Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Short Story for Children: Bushky and the men from Mars

Bushkie is a young sparrow. He lives in the city with his folks on a large oak tree neighborhood. He loves to read books, enjoys watching basketball and is fascinated by big numbers.

CHAPTER ONE: Bushkie begins his day

It was a pleasant Spring morning. Bushkie awoke as usual with the sound of the other birds in the balcony. Bushkie was a small sparrow and along with other sparrow families, lived on a large oak tree. And like every morning, Bushkie found himself cozy between his mom and his dad. Opening only one eye, Bushkie looked around. He was fully awake but did not move. He always enjoyed waking up in the morning and snuggling with mom and dad.

Mom was the next to rise. She did so with a peck on Bushkie’s cheek.

“ Morning Bush !”, she said. “ Time for school”.

Bushkie hugged her and frowned when she said “School!”
“ Aw maann!!” he said.

Dad woke up too, gave Bushkie a big hug. “ Wake up, late already!”

Bushkie knew. But this happened every morning. He would wake up late, rush through his morning wash, bathe , dress and quickly fly off to school while munching his breakfast. Pop would fly with him, carrying his bag of books which was already quite heavy for him.

That’s how Bushkie began his day. Everyday except Sunday, which as we all know is a holiday.

School was a big Oak tree, a five minutes flight from his home. On the lower branches younger birds would read, on the higher ones, the seniors. Bird University was at the tree top!

The learned crows were patient instructors. Patience was a quality all birds needed with Bushkie.

Bushkie loved to read. It was the writing and homework that Bushkie disliked and often got the other birds to do it for him. Even if it meant sharing some of the berries mom packed for lunch.

This day was no different from others. Mathematics, English, bird flight instructions, the patient crows came and lectured on it all. And Bushkie listened to each with great interest. For exactly five minutes. And five minutes was all the attention Bushkie would give to his instructors. And then he would begin his day dreams.

Bushkie would then dream that he was playing with his friends Picklepot and Breadroll. Flying about, pecking berries from trees, or gobbling away on freshly baked pies kept on kitchen windows. On other times they would chase the bees and other colorful insects going about their daily work.

Sometimes Bushkie would dream of the cloud people. He had heard stories of people living high up in the clouds. The elder birds told them so. He was too small and young and could not fly up so high. He was determined that one day he would.

So dreaming would Bushkie pass his time at school.

After four hours at school, Bushkie would fly back home. This time with his heavy books since pop was at work. He flew back with his other friends. They would meet again in the evening after their afternoon nap.

CHAPTER TWO: Bushkie sees the Men From Mars

On this day like any other, Bushkie was flying back. The breeze was gentle and Bushkie glided gently whistling to away to himself. He looked down to see people scurrying around. Squirrels hopping from trees, the neighborhood cats lazing in the shade of trees. Around him, he saw tree tops, birds flying in the distance and a small flying saucer alongside.

A “ Small Flying Saucer??!!” .

“Good Heavens!!” Bushkie rubbed his eyes in disbelief. And stared at the flying saucer. He couldn’t believe it. Distracted by the saucer, Bushkie stopped looking at where he was flying and almost bumped into a tree- quickly dodging it at the last moment. The saucer did the same. And kept pace with Bushkie.

Bushkie was terrified and flew faster. And the saucer kept pace. And Bushkie flew faster. Bushkie flew faster than he had ever in his life and dived into his home entering in his haste through the window. Mom was in the kitchen cooking. She was very happy to see Bushkie.

“ How many times have I told you to come through the front door Bush?” , she said.

“ Mom, Mom......”, was all Bushkie could say. He was panting heavily.

“What are you panting for? Did papa not tell you to fly slowly till you became bigger?”, said mom.

“ But mom”, said Bushkie, “ it was coming after me.”

“ What was?” asked mom, quite sure that Bushkie would once again tell another one of his long and fabricated tales- made from his own imagination. Bushkie did that often and mom knew this well.

“ A flying saucer”, said Bushkie.

“Now that is certainly imaginative. I was telling papa this morning that the new ‘X- files’ TV show would have an effect on you. I was right. Stop wasting my time Bush - wash up and come for lunch.”

Bushkie was not finished yet. “ Mom it was there. A flying saucer. It was following me. I thought it would eat me. You look from the window and see for yourself. Its still waiting for me.”

Mom carried Bushkie and went to the window. “ Mr. Flying saucer”, she said jokingly, “ Where are you? Why don’t you join us for lunch. My cheese pie tastes better than Bushkie.”

In his mother’s arms, Bushkie felt brave. He peeked outside the window and looked around. There was no sign of any flying saucer.

“Bush, obviously you have begun dreaming while flying. I must tell papa about this. One day you will crash into a tree and only you will be to blame”, said mom.

“Aw maan! “, said Bushkie. “I really thought it was there. I guess I ate too much onion stew from Picklepot’s lunch.” Suddenly, he felt very happy about everything. Even he was convinced he had imagined everything.

Lunch was delicious cheese pie with sunflower seeds. Mom was a great cook and Bushkie enjoyed cheese pies. Gobbling them down quickly, Bushkie went to bed. A quick nap after lunch always made him feel better. And prepared him for the games he would play with his friends in the evening.

Soon evening came. Bushkie awoke, drank his glass of milk and giving his mother a peck went to find Picklepot.

“Careful Bushkie and be back before dark. You know the bats terrify you!”, said mom.

CHAPTER THREE: Bushkie meets the Men from Mars

It was summer and Bushkie knew his friends would be at the mango grove nearby. Eating mangoes from the trees was always a delightful event every young bird looks forward to. And Bushkie and his friends were no different.

Bushkie landed on the first tree in the grove. It was the largest and had the sweetest mangoes. He perched on to a large branch and looked around for some mangoes. He spotted one, two.... and another, a flying saucer, and another mango.

“Uh ! Oh!”, thought Bushkie.

“A flying saucer?”, Bushkie almost fell off the branch in fright. And just as he was about to fly off, he saw something peculiar. A door on the saucer opened and out came two tiny creatures.

Bushkie had never seen anything like this. The two creatures were on a higher branch not far from him. They were as tall as acorns. With a large head covered by an even larger helmet, 2 eyes that almost completely covered the face and a small mouth. The creatures were red in colour and wore deep blue suits.

One of them pointed to Bushkie . “@##$% @!@#@323@”, it said. The other creature nodded. In a flash, they leapt off their branch and landed right next to Bushkie. Bushkie was frightened.

“@#@#$$%%^”, they said to Bushkie. Bushkie couldn’t understand what they said but liked the sound of their voice. It was pleasant and soft.

“Hello!”, chirped Bushkie, absolutely terrified . The two creatures adjusted a small gadget at their waist.

“Hello!” said the creature. Suddenly Bushkie understood what they were saying. “Sorry, our translators were not tuned to your language. I am Kwa Kwa and this is my friend Ompa Ompa. We are travelers from Mars. I hope we did not scare you. We often come to Earth but do not ever meet anyone. We are very small creatures you see and on Earth, everybody is much bigger.” The creature seemed very composed and kind.

