Only two years separate the children, but a yawning gap of comprehension exists.
I scowled down at the ground, one toe drawing circles in the soft soil of the courtyard. The elders - my mother, grandmother, assorted aunts and uncles - all made the formulated words of greeting, inane nothings that never varied. My eldest uncle had just settled that the journey had been long, you’d think he‘d know that, he made it himself, last year . My aunt wiped her forehead with one end of her limp cotton and offered the philosophical gem that it was not so much the heat as the humidity that one minded.
I could see Dipu peeping out from behind her mother, a fold of the sari clutched tight. Every summer she was my appointed millstone-around-the-neck. Sure enough, her mother drew her forward by the hand.
“See who’s here.You two must play together.”
My mother hurried into speech to cover my glowering silence.
“Oh, it will be good for her to have another girl to play with.”
Ma pushed me forward with one inexorable hand in the middle of my back; I staggered three steps to a reluctant welcome with my hand extended. My grubby paw was disdained and Dipu shook out her frilled dress, before mincing behind my already retreating figure.
“Hurry up, we’re making mud figures near the garage,” my impatient voice urged her, as she lagged far behind my pell-mell progress. She was just under two years my junior, eight to my ten, but sedate where I was impatient.
“Mummy says we shouldn’t run in the house. It causes accidents.”
Dipu never had accidents, she was the perfect little girl and I know my mother often wished I could be more like her. I mimicked my brothers, always plunging into exploration of some burning curiosity. Dipu swallowed whatever the elders spouted; I questioned everything with a skepticism deplored by them. She was perforce the ‘favourite’.
I hated having to look after this 'baby' of the family. She was a single child and used to being the focus of attention - accustomed to adult praise; it made her a ‘high maintenance’ companion. Then too, she did not have any interest in things I found fascinating - natural science, rocks, and adventure comics. She only liked to play ‘house’ with a doll and a kitchen set.
I led Dipu to where all of us had been engaged in making a little mud village, having made the soil into a clay-like consistency by adding rice-gruel begged from the cook. Scraps of cloth to dress our misshapen 'villagers', straw for the huts, a groove for the river which was fed by a leaking tap – we were proud of it. She wrinkled her nose at the ‘mess’ and demanded a ‘real’ doll.
Nobody was pleased to see her, except for my brother, Raja. He tolerated her because it irritated me, he strove to keep me in that state. We knew that any whimper from her would bring down adult wrath for not ‘entertaining’ her; so our sighs were kept soft and rules of play relaxed every day, pastimes altered to accommodate her fragile constitution.
She played us like a virtuoso, ‘if you all climb so high in the tree, I’ll tell you ate the unripe mangoes’. I had my own ways of getting around her; but she would catch on to the stratagems in the end.
Of course, she complained to my mother, her mother, anybody’s mother – the vials of wrath would empty upon my unrepentant head. This led to further plotting to confound her, I could never resist getting 'even'. My brother enjoyed the machinations of the conflict, but always stood clear if there was any parental inquiry into my dark deeds. He was an impeccable source of information since he rarely lied due to sibling sympathy.
Lazy summer days rolled by, the balance tilted enough to the side of enjoyment for me not to worry about my personal albatross. But March 31st changed all that – the day marked for travel to a famed temple-town. We did this every year. The older generation would make the obligatory obeisance to the Almighty, we kids would run about the temple courtyard being shushed by all within, we’d goggle at the temple elephant and offer it bananas, snaffling a few for ourselves. There was a river where we could romp and frolic; our idea of making the most of the .
This year, my seat companion was forced upon me, nobody else wanted to sit next to her and my mother gave me a menacing look from across the van, where she was engaged in a comfortable gossip with Dipu’s mother. I plonked myself into the seat with an ungracious thump.
There was worse to come, she wanted the window seat. She did not look out of it though; she turned to me and began lisping girlish confidences.
“Uh, Dipu, if you want to talk, may I have the window seat?”
“Mummy” chirped the oh-so-cute voice, “Jaya won’t let me have the window.”
Three adult voices castigated my selfishness. OK, but I refuse to listen to her endless prattle. I pulled out my beloved comics.
“Mummy, Jaya won’t talk to me.”
“But, Ma …,” my protest was faint, I bowed to the inevitable, the dictum that reading comics is something not to be done when travelling. Huh, is that a family commandment now, can I see those tablets, Moses? I said nothing; silence is the hallmark of a scheming child.
My brothers and cousins began to clamour for nourishment, Mama got up to take out an enormous of , still warm to the touch; then two more, of and . The plates and bowls were handed out, the vehicle was redolent with the spicy fragrance. When Mama reached our seat, Dipu’s mother shouted out a warning, ‘no, no, do not give her any. She gets sick on buses, cars, on anything that moves.’
How about rocking-chairs? I grinned, reaching for my plate with both arms, eager to keep any of the delicious gravy from spilling, but another command was blared from the announcement corner.
