“…6…7…8…9…10 Ready or not, here I come”, I screamed and turned around to find nothing but trees.
“Would she hide behind Muthapan, our great banyan tree?”
I ran to find none. How about under the heap of clothes in Mani-maman’s tailoring shop?
No, she hid there last week, she barely repeats her hiding spot. Should I try finding her at all? Is she safe? Would she pull something dangerous like balancing on the ledge of the cliff again? What was she thinking, what if she had slipped that day? I got to make sure she is alright.
“Indu, you won, come here and get the victory key”, I shouted and I looked around expecting her to emerge from nowhere.
Indu appeared in my field of vision as soon as I repeated my losing phrase thrice. I handed her the cardboard key I had clenched in my fist.
No matter how much I implored, she refused to reveal her hiding spot this time. I guess she might be planning to hide in the same spot next time we play with James; it might be a difficult spot to find. For me, all her hiding spots are difficult, I was never successful in finding Indu. But James did find her thrice.
He doesn’t play with us every day. He is sick.
“Come with an umbrella. I get sick when I get drenched in rain”, I told James.
“It’s not fever that makes me sick, but my blood”, he said.
His blood? Diseased blood? What is blood after all; red water. How would the diseased blood look, maybe green, I don’t like yellow.
Indu’s and mine are red.
One day we two fell from a tree. She mounted on the second branch with ease, but I couldn’t reach it as I was shorter than Indu. To help me, Indu extended her arm to pull me up, but she lost balance and we both fell off the tree. Indu fell on her head, hit a huge rock. My lower arm was wounded and fractured by the fall, I had a plaster cast on for 2 months. Indu had 3 stitches on her forehead.
We were in second standard when this accident happened and since then we were always careful while climbing trees and never told Amma when we climbed. Amma forbade us from playing any other game than hide and seek, until we became big girls of 4th standard. She still thinks it is a safe game. I never told about the cliff incident to Amma, what if she stopped us from playing altogether.
Three months ago James fell while playing and scraped his knee. I wanted to see his wounded skin and was betting on green blood. But I was disappointed, his blood was as red as ours. I was sure James was lying to me about his sickness, but couldn’t confront him that day because he was crying. His Amma came running and carried him away soon.
After that day James played with us only one more time. I still remember the last time we three played together. Like always, he found me within seconds. But as usual it was not easy to find Indu.
James wasn’t like me, he didn’t look everywhere and he searched for Indu till he got tired. He scanned the area and then he picked 4 to 5 spots, and checked each one patiently.
That day something was different about him, his quest for Indu intensified by each passing second. He checked 6 spots. Usually he conceded by this time, but not that day. He started running frantically, among the bushes, under the chairs in the nearby tea stall, behind the stack of cycles in Achu Annan’s cycle repair shop. He got tired often and sat on the ground for a few minute before resuming the search. He refused to give up and at one point I did see him wiping his tears. When I sensed he is not ready to give up, I reminded him the rule, “We have to end the game when Ambili Chitta comes”.
He just looked at me hopelessly. And then gazed at Muthapan and ran towards it. He ran faster than my eyes could follow. When my eyes caught him, he was catching his breath, panting and staring at palm leaves on the ground.
I noticed Ambili Chitta approaching us. I ran to James to announce her arrival.
He slowly moved the leaves. And a smile broke from his lips. Indu was in the pit, which was covered with palm leaves.
Chitta approached us with a smile. She took James in her arms and kissed his cheeks and said, “Your Amma is waiting for you. Why don’t you go home?”
I wanted to rejoice his victory, but without a word, he slowly walked away from our sight.
Indu and I looked at the key, in our hands, which belonged to him. But I doubted if he knew the rule – one who had the maximum number of keys by New Year won the game.
I won whenever James hid and that’s when I realized I wasn’t bad at seeking. I won his keys when he hid and lost when I hid.
Indu could not find James in every game. Indu was a sore loser. She doesn’t take it light when James found her when she hid. After our last game with James, she told me, “I didn’t get time to decide where to hide yesterday, I had a lot of homework. James found me by luck”. Though my face empathized with her emotions, I was happy inside.
One day Amma asked me not to go to James’s place anymore as he is sick and can’t play with us. When I told this to Indu, she took my hand and went to his place. But we saw his Achachan locking the gates. He informed, “James is admitted in hospital and won’t play with you for a long time”.
“Amma was right”, I murmured.
Indu and I continued playing every day after school. As usual I never found her and she found me all the time. One day instead of taking the straight route home, I took the long one that passes by James’s front gate. I expected to see him sitting in Achachan’s lap singing or listening to a story, but the gate was locked and the garden was unkempt. Puzzled, I walked home.
We had our class tests and I failed miserably in all the subjects, even in social sciences, my favorite subject. My teachers, especially Kala Miss weren’t pleased with my performance and asked me to bring my parents to school.
I was scared to tell Acha. So, that day, instead of playing we came to my house after school.