“Uh! Uh !” , said Bushkie. “My name is Bushkie. I ... I... I... live on the oak tree a little tree away. Nice to meet you. Can I go?”. Bushkie was still frightened out of his wits and wanted to quickly fly away.

“ Please don’t be afraid”, said Kwa Kwa. “ If you tell anyone, they will certainly hurt us or capture us here. We are having some trouble with our flying saucer. If you can help us, we will repair our craft and fly away. Please . Please help us.” Kwa Kwa sounded very troubled.

Suddenly Bushkie was not afraid. Clearly, from Kwa Kwa’s manner, it was apparent that the two creatures were more afraid of Bushkie than he was of them. Suddenly, Bushkie felt bigger. Now, it was his duty to help these two space travelers. He would do so.

“ Don’t worry!”, said Bushkie. Now with a deep voice. “ I will help you and get you going safely. “ He had no idea how, though. “How can I help you?”, said young Bushkie. He was feeling much much better. And definitely kindly towards the two space travelers who a few moments ago had him terribly scared. How things can change!

“We need some sticking material to piece our engine together. And cheese which is our fuel. And some chocolate sauce. That’s our favorite food!”, said Omar Omar very quickly. He was relieved that Bushkie was helping and blurted out everything before Bushkie could change his mind.

“Sure “, said Bushkie. Of course, having said so, Bushkie realized he had no idea how and where he would get all that. Everybody knew that sparrows did not like cheese, mice did and it was the ants that would store chocolates and chocolate sauce. As for sticking material, birds never used gum. Nor did anyone else he knew. But humans used gum and he would have to take it from them.

All this would have been easy if he could ask his mommy and papa to help him. But after the afternoon’s incidents, mommy believed that Bushkie had imagined seeing the flying saucer and would never believe it had actually landed nearby.

CHAPTER FOUR: Bushkie plans the rescue

Bushkie realized he had to do this all by himself. And he had made a promise. So Bushkie would have to find a way to help his new friends.

I will be back in a while. But please stay on this tree and don't wander about. The young eagles also play nearby and will be very interested in you. There are mangoes on this tree- those yellow fruits, they are tasty . You could eat them while you wait.

The little Martians , very happy now since Bushkie had promised to help them, nodded very seriously after listening to Bushkie and immediately went about to pick out some mangoes.

Bushkie jumped off the branch, flew around the tree to make sure he remembered which tree in the grove it was and went off to find Picklepot and Breadroll. “Hey Pickle!” he chirped as he flew about from tree to tree. “C’mon Breadroll, where are you? Stop fooling around guys, I need some help.”

“Here”, chirped a reply from a nearby tree. It sounded like Picklepot. As Bushkie turned towards the tree, “No, here!’, chirped another from behind him. And Bushkie turned back.

“Here”, chirped another bird from a tree to his right, and Bushkie quickly turned right, now confused at all the sounds he was hearing. He realized his friends were out to pull his leg and felt annoyed.

Quietly he landed on the nearest tree and chirped out, ” Guys, please help me. My friends are in trouble. All this hide & seek can wait, you know”. There was no reply. “ Guys, easy’, Bushkie pleaded again. “ C’mon down here.”

Still no reply. Bushkie, felt very unhappy and gently took off! “What friends!!”, he said to himself softly and flew off on his own. Suddenly, Picklepot and Breadroll appeared behind him.

“C’mon Bush, we were just fooling around”, said Picklepot. “No reason for you to fly off just like that. What’s up, you look in a big hurry”. Breadroll’s mouth was stuffed with mangoes- he said nothing but just nodded along with Picklepot.

Bushkie was quite annoyed with his friends and didn’t want to speak with them . But he knew, unless he told them what had happened, they would never agree to helping him. So he landed on the nearest tree closely followed by his two friends.

“Look guys, I need to find some stuff. Glue, chocolate sauce and cheese”, said Bushkie.

“Cool “, said his two friends together. “ The chocolate sauce and cheese part look good , but the glue is uninteresting. Anyway, lets find the chocolate sauce and cheese first and worry about the gum later. All this is exciting. I am getting bored with these mangoes and seeds that we’ve been eating for weeks now.”

“The mice always seem to be happy with their cheese”, continued Breadroll. “And the chocolate crumbs we find are so tasty. I wish we birds could make and eat chocolate all the time.”

They had no idea that all this was not for them to eat but for Bushkie’s friends from Mars. Bushkie decided he would not tell them, lest they start laughing at him and not help him.

“Ok, so you guys are in on this . Cool”, said Bushkie. “ Now here’s my plan. Lets hit the mouse den first. Picklepot, you do this one. Take some mangoes and exchange it for cheese from them. Simple. The mice do like mangoes but find it difficult to climb trees to reach the mangoes. They will like this exchange. “

“ Breadroll ”, said Bushkie, “you get the chocolate sauce from the ants. The ants would really like more chocolate, so you need to first get them chocolate and exchange it for chocolate sauce. I have decided that the easiest way is to ‘ borrow’ some from the candys shop in the big market. That funny shopkeeper sells a lot of chocolates. You should be able to peck some for our friends. “

“And I will do the most difficult bit. I will fly into the human home nearby and try to find some gum. We will meet on the old mango tree over there, the one shaped like a jug!”

The two birds listen to his plan and found it very good. Bushkie was smarter than them! And since he had taken the most difficult job of getting them gum from the human beings, they thought it wise to just go ahead with his plan. But they were still rather uninterested in the gum.

“Sure, Bush”, said Picklepot. “Lets meet back here in an hour. It gets dark after that. And remember Breadroll, don’t start eating your stuff, till we all get here. Right? We’re friends and we share everything!!”

Breadroll was of course saddened by this , but agreed anyway since the best way to eat some chocolate sauce was to share a little cheese!!

Meanwhile, on the mango tree, the Martians were stuffing themselves with ripe mangoes.

CHAPTER FIVE: The Rescue Act

Picklepot flew straight to the mice den. “Hey Pipsqueak, c’mon out. Its me Picklepot. Need some help, buddy”, he said. The sparrows were good friends of the mice and enjoyed good times together.

Pipsqueak came running out with, as usual munching a bit of cheese. “Hey Picklepot, good to see you! Want some cheese?” said Pip.

“ As a matter of fact, I need some cheese”, said Picklepot. “ But a little more than what you’ve got in hand. I have some mangoes for you. You think it’s a fair exchange for some cheese?”

“Sure!!”, said Pipsqueak. The mice always envied the sparrows. The sparrows could fly up to the highest branches and eat all the mangoes they wanted. The mice could only eat what they managed to grab from human dinner tables!! “ How much cheese do you want? Just get some ripe mangoes buddy!”

