at the house, the sloping red tin roof, the creepers winding up the verandah pillars. A thin blue spiral of smoke coiled up from the small outhouse below it, where Paruli stayed with her mother. Lower down the hill she could see Mitu’s house, a large squarish bungalow.
“Hey, isn’t that Paruli’s village?” Mitu cried, as though she’d picked up Puja’s train of thought and carried it further. She pointed to a spot in a distant valley where the sunlight caught a slender, ribbon like streamlet, turned it to silver and flashed on a cluster of slate roofed houses. “How close it looks! I can’t believe it’s ten miles away.”
Puja opened an eye. “Mmm, yes,” she murmured.
Skinny and energetic, Mitu sprang to her feet to have a better look. Then she cried, “Listen, aren’t we going to try your new cooking things?” Nine-year-old Puja’s aunt had brought her a set of small cooking utensils—a pressure cooker, karahi and little cooking pots.
Puja wound a curl around her finger. “Oh well, okay,” she said.
Mitu got busy. She laid out two stones and piled twigs between them. “This is our fire,” she pronounced. Gravely she broke off some leaves into a karahi and set it on the make-believe fire. “These are our vegetables,” she said. “What are you going to make, Puja?”
“Can’t I just eat?” Puja crinkled her short nose.
“Oh, you lump!” Mitu said disgustedly.
With a sigh, Puja sat up and stretched. Then something caught her eye. Someone had come out of the outhouse and was scrambling up onto the wide path that led towards the forest.
“It’s Paruli!” Puja was suddenly wide awake.
Mitu looked up. “Strange,” she said. “Generally her mother keeps her quite busy working at this time.”
Paruli was the maid’s daughter. At thirteen she was much older than the other two but she loved to play with them, when her mother allowed her a little time off. Paruli’s mother firmly believed that girls were meant to be kept busy with household chores all the time. In fact, the three were great pals. When Paruli had first come with her mother from the village, Puja and Mitu had found her a little odd. With her narrow kaajaled eyes, her pierced nose, which had a black fern stem stuck in it to substitute for a nose ring, and her faded hand-me-down clothes, she was different from their usual playmates. But once they came to know her better, they found her great fun because she was full of such adventurous ideas. She was the one who discovered the place where the fattest, juiciest hissalu berries grew, crunchy orange cups that fell into your hand as soon as you touched them. She introduced them to the delights of roast chana and mishri at the Shivratri fair and told them stories about the various birds that flew and chirped in the forest. With Paruli they never knew what exciting activity was coming up next.
“Paruli!” Puja yelled out. Paruli just waved back. “Why doesn’t she just come straight up?” Puja muttered impatiently, as Paruli meandered about the forest picking up twigs.
Eventually, she reached the spot where they were sitting.
“What’s cooking?” she asked. Inadvertently, she glanced towards the house as though she were scared that her mother might have seen her.
“What the matter?” Mitu asked. “Has your mother been yelling at you?”
Paruli’s face was expressionless as she shook her head quickly. But both girls knew her mother had a quick temper, even hit her sometimes. Suddenly Paruli put her bundle of twigs down. She bent to pick up a shiny cooking pot, a perfect copy of a real one. Her face lit up as she examined it. “You could make a whole cup of tea in this!” she said.
“A cup of tea!” Puja exclaimed excited.
“A cup of tea,” Mitu echoed.
“Yes…shall we?” Paruli urged. “We can get some tea leaves and milk from the kitchen.”
“But,” Puja said. “We’ll need a real fire!”
“A real fire!” Mitu’s eyes glistened. “But how? We don’t have any matches!”
“I’ll manage that,” Paruli said. She quickly picked up her bundle of twigs and scrambled down. “I’ll be back in just a minute,” she said.
“A real fire! Wow!” Mitu was breathless. “I’ll get some water.” She rushed to the little spring that lay in a damp hollow some distance away—the only one that didn’t dry up in summer.
Eagerly, they waited. A real fire, real tea. Fancy that!
After a while, Paruli returned, climbing up the slope carefully. She had a little cloth bag slung over her shoulder and—in a pair of tongs she held—a real live glowing coal! “Get some pine needles,” she called.
Even Puja’s stubby legs moved fast as she scooped up heaps of dry pine needles. The pile of pine needles was placed carefully between the stone, on top of the twigs, the cooking pot nestled on top of them. Then Paruli dropped the coal on it. The sun-dried needles caught fire at once, tiny flames licked up around them, then grew and grew as they watched, fascinated.
Then…Swoosh! The fire flared up wildly, throwing down the little pot. It roared out, beyond the stones as a gust of wind fanned the flames. The dry pine needles that carpeted the forest floor, provided plenty of fuel.
The girls jumped up in a fright. Petrified they watched the fire spreading, devouring bushes, reaching out to the tall trees.