Acha was in our veranda applying varnish to the new cupboard he had made. When he saw us, he turned to me with suspicion. Then he spoke to Indu, “Indu, how is this cupboard? Your Acha asked me to make it for you. I shall deliver it to your place tomorrow. Don’t forget to tell your Acha”.
He continued, but now to me, “Paru, do you know, why her Achan is gifting her this cupboard?”
I stood clueless.
“Indu, stood first in class”, he said and smiled. He added, “By the way, I never got to see your marks”.
Indu and I looked at each other.
I cursed the moment I thought of inviting her to my place, I should have known better; our parents were also friends.
Acha went back to varnishing. Without looking at us, he asked, “Why are you home so early?”
Indu ran into the house and signaled me to follow. She told it is better to talk to Amma.
Amma was in kitchen preparing dinner. She was surprised to see us home at this hour. She smiled with suspicion. “What are you girls up to? Why are you home this early?”
Indu started, “Aunty, we had our class tests” I tried to stop her. She didn’t bother to stop. And she stated our intent of visit.
Amma had a serious expression. She turned to me and asked my marks for each subject. Amma never had asked my marks before. I sensed trouble from her eyes.
“When does your teacher want to see us?”
“I will tell your Acha tonight. You need not worry.”
Indu smiled at me as if we got worried for nothing and asked if we could go and play. I didn’t want to play. I could sense her disappointment and she left home.
Next day when I woke up, I felt funny. When Amma came to wake me up I was already awake. She came and lay next to me. She felt my forehead, as if something was wrong and she whispered, “Dear, were you out in sun yesterday?”
I shook my head.
She walked out calling Acha. He came running, he placed his hand over my forehead and took my palm and placed over his face. He turned back and told Amma, “We need to see a doctor”.
Amma got me ready and Acha carried me over to the clinic near the bus stop. The doctor examined me and gave Amma the prescription and told the frequency of medication.
On our way back, I reminded Amma about school. She glanced at Acha. He asked us to go back home and said he will go to school and speak to Kala Miss.
Amma fed me breakfast and gave me a bitter tablet. She laughed at my expression on tasting the medicine. Amma made me lie down and started narrating stories of Muthapan.
“Once there was a small boy who wanted hundred legs. He prayed to Almighty and on his hundredth day of penance, God appeared. When the boy was asked for a wish, he told he needed hundred legs. God thought for a while and said, ‘I can give you hundred legs but you can’t walk and have to stand in one place for the rest of your life’.
The little boy got so excited that he agreed for the trade off and God made him the banyan tree, our Muthapan. Now Muthapan cries every night for inviting his immobility”.
My eyes slowly closed. I could feel Amma sliding away from me.
I ran around Muthapan and saw a perfect white rock with no sharp edges. It didn’t pain when I held the rock. It was cold and felt good against my skin.
“Hey, you found my stone”, James came running.
“I found this one”, I retorted.
James looked pale, it pained me to see his face and I handed him the stone and asked where he was. He hesitated to answer my question and asked, “When are we playing?”
“Evening as usual”, I said.
“You look sad”, James said. “Did you succeed at finding Indu after I left?”
I looked at the ground and muttered “No”. Then I looked at him and asked, “How did you find her 3 times?”
He corrected, “4 times. Indu decides where to hide, not when we reach the play area, but the day before; usually whenever I win, I know I will play with you both the next day and chalk out the possible places she hides”.
My eyes twinkled at his stratagem. “How do you know where she hides, the previous day itself?”
He smiled as a response. “Listen, let me tell you where to find her today”, he said and whispered a spot in my ear.
Acha’s stroke on my head woke me up. On seeing him, I sat up, “He is back after speaking to Kala Miss”. He patted me on my shoulders and said, “Look, my Paru all healthy now; a tablet and Acha’s Paru is back”.
Amma was relieved on hearing this. She came to feel my forehead.
“The doctor is good”, she said to nobody.
I couldn’t hide my inquisitiveness about Acha’s rendezvous with Kala Miss. Since Acha was in a jovial mood, I gathered that Kala Miss might not have scolded me much. I asked him, “What happened at school?”
He looked at me and said, “She really likes you, Paru. She told since two months, you have seemed very distracted and paid less attention in class and scored less. She wanted to know if there was something wrong at home.”
Amma pitched in, “But there was nothing wrong in our house but it has been two months since Ja…”, she stopped abruptly.
I looked at her wondering what happened two months ago. Acha lifted me to his lap and he hugged me tight. He started swinging and said,”Paru baby is smart, she will start doing good at school again, isn’t it dear?” he looked at me.
I didn’t want to disappoint him and nodded my head in agreement. Then he started singing the old folk song my Appupan used to sing to me when I was small. I slept again in his arms.
It was evening when Amma woke me up. She told Indu was at door checking on me. I opened my eyes and saw Indu entering my room, she came and sat next to me. I jumped up and said, “Let’s play”.
She looked at my Amma yearningly. Amma touched my forehead and said, “Paru was burning this morning, Indu” and asked me if I wanted to play.