Before Pickle could say anything further, Pipsqueak ran in and started bringing back small mouthfuls of cheese. Picklepot flew immediately to the mango grove and grabbed mouthfuls of mango. He was happy. His job was done.

In the meantime Breadroll had reached the anthills and spoken with his ant friend Bigmouth. With him, he had arranged to exchange some chocolate for chocolate sauce. The ants are hardworking and looked forward to the effort of converting all the chocolate into chocolate sauce.

Having fixed that, Breadroll flew to the grocer shop. As usual, the grocer had his chocolates ready. Children from the neighborhood would drop bye in the evening and buy some. The shopkeeper was waiting for them. Breadroll perched himself on top of the shop’s shutter. And broke into a gentle chirping. The shopkeeper looked up and smiled when he saw Breadroll.

“ Hello, birdie!, having a nice day? What are you singing about? Heh Heh!!”. He was a miser and not known to share even a single grain of rice with the birds. The birds did not like him very much.

Breadroll continued singing and slowly put the shopkeeper off guard. The grocer went about his daily business , counting his money and admiring all the goods in his shop. Slowly, he walked by all his shelves. Breadroll waited for the right moment when the grocer moved away from his jar of chocolates. And immediately, swooped down softly and perched on the mouth of the jar. The grocer had not heard anything and continued admiring his goods.

Quickly, Breadroll, put his head into the jar and pecked out a large piece of chocolate. And without looking around flew out of the shop towards the ant hills. The grocer looked around after a while and wondered where the bird had gone off to. Always suspicious, he went to check if the covers on his sack of rice were still in place. He was such a miser !!

Breadroll, flew straight to the ant hills and gave the piece of chocolate to the ants. The ants gave him the chocolate sauce he wanted. Thanking his friends, he flew back to the mango tree.

Which brings us back to Bushkie.

Bushkie flew to the nearest human home. He often flew over this house in the evenings and recognized the people living there. There was dad, mom, young Albert and his younger sister Florence. Bushkie flew into the house through and open window and immediately started looking around for some glue. He found none in the first room. So he flew into another.

Just then he heard a voice behind him – “Mom, look !”, said a young voice. “ A small birdie has flown into the house. Lets catch him please!”. It was Albert who had found Bushkie in the house.

“ Catch me!?!”, thought Bushkie. “ This is a bad day for me”, he thought . “ What do I do?” He started flying right back to the window.

“ Let him be, Albert!”, said his mother. “ He is only a little bird. Take this rice and put out it out for him. And don’t you hurt him. Or a spanking is what you will get from me.”

“Wow!”, thought Bushkie. That was so sweet of her. I must remember to thank her.

Hearing his mother, Albert decided to leave Bushkie alone. Bushkie also felt safer and continued his search. In the second room, Bushkie found what he was looking for. A small jar of glue. Bushkie knew what he had to do. He flew straight to the jar and knocked it over. It was nearly empty so Bushkie did not create a mess. The glue oozed out a little. Bushkie then filled it into his mouth. It tasted awful, but there was nothing Bushkie could carry the glue in.

Filling his mouth with the glue, he knew his job was accomplished. He hoped the other two were safe and had also finished their mission. He remembered that he had to thank the lady of the house for her help. So he flew further into the kitchen where she was standing and chopping some vegetables. Bushkie perched himself on her shoulder. She was surprised at the movement on her shoulder, but was really very happy when she saw it was the sparrow that had come into her home.

Bushkie’s mouth was full of glue and so he could not sing. Instead, he gave her a soft peck on her cheek.

“ Oh! You lovely bird. How sweet of you! ”, said the lady. Bushkie also felt very happy.

Quickly, he flew out of the window and back to the mango tree.

CHAPTER SIX: Mission Accomplished

He was glad to find that Breadroll and Picklepot were there waiting for him. Breadroll was already looking at the goodies very greedily, with all intentions of gobbling them up.

Bushkie spat out all the glue on the mango leaf. “Phut!,”, he said. “ This stuff tastes awful. Anyway, this is a job well done guys. Wonderful to see all the stuff together.”

“Yeah”, said Picklepot. “Can we start eating it now Bushkie?”

“No, you idiot. That stuff is for us “, said a gentle voice from behind. The three birds looked around to see the two Martians. Bushkie knew them . His two friends did not.

“Eeekk!”, said Picklepot as he leapt off the tree. Breadroll was quick to follow him. “C’mon Bush, lets beat it! What are these guys?!”, he said. Having flown off the tree, the two looked back for Bushkie. Bushkie had not moved. “C’mon Bushkie !!”, said his friends.

Bushkie started laughing. “ Its OK”, he called out to his friends. “ I know these guys, they’re my friends from Mars.”

“Bush, you’ve gone mad. Now get off that branch before you get eaten up. Friends from Mars indeed!”, said Picklepot.

Bushkie continued laughing, hopped and went closer to his friends from Mars. “Really,“ he said, “they won’t hurt you. They are in trouble and we have all been helping them. C’mon Picklepot, don’t be a coward”, said Bushkie bravely. Not very long ago, Bushkie had himself been terrified by these little Martians!!

Picklepot and Breadroll looked at each other. Well, if Bushkie says he isn’t afraid, no reason for us to start running away, they thought. “ Lets check it out, Breaddie”, said Pickle as they both turned around and returned to the tree. They landed carefully behind Bushkie.

“ Breadroll, Picklepot, please meet Kwa Kwa and Ompa Ompa. They are from Mars. Ompa , Kwa, these are my closest friends. Say Hi! To them”, introduced Bushkie.

“Hi! s”, were said by everyone to everyone.

Bushkie, pleased that he had done well so far continued. “Breadroll, Picklepot, these people are travelers from Mars. They flew here in a small flying saucer. They had a small accident and couldn’t leave. I met them on this tree and that’s how I got to know them and their problem. By the way guys, the chocolate sauce, gum and cheese was not for us. Its for them to fix their spaceship and fly away.”

“Uh! Oh”, thought Breadroll. All that hard work for these little guys. “Chee, this is awful.” He was no longer afraid of the little creatures. He was just disturbed thinking about the goodies he was to give away.


“Well Ompa”, said Bushkie, “we have all your stuff. Get started on your ship. It is getting late and we need to fly back home”.

Ompa and Kwa rushed to Bushkie and gave him a big hug. “Thanks very much Bushkie”, they said. “And thanks Breadroll and Picklepot. You’ve been so kind to us. Thank you.”

With that they picked up their stuff and quickly got to repair their ship. In a few moments they were ready. “Well then Bushkie”, they said. “ Time for us to leave. Thanks for your help. I know we should not meet again. We are allowed only to visit other planets. But not meet anyone. We will always remember you for your kindness. Good bye Breadroll, goodbye Picklepot”, they waved as they stepped into their ship.

“Bye”, said the three little birds. They actually felt sad saying farewell to their special friends.

The ship flew away softly and quickly. The three sparrows headed back home.

“Whew!”, said Picklepot , “that was exciting. And weird. Nobody will believe us”.