Paruli was the first to come to her senses. “Fire!” she cried, “Run! Run!”
“Fire!” Puja yelped, practically tumbling down the hill. “Fire! Fire!”
Their first thought was to get away from the threatening flames. But when they reached the wide path that led to Puja’s house, they paused. How could they go home and say they had set the forest on fire? They were both strictly forbidden to so much as light a matchstick!
Puja took the lead. She ran down the lower path that led to the orchard behind the house. Mitu followed, ignoring the track that would lead her homewards. They could hear Paruli yelling “Fire! Fire!” as she ran towards the house for help, got a vague glimpse of figures rushing from the house, and heard shouts. When they reached the orchard they stopped, hearts pounding.
“What’s going to happen now?” Mitu was almost in tears. “Why did we ever agree to have a fire? I never thought it would spread like that.”
“Neither did I,” said Puja. She was still breathless. “I wonder what’s happening…It’s all Paruli’s fault. She was the one who brought the coal. I wonder how she dared to go home!”
But Mitu said distractedly, “Suppose the fire reaches the house, suppose they can’t control it! Oh, I’m so scared. It’ll all be our fault.”
Shivering with fright they waited. The orchard was too far away from the forest—on the other side of the hill. They couldn’t see what was happening from there. They could only wait in painful suspense, listening with all their might for any sound that might give them a clue, cowering under the fruit trees.
They waited and waited. Finally Puja said, “I think we should go back. I think they’ve put out the fire. It was only a small one.” She felt braver now, since nothing disastrous seemed to have happened.
“Do you think so?” Mitu asked. “I’m terrified. Everyone will be furious.”
“Well, it wasn’t really our fault.” Puja reached out and broke a plum. It was pretty raw but she was quite hungry. She’d just bitten into it when a sound made her turn. It was Paruli.
“Paruli, what’s happening?” Mitu burst out anxiously.
Paruli’s reply gave them a shock. “Everyone’s very angry with you,” she said. “You did a very wrong thing, lighting a fire in the forest.”
Puja’s mouth fell open. She was too stunned to reply. Paruli’s accusing tone quite took her breath away. Wasn’t she the main culprit? Hadn’t she suggested the fire and brought the coal?
But Mitu wailed, “Oh, no!” And then, “Is it all right now?”
“Yes! They managed to beat out the fire. It had spread really far though. We had a tough time controlling it.”
“But listen, Paruli,” Puja said. She had recovered from the initial surprise and wanted an explanation.
“I’m going, my mother’s calling me. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you’re here!” And Paruli hurried away.
Mitu began to cry. “What’ll we do now?”
Puja burst out angrily, “What cheek! Putting all the blame on us!”
“Oh, oh why did we listen to her?” Mitu sobbed.
Puja bit into her plum furiously. The sun was slipping towards the horizon. Soon it would be dark. They couldn’t hang around the orchard forever. And she was starving now. “We have to go back some time,” she said. “We might as well get it over with.”
Mitu hesitated, then she too nodded reluctantly. Slowly they crept up the path, up the worn stone steps that led to the house. The wind brought a whiff of smoke, the acrid smell of burning wood. With guilty fear they turned their eyes towards the forest, shocked to see the charred tree trunks, a dismal sight even from this distance.
Puja’s mother was sitting in the verandah. Silently they faced her, heads hung low in shame.
“So where have you been hiding all this time?” Her voice was unusually stern. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?”
Mitu sniffed. But Puja looked straight into her mother’s eyes. “Ma,” she said. “We’re very sorry. We never realized that the fire would spread so fast.”
“Now you realize I hope,” Ma’s voice was still hard. “It was a very, very dangerous thing you did. You could have got burnt.”
“Ma,” Puja continued, “it was not our fault. Paruli brought a piece of lighted coal—“
“But you asked me!” A high pitched voice interrupted.
It was Paruli—gazing at them with an air of injured innocence.
“Asked you?” she gasped. “What a lie! We never thought of a fire.”
“Is this true, Paruli?” Ma asked. Paruli didn’t answer. Just stood there looking aggrieved.
“All right, all right,” Ma said finally. “I hope you have all learned a lesson from this.”
“Yes, Ma,” Puja said, her voice subdued.
“Yes, aunty,” Mitu’s voice could barely be heard.
Mitu was sent home. Puja drank her milk and sat brooding silently. How could Paruli have told such lies? She was the one who had suggested the fire.
“I’ll never play with her again,” she muttered to herself. “I won’t even talk to her.”
And Puja kept her word. The next day she told Mitu what she’d decided and Mitu agreed wholeheartedly. They decided to boycott Paruli totally. When she turned up to play, looking as if nothing had happened, they acted as if she wasn’t there at all. Since they’d been forbidden to go to the forest, as a punishment, they played near the house.