I insisted on playing because I was feeling bored being at home all day; Amma understood and allowed me to play. Happily I ran to the play area with Indu.
I ran and touched Muthapan first and that made me eligible to count and Indu to hide. I counted till 10. “Ready or not, here I come”, I shouted. I turned around and the hiding prodigy has done her magic again. Clueless, as usual, I thought to myself and started my initial survey, behind trees and bushes and I stopped. I remembered my dream and ran to the small mango tree in front of Ammini Valyama’s house. But I didn’t see her. It was just a dream and I decided to retire, but something prompted me to walk till the tree-foot and look up. I did the same, there was no sign of her, but I saw a branch leading to the sunshade. I followed the path to the sunshade and there she was, munching a raw mango. I couldn’t believe I was uttering those words, “You hide or not, victory is mine”.
Indu was as startled as I was. There was a moment of silence, a silence neither of us was prepared for. She stood and without saying a word, gave me the key and walked through the branch that led her to the ground. I stood there holding the key, goosebumps all over me.
Elated I reached home. Amma was at the doorstep. She felt my forehead.
“There is no trace of fever darling”, she smiled and took me to kitchen and served dinner. After dinner she gave me the tablet, this time I carefully placed the tablet deep in my throat, careful not to touch the tongue and drank water immediately. I mocked Amma as she was expecting the funny faces I made while I tasted the bitter medicine.
She prepared my bed and slept with me that night.
Like before, James came in my dream and helped me with Indu’s hiding spot.
While having breakfast next day I enquired about James. Amma said James and family moved to his Aunt’s place in Pala.
After school, Indu and I started our game. I could find her out again.
Every night James helped me with Indu’s hiding spot and I started collecting her keys in every game. And what surprised me was at times when I hid, Indu couldn’t find me.
I started concentrating in class and Indu started helping me with lessons when she felt I fell short. Kala Miss appreciated my progress and active participation in class. Every day when I woke up, I remembered the hiding spot James told me in my last night’s dream. I was eager to go to school so that I could find Indu when she hid. I was sure I will win the game.
I counted the keys I gained and gathered, “If I continue this winning streak, without any doubt, I will have more than enough keys by New Year, even if Amma doesn’t allow us to play during exams and if we go to Valsala Appachi’s place on Christmas holidays”.
After counting, with an arrogant confidence I slept.
Next day when I woke up, I realized, James didn’t come to my dream last night.
“I will fail to find her out today”, I was sure.
I started panicking. Anxiety engulfed me. I didn’t want to go to school. I need to fake an illness. Stomach ache? Headache? Amma barged into my room. “Good morning honey”.
I pretended to be asleep, I needed more time to come up with a plan to avoid school. She walked up to my bed and took me in her arms. I realized it was too late; I couldn’t pretend any more.
“I don’t want to go to school today”, I spurted out.
Her sweet demeanor changed, without giving me much time to put across my point, she made it clear, no matter what, I ought to attend school.
I got ready for school and expressed my indifference during my breakfast. Amma paid no heed to my agony. Acha dropped me at school.
I hardly heard what the teacher was teaching in class. I blamed myself for not remembering what James told in my dream last night. For, I was sure, I deserved help from James. I kept looking at Indu hoping her backing out from game after school. But she was at pink of her health and nothing discernable could stop her from playing that day.
Our classes were over. Indu came inviting me for the game. She seemed monstrously interested in the game that day. I tried wriggling out of the game but she was appallingly adamant. Finally I surrendered. She suggested playing at school than around Muthapan. Location hardly made any difference to me, so I agreed. And she volunteered to hide. Again, it made no difference to me.
I started counting 1…2…3… while my thoughts crawled through the valleys of troughs I have never experienced.
“Nothing good will ever last in my life, even the recent happiness is taken away from me; all good things are temporary”, I thought.
“…7…8….9…10… Ready or not, here I come”.
Apathy was evident in my voice. Passively I looked around.
A blankness overpowered me as if hit by a truck or struck by a lightening, all I saw was emptiness, and all I heard was a high pitched squeak. I covered my ears.
Suddenly, a sequence of events flashed before my eyes.
I saw Indu in her new green davani, shouting, “Paru, this is my new dress, got stitched from Mani-maman’s shop, there are a lot of clothes lying on his shop floor”.
Then, I saw a news footage featuring an uncle standing on the cliff ledge. He was celebrated across the world for his bravery.
Then, I remembered my teacher telling us about squirrels burrowing.
There was a pause.
I saw Ramu from our class. Today he was raving about how big the new cupboard in our sports room is and how he can fit himself in the shelf where we keep our cricket bats.
My vision stopped and I was snapped back to reality.
I ran towards our sports room. The door was half closed, I stretched my arms to push it open. My grip on the cardboard key loosened and it slid from my hand. I saw the cardboard piece lying on the ground.
I stopped and shouted, “Indu, you won, come here and get the victory key”.
I turned, smiled at myself, and slowly walked towards Muthapan.