“That’s right”, said Picklepot, “ because you can’t tell anyone. We will get laughed at for the rest of our lives if we go around telling the other birds that we met with creatures from Mars.”

“Yeah”, said Breadroll , “ and all that food went to waste!”.

“Which reminds me”, said Bushkie, “ I’m having seeds and earthworm for dinner tonight. Really boring stuff. Wish I lived on Mars. Lots of chocolates and cheese to eat. But it feels good . We really helped them get back home. I would hate to get stranded so far away from my home, you know. But its all over guys. Lets get back. Home work to do and school again early tomorrow. Aw maaan!”

“ Aww Maaaan!!”, groaned the three young birds as they flew gently back to their homes.

……………………………………to be continued……………

Short Story for Children:



Bushkie is a young sparrow. He lives in the city with his folks on a large oak tree neighborhood. He loves to read books, enjoys watching basketball and is fascinated by big numbers.

Bushky and The Chameleon’s Tale

‘Mirror mirror on the wall’, she sang to herself.
‘What trouble to be a Chameleon after all’, she ended.
Sophia, a teenage chameleon, was readying herself for a date. But not quite sure what colours to decorate herself with. After all she was a chameleon, and could turn her skin to any colour she liked. At his time, her body was a light hue of blue. The skin beneath her eyes, purple and her eye lids- a very pretty green.
Her hands and legs were a bright pink.

But she was not quite satisfied. And was rapidly changing colour on various parts of her body and looking in the mirror to judge which gave the best effect. Being a chameleon did have its moments- especially in getting ready for a date.
‘Aw shucks!!’, said Justign, her younger brother. Distracted by her song, he had made a wrong move in his game of checkers.

His opponent, Bushky- the young sparrow- jumped on his chance and made a double jump on the board. ‘You’re pretty bad at this game’, gloated Bushky to his young chameleon friend.

‘Its all her fault’, hissed Justign, pointing his tail to his sister. She and her pathetic singing. ‘Why don’t you leave the room sis?’, he asked rolling his eyes. Though ion opposite directions. Bushky always felt dizzy looking into Justign’s eyes when he did this.

‘This, dear imbecile’, she said, ‘happens to be my room. I am but a gurgling brook. If I bother you, feel free to disappear’, she said mockingly.
Justign pretended not to hear. And made another move on the checkers board. Obviously he was distracted, he made yet another poor jump.

Bushky, jumped his pieces gleefully. This game he would win.
‘Justy!! Come here’, cried a voice from the kitchen. It was Mrs. Chamy, Justign’s mother. ‘You and Bushky must have a bite to eat. You have been playing all afternoon.’

‘Right away!!’, cried Justign and wiggled away, knocking over the checkers board with his tail. ‘Oops! I’m sorry’, he said most unconvincingly. Bushky knew better. Justign was happy to spoil a game he had surely lost. Bushky knew because he did it too.
‘I won that game anyway’, said Bushky and hopped away behind Justign. In the chameleon’s little house, Bushky could only hop about. He did not mind that. The chameleons were his friends and he enjoyed being there.
‘Here you are’, said Mrs. Chamy to the odd couple. She was now a light shade of red. He remembered seeing her in a pretty blue in the morning. ‘Some worms for you Justy, and seeds for Bushky.’

The chameleons knew Bushky liked seeds and would never eat a worm. Although bigger sparrows ate them with relish, Bushky still preferred seeds.
‘Thanks Mrs. Chamy’, said Bushky as he pecked hungrily on his seeds. From the corner of his eye he saw Justign gobble up the worms with relish.
‘Ugh!’, he said. ‘How can you eat those Justy? Horrible creatures. Slimy and squiggly.

‘But very tasty’, replied Justy. Here, try one he said extending a worm caught in his claw, towards Bushky.
‘No way!’, said Bushky, ‘I couldn’t come near one of those. Ugh!’
‘Hmm’, said a voice in the background and both friends looked towards the back of the room. There, on the rocking chair near the window said grandfather Chamy. Old and wise, he was believed to be over 75 chameleon years old. A great storyteller he was.
‘Hmm’, he said again thoughtfully looking out of the window into the branches of the oak tree they lived on.’ That wasn’t what I saw yesterday young Bushky. You seemed to be having a great time with them worms yesterday. I saw you sneak out of your room and chase them about.’ He was amused by his recollection.

‘Oh that!’, said Bushky between gobbling seeds, ‘That was all in fun grandpa. Those slimy creatures were nearing our home and I tried to peck them off. I would never eat them. Maybe just peck off their heads or legs. After all’, he said, quickly gobbling another mouthful of seeds,’ they are good for some target practice.’

The old chameleon winced slightly, though neither friend could see that. Then he smiled as he remembered that Bushky was but a young sparrow, only now learning to fly, spread his wings and see the world for what it was. So young, so full of energy and himself he was, thought the old man.

‘Hmm’, said the old chameleon again. ‘Just as you would be target practice for the hawks that fly above our tree Bushky? Is that how I understand you?’.
Bushky stopped chewing and looked at Justign. They both smiled to each other. The old chameleon would begin another story. How nice. He usually told very nice stories, but it was a long time since he had told them one. ‘Memory fails me’, he used to say. But his tone and his questioning suggested, he would be starting one soon.
Quickly they moved near him.

With no further prompting, the old man continued.

‘Bushky, Justy, you are both young. It is a good time of life. But use this time well. Perhaps what I will tell you now, will help you both. I am not sure whether it is true. But it is a tale told to every chameleon. So it must be useful.’
Do you know why we chameleons crawl on trees and have these thorns on our backs? Why, in-spite of all the colours that we adorn ourselves with, we still look ugly as we do today. ‘
The two young friends shook their heads. But the old chameleon was not looking for an answer. He continued.

The Tale of The Chameleon King:
‘We were not always like this. Many years ago, many years before this tree took root here….many years before that….our kind too had wings. Like the birds, we used to roam the skies as easily as we crawl in the branches today. What a site we must have been? Colourful, cheerful, like flying rainbows in the sky.’

‘Like butterflies!!’, said Bushky.

‘Yes’, said the old man, surprised at the comparison Bushky had made. ‘Like butterflies, but changing colour in our flight. Can you imagine that?’

‘It was a sad time when we lost our beauty. In our youth one of us became reckless, and we paid the price.’ He tapped his stick to the ground for no reason but perhaps to wake himself from the stupor he felt he was falling into. And renewed his tail.
‘We were ruled by the great king Quros VII. A wise and strong king, he had the respect of all the chameleons that flew. He inherited the throne from his father. They were a line of great kings. A dynasty which begun when Quros I brought all the chameleon families together. United, peaceful times they were.

Quros had 2 sons. Dumas and Petros. Both were strong lads, full of life and energy. The king was proud of them and hoped they would lead the chameleons to another reign of peace and prosperity.

