The day was fading as they came in from the basketball field.
“Br-rr, it’s chilly!” Manasi exclaimed to her best friend Rashi. Her springy curls bounced as she pulled on her cardigan.
The two hurried down the long covered passage that led to the dormitories from the wide playing fields. The weather was always uncertain in the hills. These passages protected the girls from the rain and the biting winter air.
Rashi, a tall girl with a sharp face, turned to glance at the solitary figure straggling behind them. “It was a big mistake,” she said, “taking the Mouse on our side. She lost us the game.”
Manasi nodded gloomily.
Seema, a new girl, was small, slender with a narrow, expressionless face, and a skinny plait. She hardly spoke and had no close friends.
That’s why it seemed natural to call her the Mouse. “She’s no good at anything,” Rasha said.
“We-ell,” Manasi said, “she’s not that bad in her studies. I think she just prefers to stay in the background.”
Actually Manasi had never paid much attention to the Mouse. Even though she sat right next to her in the study hall where they did their homework.
Till the day Seema got the letter.
It was a couple of days after the fiasco of the basketball match. The post was being distributed.
How they looked forward to them — the letters from home! Boarding school wasn’t that bad, Manasi sometimes thought. There were friends to have fun with and so many activities. Everyone did grumble about the food, but more because they had to complain about something.
Still letters were really important. One wanted to chuckle over little brother’s escapades, know if Dad’s cold was better. Find out about cousin so-and-so’s wedding even if one felt left out, missing all the excitement.
So Manasi sat at her desk, waiting while the prefect distributed the letters. She reached the Mouse and plonked down an envelope, a rather official looking one, with an address printed in a corner.
The Mouse started with surprise and stared disbelievingly. Her hand shook so hard opening it that she ended up tearing it. Manasi raised her eyebrows. She loved getting letters too. But to react like that?
Then a sudden thought walloped her over the head. It was the first time she’d seen the Mouse get a letter! Vaguely she recollected Seema’s longing glances whenever she got a letter from home. Her mother wrote every Saturday without fail. Then there were letters from her college going sister, from Nani and kid brother’s scrawled notes.
She sneaked a sideways glance and burst out, “Wow, a typewritten letter!”
The Mouse looked up. It was the first time Manasi had seen her smile.
“Whose letter?” Manasi asked.
“My dad’s,” Seema said.
It was nothing more than a typed paragraph with a signature below. How odd, Manasi thought. Then she noticed that the Mouse no longer looked excited, but oddly dissatisfied.
Weeks passed and the Mouse didn’t get any more letters. Her baffled look of hurt made Manasi feel guilty when she opened hers. What kind of parents sent a girl off to boarding school and never bothered to write?
And then something strange happened. A letter disappeared from Manasi’s desk. She wanted to wish her sister best of luck for an exam and was looking for the letter mentioning the date. But when she searched the pile in her desk it just wasn’t there.
Maybe I lost it, she thought.
But, a week later, her mother’s latest letter vanished mysteriously too!
“Don’t be crazy,” Rashi said, when she told her. “Who’d steal letters?”
However, a couple of days later, a photograph went missing!
“This is weird,” Rashi said. “Who’d steal letters?”
Manasi shrugged in what she hoped was a convincing manner.
“We must catch the thief,” Rashi continued. “I have an idea...”
Manasi felt nausea creeping up her throat. But she wanted her photo back badly. It was one of her parents, taken on their last anniversary.
“I’m sure she does it during the tea break, when the hall is empty. The next time you get a letter,” Rashi’s loud voice boomed, “show it around. We’ll hide and catch her.”
Oddly, Manasi got a long letter from home that very day.
There was a picture of her brother Ankur too, riding his new bike. “Doesn’t he look cute?” she leaned across to show it to Seema, feeling like a villain. But what could she do? Let her take away all her letters and photos?
The next day at teatime, Manasi and Rashi crouched behind teacher’s desk, shivering, almost suffocated by the smell of dust and chalk.
Then—they heard footsteps—soft, hesitant. After a while there was a scraping sound, then a hinge squeaked. Someone had opened a desk!
“NOW!” Rashi whispered.
“Stop!” Manasi wanted to say. But Rashi had already bounded ahead. Manasi followed, with dragging steps.
A small figure was silhouetted in the dim half-light.
“Caught you!” Rashi cried, grasping the skinny arm.
The girl turned white, swayed. Her mouth quivered and her sorrowful glance pierced Manasi through and through.
Manasi stared at the letters and photographs scattered on the ground.
“So it was you!” Rashi said. “How sick!”
“Please be quiet,” Manasi said.
Rashi stared, astonished.
But that very moment Seema collapsed into a chair. Violent sobs racked her small frame.
“I s-stole your letters,” she wept. “But I was putting them back.”
“It’s okay,” Manasi stroked her arm. “I’m sorry… just wanted that photo back. Keep the letters if you wish... ”
“No,” Seema sat up suddenly. “I’m too old for make-believe.”
Manasi almost wept. “B-but why don’t your parents write?”
It all spilt out then. How Seema’s mother had died when she was a baby and her grandmother brought her up. How her Dad was too busy to write. “He must have dictated that one to his secretary,” she ended bitterly.
Then Rashi surprised Manasi. “Forget it, yaar,” she said. “We’re here — letters or no letters. You hang around with us.”
The Mouse’s eyes shone. “Thanks!” she whispered.
But the matter didn’t end there. Manasi couldn’t help writing to her Mom about it and Mom called up Seema’s Dad, who lived in the same city. And an occasional letter began to arrive. Better still — when Mom wrote to Manasi, she wrote a letter to Seema too. In a separate envelope — of course!