“This is a nice place, no?”
“Yeah. We’ll keep this a?”
“No, ya. I know one further down. I’ll show you come”.
This had been going on for the best part of the break. She started wondering if they will ever decide on a good starting point before the bell rang. Just then, past some scratchy bushes (another torn socks, how is she going to explain this to Amma?) they stumbled onto it. Five palm trees enclosing a central clearing surrounded by scratchy bushes with only a very narrow, almost covered footpath.
“Excellent. How did you know of this place?”
“I was following my brother and hid here.”
“OOOHHH” the rest of them chorused with toothy grins.
“What, ya? What was your brother doing?” And just then the bell rang. They ran as fast as they could towards the classroom.
“Another one, torn. What do you do with these? Scrub the floors? I can’t keep buying you new ones every week. What do you do?” Her mother was magnet for torn clothes.
“PT period ma.” She said scarfing down her food. It did the trick. Amma was distracted from the socks.
“Slow down. You have 40 minute lunch break. Why the hurry?”
” Combined study for SST test. Why can’t you pack lunch for me, then I wouldn’t have to eat fast. Everyone else brings food”, she said running to the sink to wash her plate and hands.
” The school is only 5 minutes away. I don’t have time to make lunch and breakfast in the morning. Why can’t you do the studying in the evening, after school? Dont throw the plate down like that. It has enough dents already!”
” Bye ma”, she yelled on her way out the door.
They were waiting for her at the clearing. She was the last one again.
“It’s getting late,ya”, someone grumbled.
“I go home to have lunch” she said apologetically.
” So does ‘Lakshmi’. But she is here on time.”
” I live farther away”, she was getting a bit annoyed now.
“OKOK, let’s go. Who is the lookout this time?”
“‘Lakshmi’ of course. She is the only one who can give the signal’.
“Why cant the signal be an owl hoot? We can all do that! Always I only have to be lookout!”
“That time none of us realized it was the signal. We all thought it was an actual bird, remember? Let’s not chumma keep changing.”
“Hey, you can also whistle no?”, asked Lakshmi as everyone started dispersing.
“No, no. Only by fluke, sometimes” , she said a bit hurriedly. After escaping from Amma she didn’t want to spend it being the lookout.
“You can practise. Then we can be lookout in turns”
“yeah, yeah. We should all practice” She said hurrying to the edge of the clearing.
The road was deserted as it always was at this time of the day. The hole in the fence was still there. They crossed, crawled through the hole and huddled behind the large hibiscus bush. The leader split them up with the sign language they had spent 2 weeks memorizing in their “perfect” clearing. Soon she could hear the voices up ahead. By now she and her partner were the only ones visible. She felt a sharp tug at her skirt.
“Ey, let’s go ya. I am scared. There is no one around”, her partner said, forgetting sign language. She glared at her and signed.
“We have to find out who they are. Lets go”, she whispered furiously. They crept from tree to tree. She as softly as she could. Her partner clinging to her skirt and making enough noise for the two of them.
” Ey. No need ya. I am going. I think it is time for first period. Come” her partner said, running fast in the direction they had come. She ignored her and went ahead. She was so close. Two weeks of lying at home, and barely eating any lunch, she was not going to give up. Glory was going to be hers!
“Why were you late? Did you find out?” the paper said
“Yeah” she scribbled back.
“Who was it? Poachers like we thought?”
“Tell you later”.
When the bell rang she hurried home straight, instead of waiting at the bus stop for all of them to gather.
“You are back early today”.
“So how was it?”
“The test. How did you do?”
“Oh, that. Umm, postponed”.
“Postponed?! How can she postpone without any notice like this! Children forgoing lunch to study and teacher coolly postpones. I will come and talk to her. This is not right. What kind of school are they running?”
“It’s OK. We get more time to prepare.”
“That is not the point. If they can’t keep to schedule what kind of message are they sending children? They have to maintain a level of discipline. I will come speak to her tomorrow. This is too much.”
“Isn’t the electrician coming tomorrow?”