It was not to be. For Dumas, strong and wise as he was, lacked humility. Bestowed with riches and talents, he was proud and thought himself better that his brother. And even his own family for that matter. He thought himself above all creatures. Day and night, Dumas would fly around, changing colour, singing to himself, calling on all creatures to look up to him and bow before his grandeur.
No matter how hard the king tried, he was unable to instil on Dumas, qualities of humility and compassion. “Perhaps, when he grows older, he will realise his mistake and change”. So would lament the king to Petros.

That too would not happen. For as Dumas grew older, he realised he could achieve more with his unique gift of changing colour. It began as play. Sitting in the bushes, he would change colour to those of the flowers. As the butterflies and bees would fly near, he would strike out his tongue and slay them. To him, it was, just a game. A game he could play because of his superiority over other creatures.
In the sky, he would fly in the colours of the blue sky. Invisible, he would attack the birds that flew.

On land, he became a shade of green and hid in the grasses to strike at crawling creatures. He was a menace, everywhere. And would cause great sadness to us all.
Dumas’s friends warned him again and again to change his ways. His mother pleaded with him. She knew that when the king found out, he would be very angry. This game Dumas played was not like the mischief he committed in his childhood. The king had forgiven those. But now, Dumas’s pranks were causing pain to other creatures. That was a punishable crime in the kingdom. But Dumas could not see the difference. He did not believe he could ever be punished- especially by his father, the king.

One day, inevitably, the king heard of Dumas’s mischief. He was shocked and sad. And very very angry. “The line of Qudros has committed sacrilege!”, he thundered. “The noblest line of kings that reigned over the kindest creatures, now our name stands blackened forever by this one’s mischief.” His rage was immense. For him, a chameleon prince had betrayed the trust of his own kind as well as that of all creatures.
“There must be punishment”, he said. “There must be retribution”, he screamed to the heavens. And then he confined himself to his chamber.
For three days and three nights he stayed there. Without food or water. And he spoke with no one.

Outside, his family worried for him and pleaded for him to come out. Dumas, who like the other, had never seen his fathers wrath, was unmoved. ‘He will let me off with a scolding’, he thought to himself and planned his next scheme.

And then the king came out of his chamber. In his hand, he held the sword of Justice- The weapon of the king himself. One that was only used in battle. One that had not been used for over 250 years since the Qudros line was established. Today, he held the same sword.

His wife feared the worst for Dumas. She knew the sword had only one purpose. Death.
The king came to the breakfast table. He spoke to everyone in a very pleasant manner. Like one who had no troubles of his own. Or one who had found all the answers to his troubles. While each family member ate, the king went around the table. He spoke to each, enquiring about them, their day and their work.

He approached Dumas, spoke with him casually. And as he was leaving, calmly took out his sword and placed the tip at Dumas’s neck. Everyone was shocked.
“Hear this Dumas”, he said, “and everyone present here.”
“The colours we carry and change- they are for our protection. Our ability to change colour is a gift. When used with humility, it shows our willingness to be one with the other creatures on this planet. That is how peace has prevailed. Because we have chosen to be ONE with every other creature. We have chosen to change ourselves rather than impose change. But when we change our colours to exploit another, we become treacherous and deceitful. Today, the Qudros have violated the trust that creatures placed in us. In a world of happiness and tranquillity, one chameleon destroyed that trust which is necessary for al creatures to live together. It is sad. Dumas must be punished.

And to atone for the sorrow this Dumas has caused to all creatures, we chameleons must pay a price. With that, he cut off his wings. That we may never hide completely, let us be adorned with thorns. With that, he stuck 6 knives into his body.
And that no chameleon may every harbour contempt, let this Dumas serve as a lesson.”
With that he cut of Dumas’s head. The family was aghast. The king wept. But the deed was done.

As word spread, in honour of the king’s actions, every chameleon cut-off its wings and thrust into itself 6 long knives.
It was a sad time. It is said that for 5 years, in sadness on the king’s decision, the flowers did not bloom. The trees did not bear fruit. The birds did not sing and the rivers did not flow. The rains did not fall. Life ceased to exist.
When the circle of life resumed, all chameleons were born without wings and with rough, sometimes thorny backs.’

Thus, the old chameleon ended his tale. From over his glasses, he looked at the two young friends sitting before him.

‘And so young Bushky’, he said, ‘to this day, we carry the marks of that proclamation. As a reminder that strong and powerful as we get, mighty as our skills may make us, we must remember the lesson that Dumas taught us. That our weapons are only instruments of defence. Retribution will follow those who use it for deceit or to attack. I would not object to your killing worms if to eat them. But to mutilate them for joy is unwise and unfair.’

The two young friends were moved deeply by the story. Justign had often wondered why he was full of spikes. Why he could be colourful, yet always stand apart from a crowd on account of his spikes. Why, he could never merge with the other creatures. Today he knew.

Bushky remembered al the worms he had mutilated. He looked at his wings and thought of the retribution of Dumas. How would he live without his wings? He felt ashamed.
‘Return to your games’, said the old man. ‘I did not wish to spoil your afternoon of fun. But last evening, I realised how quickly you were both growing strong. And I hoped I would have an opportunity to talk to you. Thank you for giving me that chance.’ With that he got up and crawled to his room.
Sophia breezed past them.

In a bright pink hue. Humming to herself as she picked settled herself on the grandfather chair. She was already late. Her friend had been waiting at the base of the tree for over half an hour. But she was in no hurry. Gaily, she popped a worm into her mouth.

Bushky and Justign resumed their games of checkers.
And another gentle evening begun on the big oak tree.

Short Story: Never Alone

The farmer displayed the vibrant energy of a young cheetah confident of its ability to run, to hunt and to win. Every stride purposeful.

Only his shifty eyes belied the true nature of his boundless energy. Paranoid and restless.

Long after the sun had set, the farmer continued ploughing his fields. His straight path illuminated feebly by the lamp that he held above his hand. The oxen may have pondered why the master spent so much time on the fields. Hours after the sun had set and the other farmers had returned to their homes, they continued their work. And when the farmer finally left the fields, it was not out of fatigue. In recent days, he had seemed full of life, untiring. To an onlooker he gave the impression of a man possessed by a mission. A sprinter running towards the finish line. Oblivious to the strain of the race, conscious only of the finish line and of the other racers striving hard to prevent him meeting his moment of triumph.

He left the oxen a fresh bale of straw to chew over the night and poured fresh water into their drinking trough. As he was akin to doing, he ran his palm gently over their forehead. He rubbed their long, curving horns, dimmed the lamp hung in the shed and left towards his home.

The path home, through a forest was neither long enough to be tiring and mundane, not short enough that it pass without notice. It was a warm night and the moon shone brightly but couldn’t always penetrate the overhead canopy formed by the tall, thick trees. The owls kept him company, their sounds orchestrating with the rustle of the leaves, what could sound to the imaginative, ominous whispers in the darkness. But, until recent days, the farmer had not been very imaginative.