“No, no. Dipu can’t even tolerate the smell, don’t give Jaya any. She can eat it when we reach there.”
I was too flabbergasted to speak. Why not keep your delicate daughter next to you? That way you both can enjoy the stone cold left-overs?
I eyed the diminishing levels of the accompanying sambhar and chutney, the way everybody was helping themselves there would be none left for me. My breast swelled with indignation, but I continued silent; acrid thoughts gnawing within.
At the temple site, the river beckoned to me, with white foam-tipped fingers that played with the rocky bottom. Other children were all gamboling within, shouts of glee resounded. I hurried down the steps, Dipu tailing me; when she voiced that dreaded banshee wail.
“Mummmmmeee … ”
“No, no, don’t come in the water Dipu, you will fall into the current and drown.”
Just the way to discourage fear. What a positive attitude. My smirk was wiped off by the realization that I was chosen to be the guard and protector. Why me?
I sat three steps above the ‘bathing’ area, not even allowed to dabble my feet in the water. I suppose a giant fish would come and nibble away Prissy-missy's toes? The refreshing breeze did little to cool flushed cheeks or reduce my dark despair. Hills rose majestic in the background, birds wheeled and swooped down to snatch at puffed rice thrown out to them; but for once, nature's beauty could not capture my attention.
We stayed overnight. Next morning, an early breakfast had improved my mood enough for me to join in the general clamour and laughter. As we neared the bus an itinerant fruit-seller came up with a basket of strange prickly fruit heaped high. Litchis, it seemed they were.
Mama praised these as a local delicacy and bought the whole basket, we all pounced on them, even Dipu.
My fertile brain went ping; I paused to peek out of the corner of my eye - no adults nearby.
I peeled off the thin hard skin, exposing the grayish-white succulent inside. I bit into it and let the juice run unheeded down my chin, waiting for Dipu to reach in and imitate my actions. I waited until she had just popped one in her mouth.
“You know, litchis resemble frog’s kidneys, feel them - so soft and squishy.” I savoured the words more than the fruit dissolving in my mouth.
Dipu spat out the contents of her mouth, made gagging noises and displayed a distress sufficient to cause authority to gather around me in ominous response.
I was reprimanded, lectured, told I was thoughtless and much was made of the ‘poor victim.’ I was busy stuffing as many litchis as I could into my pockets and paid scant attention to a command to apologise. I took care to sit next to my Mama on the way back; Dipu nestled in her mother’s lap.
A beaming cook greeted us weary travelers when we returned, telling us that hot water was ready to wash off travel stains, and that he had made … .
Here everybody over thirty groaned that they could not stand a heavy meal, they wanted something light. We kids all protested that we were quite capable of outdoing a hungry python, especially for rajma.
“Mummy, what is Rajma?” So, the little princess hasn’t had this before, mischief burgeoned in my mind. My perspicacious mother sensed something and admonished me, “you will not get any Rajma, young lady, unless I hear from your brother that you have made a proper apology.”
I gave a cursory nod and we all raced off to wash. I slowed down my ablutions to allow me privacy with Dipu; Raja was astute enough to match my pace.
“Dipu, I am sorry about last afternoon.” My voice was honeyed placation.
A sniff and averted face told me she was going to drag this out, I’ll oblige you dear, but you are going to be surprised.
“I really am, I should not have misled you like that. Litchis are nothing like frog’s kidneys.”
My brother was looking at me with a look of wary expectation.
The cook came out with a tureen, I made appreciative noises and took a theatrical deep breath of ecstasy. He beamed and lifted off the cover to show off the steaming dark-red kidney-beans in a thick, oil-bedewed gravy.
Dipu leaned forward to sniff, and I let go with the rehearsed comment in dulcet tones.
“Now, Rajma! These little things are more like frog’s kidneys, but I won’t tell you so. You just enjoy your meal. I won’t ever tease you that way again.”
The three of us were last to scrape into our seats, my mother stretched out an autocratic arm.
“Has she apologized?” She looked at my brother.
“Yes, Ma. She even said she would not tease Dipu again.” He winked at me as he sat down.
We all grabbed the soft , mopping up the rajma with gusto. Dipu's response was a pallid face and dry heaves.
"I knew the travel would make her bilious. I'll give her a spoonful of castor oil at night."
Dipu's pallor was now tinged with green. Hah!
I looked at the wall, a 'tear-off' calendar proclaimed: April 1st - my thoughts became incandescent. Revenge was a dish that had begun to grow upon me, why not cook up a spicy adult version? After all, it was the adults who had been equally culpable in my litany of misery.
I loved the idea of a fresh start - It was going to be a great day!
(Word count:1996 words, without WritingML)
Note: In South Indian Families, those that are mainly composed of staunch vegetarians, just the thought of meat or animal parts would be repulsive and nauseating.
Written for the "Quotation Inspiration: Official Contest" [ASR]
Quote of the Month: April 2009
I can resist everything except temptation.