Paruli watched, hovering uncertainly at a distance. She watched them build a little hut with walls of stone, roofed with twigs, with a real garden around it made of transplanted seedlings. After a while, she vanished.
“Thank God,” Puja said. “I hate someone watching me play.”
“Yes,” Mitu said, “it spoils all the fun.”
But that very moment Paruli reappeared. She held two branches covered with mauve jacaranda flowers. For a while she stood there as if waiting for someone to take them from her. When no one did, she came and began to plant them in the garden.
Puja jumped up at once. “Let’s go Mitu,” she said, “or we’ll be blamed for spoiling the jacaranda trees. Some people love to get others in trouble.”
“L-look, l-listen,” Paruli began. But Puja ran away and Mitu followed. Paruli just stood there looking hurt and ashamed at the same time.
“What are we going to do today?” Mitu asked the next morning, when she came to play with Puja. They had watered their ‘garden’, added a plant or two. The day stretched before them, long and dull.
“Puja,” Mitu said cautiously, “shall we make up with Paruli? It was terrible of her to blame us, but you know…”
“Never!” Puja cried. “I’ll never make up with that liar. You can play with her if you want, but then, I won’t play with you!”
“Okay, okay,” Mitu said placatingly. “I thought maybe…”
“Definitely not. Come, let’s play cards. The sun’s too hot outside in any case.”
They went inside and settled down to play cards. After a while, Mitu said, “I was thinking, wondering why Paruli put all the blame on us. Maybe she was scared.”
“We were scared too,” Puja said. “We also got into trouble.”
“But Puja, she’s a servant,” Mitu said. “And her mother—you know what she’s like!”
“That doesn’t mean that she should tell lies and put all the blame on us.” Puja’s lower lip stuck out stubbornly. Mitu gave up then. She knew how hard it was to make Puja change her mind.
Two days passed. Puja continued to ignore Paruli. Then, one evening her mother said, “Puja, I noticed that you are not talking to Paruli.”
“I don’t feel like it, Ma.”
“But you were almost inseparable before.”
Puja remained silent. But she knew her mother was right. They had been inseparable—Puja, Mitu and Paruli. But Paruli had let them down.
“Darling…you should be more forgiving,” her mother said gently.
“I’ve forgiven her,” Puja said. “But do I have to play with her?”
Her mother sighed and turned away, hoping that after some time Puja would forget and really forgive.
A few days later Puja went to play at Mitu’s house. Mitu’s mother took them for a long walk to the riverside. They carried a picnic lunch with them. When they got back it was late afternoon.
“Puja,” Ma said. “Paruli was looking for you.”
“Whatever for?” Puja frowned. But inside she felt a surge of excitement. Actually she was ready to make up with Paruli now. Their games seemed tame and kiddish without her. But she didn’t know how to make the first move.
“Her father had come,” Ma went on, “to take her back to the village. She went with him.”
“So—” Puja tried to sound indifferent, in spite of her sudden feeling of dismay. “She’ll come back, won’t she?”
“I’m not sure. Her father wants to marry her off.”
“Paruli—married!” Puja was aghast. “Ma, why didn’t you stop them? She’s not old enough to be married. How can they?”
“I tried, dear. But they just wouldn’t listen. Her father was quite adamant. Her mother is also taking leave in a few days.”
“Oh-h…” Puja just didn’t know what to say. This strange turn of events utterly confounded her. It sounded impossible and ridiculous.
“She just wanted to say goodbye,” Ma ended.
“Oh-h…” Puja’s face grew longer. “Won’t she ever come back now?”
“I’m sure she will. But probably for a very short visit.”
Puja turned away silently. She went and sat under the cypress tree. A terrible feeling of loss gripped her. Suddenly she thought of Paruli slashing away the stinging nettles from their paths, on one of their excursions to the forest, so they wouldn’t touch them by mistake and suffer. Picking up thorny branches and casting them aside…and then…standing there hesitantly with the jacaranda branches in her hand.
Mitu was right. She had told lies because she was scared. Because she could get into much worse trouble than them. Why couldn’t I understand, she thought? We were friends weren’t we? And now she had lost the chance to make up…
Many months later, Paruli came. An older and subdued Paruli, who hardly spoke to Puja. Actually she hardly spoke at all. Getting married seemed to have thrown her into a permanent state of embarrassment. She was busy helping in the kitchen most of the time. Or she sat outside trying to knit something from a much-ravelled ball of wool.
“Paruli,” Puja wanted to say. “It’s all forgiven and forgotten. Let’s make up and be friends again. Let’s have fun like we used to.”
But she knew it was too late. Because Paruli was not their playmate Paruli any longer. She had entered the world of grown-ups, where Puja couldn’t follow.