The farmer felt the stirrings of a gentle and cold breeze as he steeped into the forest. It was out of place on a warm summer night. He had grown scared of walking through the forest in the nights. Had he been sensible, he would have stopped walking through it alone. But bravado overrode sense. How could he explain he was scared of the dark, whispering grove? Perhaps he should have run through the stretch and allowed his panting breath to drown the other sounds. But the walk was neither long nor short, and he could never have run through it. The trees began their rustling whispers. The owls awoke to greet him. Every now and then the farmer would shiver as the cold breeze slipped over his back and past his bare neck. Like some icy fingers beginning a slow and seductive grip around his neck. He jerked his neck in an attempt to shake off the gentle pressure he felt. He broke into a sweat. Nervously he looked behind him, only to see a few leaves rolling away in the breeze. Every step of the way he felt eyes staring down at him. Red, bloody eyes, eyes that never shut but searched for victim, after victim, after victim. To the farmer, every inch of the forest was part of a force, mysterious and surreal, aligned against him. He no longer mocked tales of the supernatural- of demons and ghosts. At their very mention, he would close his eyes and make a slight bow - his attempt to make peace with the forces of the afterworld.

But it seemed the forces would not let him be. And amid the mocking forest he felt impending doom and he broke down. Tears flowing profusely down his cheek, he hastened his steps only to approach the densest part of the forest. Where the thick foliage kept out every light from the heavens above.

His body shook convulsively and his sobs grew louder. And from afar came the wolves response-a mournful, lonely, betrayed howl. The howls punctuated the howl with erie hoots which sounded like bhoot ! bhoot ! (ghost). The farmers turban fell of his head. He did not miss it till he reached his home. And he never saw it again.

He continued sobbing even as he left the forest. Stopping to wipe his eyes only when he ran across the children playing at the edge of the village. ‘Pranam chacha’, (hello uncle) they said. He did not reply but continued his fast, paranoid walk. As he stepped into his house, he looked out to the forest. The breeze he had felt had not come out beyond the edge of the forest. He could see the leaves continuing rolling at the forests edge. Reminding him that whatever it was in the forest that waited for him, it would be waiting for him the next evening as well.

The children had continued playing even after sunset. A radio receiver had been installed in the village and a small electricity bulb on the porch illuminated the receiving station. The little bulb allowed the children to play on. Now, it wasn’t darkness but hassled mothers and sisters that dragged them away from their play.

As the farmer hurried by, the children stopped to greet him.

In the momentary distraction, one of the children missed the ball thrown at him. The ball rolled away to the edge of the forest where a few dry leaves were rolling in the cold gentle breeze. The breeze that had accompanied the farmer, but would not venture beyond the egde.

The young boy started after the ball but slowed down as he saw it head into the forest. Panic gripped stronger at him with every step forward he took. ‘Arrey, what are you waiting for. Go on and get the ball dummy’, scolded the children from behind. Away from the security of his group, the child fought hard to take steps forward one at a time. And fought harder the urge to turn back and run home.

The forest was no longer the friend he had been taught it was. To him it held dark secrets. Secrets of powerful spirits that would harm him and punish him. At the edge of the forest, he saw the ball no more than ten steps ahead of him. From the inside, the forest saw him at its edge, crouched as though ready to pounce on it. The child however only knew fear and his effort to keep it suppressed inside him. With a sudden dash he rushed to the ball, picked it up and flung it back to his group.

Even as he felt the urine trickle down his leg. He felt the forest closing around him. He felt a cold breeze wrapping itself around him and wanting to drag him into deeper into the jungle. The owls chanted bhoot bhoot, the leaves rustled. And the boy, wailing, frightened, ran back…….harder and harder….he ran past his friends……his wet trouser leg clinging to his leg…..he ran home. He ran up the steps to the rooftop where he knew his mother would be cooking. ‘Mother’, he wailed….and ran to hide himself behind her. Sobbing uncontrollably, scared, like he had escaped from the jaws of death.

The young girl was used to balancing three pots of water gracefully on her head. One other pot would be balanced on her waist and held firmly by her elbow. She had perfected her walk over some years and was proud of her sure and steady gait.

The river flowed gently not far from the village. It was a short walk across the forest which she made every morning before the sun rose. Her early walk gave mother enough time to bathe and prepare food for the day. The girl helped her mother with the cooking though she did not enjoy it very much. And then headed to school, which, against her mother’s wishes she had attended for six years now.

The forest had always been her friend. She had sung to it, danced around its trees, picked its berries and called out to the birds that nested in its branches.

That friendship had gone.

She dreaded passing through it now. And in recent weeks, she had spilt her pots regularly.
Each time she stepped into the forest she felt she had to force her way through a thick and cold wall. She could not tell if the wall was inside her or outside, but it took so much effort. In the forest, she found the songs dried up in her mind. Her feet no longer danced but clumsily searched the floor for grip. The berries tasted bitter when she found any……and it was only the owls in the darkness of the very early hours called out around her - bhoot bhoot .

When she came to the edge, she found herself unable to step out. As if held back by unseen hands. Often she had looked back in fear, but could see no one. And then she would break down in a flood of tears, shut her eyes and push herself out of the dark woods.

When she had refused to return a few days back, she was unable to explain the reason for her fear. Her mother forced her to her task accusing her of becoming lazy. The thought that she would return the next day kept her sad and uneasy all day long.

It did not take long for the woman to understand the changes around her.
Her husband, daughter and son were changed. The son, the light of her life, always gay and chatty, was quiet, scared and nervous. She cajoled him, coaxed him, made his favourite delicacies, but could not get him to say what was wrong. He would only point to the forest and say he was scared of the beings inside. She tried telling him there was the God of the forest to protect them all, but he would not believe. She tried to walk with him through the forest one evening, but he would not listen.

Her daughter, her pride and love was withering away. She dreamt a very good marriage for her girl, she knew with her looks and charm, the girl could choose for herself the finest groom. She had herself taught her to cook, tend to the cattle and keep the house clean. She had seen her little girl blossom into a fine young woman. And suddenly the blossom was withering away.

She wouldn’t say anything either. But the mother and daughter argued frequently about going through the forest to bring water. And that was the only indication the mother had. She looked to the forest perplexed. The forest had always protected them. Often, after finishing her chores, she walked through the forest and was soothed by its shade, its wild blossoms and fruit. And above all by the solitude and the quiet rest it gave her as she sat under the trees listening to the birds. She knew the villagers frequented the forest often. The forest was their friend.

And unfortunately, she was seeing less and less of her husband. He told her he was working towards a bumper harvest and when she visited him in the noon, carrying him his lunch, she saw him hard at work. She was proud of him. His sullenness at home she blamed on the extra work he was putting in that was bound to leave him tired. She did her best to soothe him and give him his rest. She had told him of her worry about the children. He showed no reaction and believed it was part of growing up. ‘We all go through this’, he said. When she mentioned their fear of the forest, he had said that was silly imagination at work. He had immediately turned over and fallen asleep. Though she did feel him wake in the middle of the night and walk about restlessly.