“Oh. Yes, yes. OK I will come the day after then”
“It is saturday-sunday”
“Seri. But don’t think I will forget. You should not be afraid of standing up for what you believe in. Even if the opposition is an adult. In my day, the teachers were worthy of respect. Look at the standards these days…” She tuned her mother out.
She should have known it would turn out like this. Kali kaala palan kai mela kadaikum, her mother always said. She should have listened. She had day dreamed of fame and praise from the law enforcement. Like in the Famous Five stories she devoured. Now she had to worry about her mother and the ex gardener. It would be a miracle if she got out of this without anyone knowing.
“Paapa! what are you doing here?” He had asked as she was crouching behind the lemon-tree trying to see past the bushes and through the crowd.
” Shouldnt you be in class? How did you get in?” He started pulling her out of her hiding place with his gnarled hand.
“Paapa, you shouldnt be here. It is dangerous. Sometimes the snakes can get out you know. If something happens to you how will I face your mother?”
” How did you get here?” She asked finally finding her voice.
“I came to work in the snake park, no. I told you when I was leaving, don’t you remember?”
“But this is not snake park!”
“Hahaha! You are still like when you were little, Paapa. No sense of direction! This is the snake park. See this is where the back-end of the park is and here behind you is where our campus ends. Now if you went by this one-foot lane here…”
“Yes nevermind that, but I saw poachers come in here!”
“Poachers a? what means?”
“People who shoot or capture deer and monkeys. It is against the law. We heard our parents talk about it.”
“Aan?! Where? who?”
“3 women and some boys. We saw them in the woods near school. They came this way with their bundles. We found the hole in the fence” She was all righteous indignation.
“What?! How dare they! Where are they? You just show them to me. Wont I just hit them with my laathi and make them grovel!”
“No, no you can’t do that. You don’t have the authority. I am going to see where they go and report it to the police.”
“Police aa? No, no, Paapa, you can’t go to the police and all. What will your mother say? You just tell me who they are and how they look I will drag them. Don’t you worry”.
“NO you can’t”, she had said, getting really annoyed at how he was still treating her like a kid. “This is MY case, Gungappa. YOu can take it. I saw the woman and the boys. I should be the one to take them.”
“But what woman?! You have always been stubborn.” Grumbled the old man
” Some woman. Not very tall. About 5′ 2″.” She was very proud of that bit. She had driven her friends mad guessing their height and insisting on measuring them against the wall of the school while they complained about the stench. ” She was wearing a saree like what Krishnamma used to wear. Remember? Green with that yellow border.”
” That saree! When was this? which day?”
“Every week on wednesday at around lunch break time. We have seen them sometimes it is this woman, sometimes it is another. But always with that cloth bundle on her head. They have a axe sometimes sometimes a large stick. They frighten the monkeys with it. I tell you they are stealing monkeys to sell them in the market. They come through that hole in the fence there. We have seen them I tell you!” She was getting really annoyed at having to explain it to him.
“Oh! Aaan. Yes, yes cloth bundle on wednesday….” Why was he being so strange shuffling his feet and scratching his head, avoiding her eyes?
” She would let us take it from your yard, you see, your mother. But now it is so far off no, our house. I didn’t realise it was not correct, Paapa. I hope your mother is not upset. Just, you know…these woods are much closer. And the fence was worn out there anyway. We didn’t cut or anything. Just bent the wires. We need firewood no Paapa? And every other wednesdays are off days at the canteen, so they come here. But I swear, Paapa. We know nothing about monkeys or this poaching business”
How could she have been so stupid? Of course it made sense. The bundle in the old saree. How could they have thought it was a monkey? No wonder the bundle didn’t move. Not tranquilizers, just dried sticks. She can’t tell her friends now after being the most vociferous supporter of the crime syndicate theory! All her dreams of glory seemed so far off now. She just had to keep the old man from her mother as he had promised to come explain the circumstances to her.
“Her good heart was the one that got me this job. I have to come explain everything to her.” he had insisted when she tried to put him off.
And she had to keep her mother from her teachers and her friends from every finding out the truth…She should just avoid the clearing for a while. Thank God she has lunch at home!
* With due apologies to Tagore and Satyajit.