” Three minutes and 22 seconds.” his team yelled as he broke the surface of the water. They were yelling and dancing on the rim of the tank, waving his Montblanc TimeWalker wristwatch that his father had got for him for getting the top rank this year at school. For a second he worried they might drop it in the water, but somehow that didn’t bother him so much now as it would have a week ago when he had come to this village first. Then, he had hated to come here when all his friends were off to exotic locales. He had thrown a big tantrum and for the first time in their whole existence had briefly joined forces with his bookworm of a sister to try to force his parents’s hand. But their usually easily manipulated parents had strangely stuck to their guns and dragged them here. After that first day of complaining about the lack of A/C and the dust, he had run into this crowd of local boys and since then everything had changed. He was up by 7 every morning (you could barely sleep until then, thanks to the racket the birds made in the big mango tree next to his bedroom window), scarfed down a huge breakfast (to give the devil its due, his aunt made awesome food, even if she insisted on ruffling his hair and pinching his cheeks every time she set eyes on him) and was out of the house running to the end of the lane where the boys were waiting. Then the whole day was spent in their company. Tree climbing was a novelty to him (pretty much like every other activity his new found friends indulged in). Back in the city he hardly paid attention to trees. If anything they were nuisances growing in the middle of the footpath forcing him to brave the heavy city traffic. But here, they were so many and each one had a particular way to climb it. He had still not managed to master the art of climbing the palm tree, but he was pretty sure he would do it before they left. Water was a different story. He had been afraid for a moment that first time, but he couldn’t just let them taunt him with cries of “city boy! scaredy cat!”, so he had jumped in and had reached the farther shore an arms length before his opponent. Since then his place in the gang was secure and when he braved the huge, swaying temple elephant to snatch the banana that had rolled under its belly without touching it once, he had unanimously risen to the position of leader. Today he had cemented his position more strongly. He had taken up the Diver’s Challenge. To dive to the bottom of the temple tank and grab a fist full of mud from the bottom (as proof) and come back up within 4 mins (the previous record held by the ex-leader). He had done it in 3 minutes and 22 seconds.”Take that, Sucker!” he said splashing the ex-leader in the face. That started the Mega Water Wars-II (all activities had to have a name).
“Fine, if you are so sure, I dare you to go touch the Kuttichaathan on full moon day”, challenged the ex-leader. It was a week since the Divers’ Challenge day the gang was getting bored of doing the same things every day. They were close to giving up for the day when the littlest one had suggested the Kuttichaathan. He didn’t know what it meant at first and when it was explained to him, he had promptly scoffed at the idea. No self-respecting city boy would ever believe in devils and evil spirits. But the boys were adamant. There was a Kuttichaathan in the village, they insisted. He had “caught” Bhagirithi’s little boy. The kid was fine until he went near the maan thoppu on the full moon day and since then he had gone all crazy. It was said that he had withered like an old man, his hair grew sparse and white, his skin wrinked and he kept screaming all day long when the Namboodiri had tried to perform his cleansing ritual. Nobody went near Bhagirithi’s house anymore and the boy was not to be seen in public. “If you touched him on the full moon day, the Kuttichaathan will get you and you will become like Bhagirithi’s boy”, they told him and he continued to scoff. But he couldn’t possible ignore a challenge. It was not like he was ok with going out at night. He could never admit it, but he had preferred action and drama movies to ghost stories and scary movies. But all that was moot. The ex-leader had challenged him and he was not one to draw back. They had planned the whole thing to the minutest detail. When no one was willing to come near the house to witness him do the actual deed, he thought he was out of it, but the littlest one reminded them of his polaroid camera. And so it was decided that he would climb out of his bedroom window via the mango tree at 10, the day after tomorrow and meet the gang at the end of the lane as usual. They would all then head to the part of the village where Bhagirithi lived. He had no appetite for dinner that night. And it didn’t improve the next two nights either. It bothered him that they accepted what was to him a lame excuse that he had eaten a lot of mangoes earlier in the day. All his father ever said was he will get the runs if he continued this course, his mother made him eat curd rice to counter act the heat while his sister just rolled her eyes and stuck her head back in her book.