Some time later, concerned, the woman approached the village priest for his advice. Bowing before him with folded hands she asked to speak with him. The priest sat with her in the temple courtyard and listened to her problem.

‘Daughter’, he said gently, ‘ I know your family. Your husband and children are fine strong people. And it makes me sad to hear about the state of your children. It may be no trivial matter that suddenly disturbs such beautiful people.’

Then he said:

‘How do you walk home, alone and on a silent path ?
When the leaves rustle, do your feet move faster?
Do you rush to find your home or stop to hear your breath?
Do you hear a voice telling you to believe the spirits follow ?
Or do you slow down and look to heaven?

For it is only in silence do you hear your heart speak.’

‘We all hear that voice’, he continued, ‘and in the absence of good judgement, it is only our conscience that keeps us in check.

As we age, we realise that the conscience is our own private matter. It cannot speak out. Without our own support, it is helpless. So we begin to ignore it.’

‘But children’, he added,’ are innocent and do not disregard their conscience thus. On the other hand, they are curious and are easily tempted down the forbidden path. Then, their conscience punishes them more severly than any adult would consider necessary. They do tend to be slaves to their conscience. For all we know your little boy may have stolen a glass of milk. Don’t worry yourself, it is only his conscience that torments him so.’

The woman walked back home relieved, but still unsure of what to do. She felt tired. A while back her young sister had died tragically when she was run over by a train while collecting flowers growing on the track. She was recovering from the pain of the tragedy…….and now this.

The next day the woman asked her daughter to stop going to the forest. That helped bring back some cheer on her girl’s face. Then she asked her son to stop going into the forest and tell the other children that she had forbidden him. That satisfied the little boy. His courage could not be questioned if he was simply obeying his mother’s orders. She was gentle with them and indulged them. In small ways she opened herself to them. The daughter was allowed a little make up on special evenings. The boy was given more cream in his milk. If it was only a small transgression, she sincerely wanted them to come clean and feel better.

It was the only way their lives would return to normal.

She also began to pay more attention to her husband. She hoped the harvest would be plentiful, then her husband to could take a break and relax. He was working harder and harder but seemed more sullen with each day. Whenever she remarked about his sullenness, he would say ‘wait till the harvest. This one will be bountiful and we will have enough for the girl’s dowry.’ And she dutifully waited.

And slowly life returned to normal.

The children laughed and played as before, the forest was not spoken of and the priest’s words , never understood, were forgotten. Though they never revealed their small transgressions, it did not matter any more. The mother spent much of her time lending a helping hand to the farmer. He appreciated it. Summer had turned to monsoon. The monsoon, plentiful brought cheer to all the farmers. Harvest approached and the farmer worked harder than ever to collect his grain. It was a race against time. What ripe grain he could not collect, rodents would.

On the final day of harvest, the mother decided to take her children to the farm to see the result of their father’s work. It was symbolical to her, the end of a season and with the harvest, she knew the past would be well forgotten.

The children did not look happy with the suggestion. They tried hard to remember the fear they had felt and protest, but the memories were distant. . And the thought of their mother walking them through the forest dispelled any lingering doubts. Indeed their strength lasted beyond the edge of the forest though they hung close to their mother.

The darkness of the canopy brought forward dusk. The forest you could say was undecided on how to greet the three. Neither birds nor owl, but tiny insects that hummed. It was turning chilly without icy breeze. Nothing cordial, yet nothing to suggest that the forest forbade their intrusion. ‘Your father will be very happy to see you’, said the mother. ‘He works so hard you know’, she said. In her excitement she described what the fields looked like and how little seedlings sprouted. She described how she spent time making the scarecrow. She described the colors of the field ripe with grain. And before she could describe how the field would look again, her son said ‘that’s where I asked masi (aunty) to wait.’

The mother stopped her speech to ask ‘when ? where ?’. It was a while since she had thought of her sister and she was surprised to hear her son speak about her. She guessed it was many months back that her son was referring to and out of curiosity she stopped to see where her son had pointed.

The boy did not speak but looked at his feet as he walked on, he had not heard the question.

‘When did you see her ?’, asked his mother again.

‘There’, said the boy, pointing to a small clearing through the trees. ‘You had gone to your mother’s home then for a few days. Just before masi died. I asked her to go there.

The mother slowed down her walk. She was not aware of this episode. It did not strike her as suspicious in any way, she was only curious. Why had her son asked his aunt to go to the middle of the forest ? Was it some hide and seek game they had been playing ? ‘Were you playing hide and seek ?’, she asked. She smiled as she said this, remembering how fond her children were of their young aunt.

‘No’, said the boy, suddenly bursting into a loud wail, ‘but papa said he wanted to play. We sent her here and she died. We must have killed her. It must be our fault.’ The child sobbed uncontrollably. His mother froze. Her head spun wildly. Her daughter held the little boy close to her. He sobbed continuously into her waist as the girl too broke down. The children cried for an aunt they loved and an aunt they were the last people to see. Her body was found near the railway tracks. Her last journey was from the forest where the children sent her to the railway tracks where her fate took her.

The mother dragged her feet and the children to the fields. She saw the land, bare. In the shed, their harvest well stocked. Doubt and disbelief hounded her every step. Overcome by emotion, her breathing was strained. She exerted to keep her composure. The three called out to the farmer, but he was not around. The other farmers had seen him finish work and walk away. They had not had the time from their work to speak with him that morning. The three returned home silently. The forest alive with the sound of birds and the trees swaying in gentle breeze, welcomed them. The children left to play with their friends, while the mother waited to speak to the farmer.

As the sun set on the village that evening, the villagers brought the farmer’s body back to the house.

He had been found run over on the railway tracks.

His wife woman continued to show no emotion.

But when she heard one of the villagers suggest that the farmer had gone to the tracks to pick flowers, she spat and cursed viciously.

‘Swine’, she said, ‘what better can I expect from the men of this village ?’

A few days later, the woman and the children visited the temple priest again. Taking his blessings, they left the village forever.

Short Story: Some games are best left alone

The kid that will run GE.

Points for money. It’s a game that my sister played with her 9 year son some years back. She credited ‘points’ into his account if he had been good and had helped with errands around the house. Clear the table- 50 points, tidy the room-75 points, and so on. Every month, the points were redeemed for pocket money. It paid to be good. She debited the points if he had been untidy, noisy, trouble making….well basically debited the points if he had been a normal kid. (So I used to say to her with disgust. How could you arm twist a kid like this?) It didn’t pay to be a kid.

Only, I realized, the boy had learnt to beat the system pretty well.

One evening, for example, when I was visiting them, we were chatting in the kitchen, my sister cooking with her back towards us. This kid, picked up an opportunity, knocked my can of coke off the table and before anyone could move, offered to clean up the spill.

‘Who did that?’, asked my sister. To which the kid just shrugged his shoulder and looked to me. Didn’t say a word. And went about wiping the spilt cola.