The photo was burning a hole in his box. Much as he tried he couldn’t forget that night. Everything had looked different in the moonlight, even the mango tree. When he had reached the lane where the boys were, his first thought was that the Kuttichaathan boy had come for him. It turned out to only be the littlest one, the shadows playing strange tricks on him. No one had thought to bring a torch, but the village boys seemed to know the way pretty well, so he followed them. All he could remember of the trip from the school compound wall where they boys hung back, to Bhagirithi’s house, was the pounding of his heart and the strange sound his breath made. He couldn’t remember getting into the house or taking the picture of the frightened boy. But he didn’t have to, there was the poloroid to remind him. The boy was indeed grotesque. It was strange how after the incident no one seemed to want to come near him. He still went to the games, but it was not the same. He knew they thought that the Kuttichaathan had caught him now. He started spending a lot of time checking his skin and hair at the mirror. He wondered if he might be turning old and withered now.
“Jeez! What, you want to go into films now?” God! why did she have to catch him. He couldn’t remember his sister without her nose in a book, but on the rare occasions she took it out, it was usually to tease him to tears. He tried to ignore her, hoping she would go away.
“I don’t see you hanging out with the rag tag anymore. What, they don’t want a hero in their midst anymore? You too good for them or what?” she sneered.
“Shut up and get out! It is none of your business!”
” I can’t get out, Doofus!”, she smirked. “This is MY room!” She plonked herself on the bed and turned on the fan. ” So what’s up, “Leader””, she asked as he started towards the door. “Why all this sudden interest in your beauty? You still have the same ugly nose, you know. You better ask Appa to shell out for some plastic surgery, if you want to make your big break as an extra in the movies”, she giggled.
“I don’t need plastic surgery. My nose is fine, it is your nose that has a book stuck on the end of it all the time. Everybody looks in the mirror sometimes, it is normal. Only weirdoes like you, don’t look anywhere other than at their books!” he yelled back.
She threw her book at him, and hit him on the shoulder. He grabbed her slipper off the floor and flung it at her, shortly followed by himself. Battle was fairly joined, both of them landing at least one in three punches, until she suddenly stopped.
“Hey! why are you crying?!” she asked stunned for a minute.
“I am not crying!”, he said gritting his teeth.
“Fine. Why is water coming out of your eyes then? I didn’t hurt you, stop crying you stupid cry baby. You will have amma appa coming after us!, she said disgustedly.
“I am not crying. You are crying,” he said half-heartedly sniffing into his sleeve and wiping his eyes. She gave a disgusted huff, ” What’s up then? I know you climbed out of the mango tree at midnight the other night. What happened? You better tell me, or I will tell Amma Appa.”
“It was not midnight. It was 10 O’clock.” he muttered semi-definantly.
“Whatever! I know you went to meet that silly bunch, because you don’t have the courage to even turn on the light at night without someone needling you. So what happened? Where did you go?” And just like that, it all came pouring out. He couldnt think what made him tell it, but he did. Everything from the very first swimming race, to the Diver’s Challenge and the Mega Water Wars and finally the Kuttichaathan and Bhagirithi’s son. When he was done, she made him take the poloroid out and show it to her. She looked at the poloroid a long time and finally said, ” So now you think you are the Kuttichaathan?” He just looked at her, not able to voice his worst fears. And to his surprise she burst out laughing.
“God! you are such an idiot! I know you never read, but don’t you even listen? All the time we have been here, Aunt has been talking about this stupid Bhagirithi’s son and his supposed ill-luck and Appa has been explaining to everyone and his mother how the boy has an illness. It is called Progeria, you Brainiac! Look it up in Wikipedia, if you remember how to read that is! It is a genetic disease, you don’t get it by touching someone, you are born with it. Gosh, I thought you just wanted to climb trees and revert to being a monkey. I didn’t realize you would turn illiterate and superstitious!!”