My sister looked at me, glared and her lips moved…’Clumsy Oaf!’ were the words they made. Obviously not wanting the young man to hear the words. ‘Put in 50 points to your account Ajey’, she told the boy.

‘I didn’t say anything’, says the boy to me later that evening, before running off to bed. ‘I just looked at you. Not my fault you look such a likely culprit’, he said offering me his raised palm for a high-five. I gave him a high five- with a brain like that, the kid will probably end up running GE one day, I thought. I should try to be in his good books.
Getting cute with the Mrs.

Right, I remembered this game recently and decided to be cute with the Mrs- I suggested we play the same game between ourselves. For gestures of love and concern, we credit points to the spouse’s account. For thoughtless actions and inconveniences, we debit. She wasn’t too keen though. ‘Don’t be silly. You can’t put numbers to love. I’m not playing, ’ she said.

‘Babe’, I said, ‘I love you more than you love me, and this will prove it you.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘I’m keeping score. And pretty soon, you will recognize me as husband of the century.’

‘I already do’, she said, hoping to put me off. Didn’t work.

So I bought a small diary, made four columns- a debit and credit account for her and a debit- credit account for me.

It started off well. We went for a walk. I bought her a rose. And quickly took out my little note book looked at her triumphantly. She rolled her eyes and smelt her rose pretending to be completely unimpressed. I put in a credit entry under Hubby (Me). 100 points.

We walked ahead, sat on a bench. The Mrs hopped ahead, brought me an ice cream cone. I thanked her, one hand already reaching for the little notebook. When I handed it to her, she nodded her refusal. ‘No hubbs, that was out of love. No points,’ she says.

Jeeezuz. That was masterful.

‘No love’, I said, ‘it is my will’. And I put in a credit entry under ‘Wifey’. 99 points. Then crossed it out. And put in 101. Machiavelli would have been proud of that one. I knew she was playing to win this one. She said she was not. But she was. Ah yes, she definitely was. I could sense that.

She twirled her rose smiling to herself.

‘How much will you redeem these points for?’, she asked.

‘Depends’, I said. Lets say an exchange rate of 100 points to a pound?

‘Seems fair’, she said. ‘You can keep my share.’

I pretended not to hear that last comment. And so the game proceeded. In a book shop, I would find her a book she liked, put in some points. Cook a surprise breakfast, and make some credits. The odd,’ have you seen my spectacles?’ would however cause a debit entry, which very nobly, I would enter into the book. Myself.

Over time, I maintained the scorebook. But I found to my dismay, not only my debit and credit entries canceling themselves out, but the wife’s credit entries growing bigger and bigger. No big deal, it was only about 11 pounds, but she was winning. And here would be documented evidence, contrary to my confident belief, that I was the clutz around the house. I could see her talk about this over dinner with family and friends.

‘Venky came up with this cute idea that he picked up from Supriya and Ajey. About this points thingy. Blah blah blah.’ And I could see the story ending with everyone asking who won. And she would probably just shrug her shoulders and look at me….and wait for me to say it. To accept defeat. Urk. We were husband and wife. But still Man and Woman. I looked down nervously. I was still wearing the pants. But only just. No matter what she said now, a win here, and she would gloat.

I was desperate to settle the account. And pushed the grey cells to find some opportunity.

Gaay poonch uthayeygi, to gobar hi daleygi. (When a cow lifts her tail, she will only drop dung)

One fine Sunday morning, the opportunity presented itself.

The wife and I woke early enough, decided to cuddle up a little and started talking of things all over the place. And in my mind’s eye, I saw the perfect opportunity to build the points kitty.

‘You know love’, I said, ‘I hope we have a daughter. She should take your looks. Large eyes, bright smile, sharp nose. Your grace.’

No reply. She had sensed her man was at work here to redeem lost glory.

‘If a boy’, she said running her hand through my hair, ‘I hope he has your proportions. Not too large, not too small. Your sensitivity. Hard work.’

One part of me was saying ‘Go on , Go on, may this morning never end. The truth is being spoken here.’ And another was a little petrified. ‘Hey, its my turn to collect the points. Save these for next month!!’

I interrupted her. ‘She must have your patience, your firmness and your discipline.’
‘Your petit figure, sensuous curves’, I said, getting naughty.

She paused a minute. Her master brain was at work. Even at 8 on a Sunday morning, it was sharp.

And I encourage you to recognize this ploy if you ever play this game.

‘She turned towards me, running her hand over my chest. He should have sparse hair on his chest. Like you’, she said. Her hands moved to my legs. ’Strong legs’, she said.

And slowly moving her hand up she look at me. Pouted her lips readying for a kiss.

‘And…’, she hesitated. ‘And….’, she was waiting for me to continue.

I kissed her lips, absolutely intoxicated now by her words.

The man in me overcame every little shred of sense I had in my head.

‘The tool?’, I asked her, ‘you mean the tool?’.

She nodded, her eyes shut, puckering her lips again.

‘Oh yeah baby’, I thought. ‘My tool.’ I kissed her again and gloated ‘Yup, the dude got to have my tool!! What a piece of work. Ah yeah. My tool. The kid must have my tool. Will keep them women really happy’, said I. ‘Ah yeah, really happy’.

She open her eyes looking at me very gently. The masterstroke had been delivered.

Check and mate.

I closed my eyes and turned away from her, pretending to go to sleep, hoping she had not heard the final remark.

She knew I would say it. She knew, just to be a wise guy, the larger than life- Marlboro man- I would say it. She knew there were no “weeeemen”. She knew. But she knew I would still say it. Like every male, I would brag about my tool. She knew it. Her wits against mine. She had won. Game, set and match.

Slowly, like an anaconda squeezing its prey, I felt her arm come around me and move gentle up towards my neck.

‘Just how many WEEEmen did this little guy satisfy?’, she whispered into my ear.

‘WooooMaaan, love. No women.’, I said. I think I had begun to sweat now. And turned a deep red color. ‘Heck’, I thought. ‘After all these days, giving it up like that. Check and mate. Down for the count. Me and my big mouth. Gobar nikalee. ( Dropped dung)’

‘U- hum’, she said.

I got up with a start. ‘Hey you want some coffee?’, I said chirpily, ‘Would be good. Coffee in bed. And some cookies?’

‘Go for it, tiger’, she said. Stretching her arms. She had won. She wouldn’t kick her tiger when he was down. I thought.

I ran back shortly with the coffee and biscuits.

She was not in bed. What was in bed was my debit-credit book.

I opened the pages. Under the debits were trivial entries…’lost spectacles’- 75 points; lost grocery shopping bag’- 150 points; ‘misplaced cheque’- 75 points and so on. Painful reminders of my absentmindedness. Hey, can’t have me worry about groceries, can you?

The last one however, the only one she had written, in her feminine graceful style was this:
‘Foot in Mouth - losing game, set and match---------no points debited --------- just a summer dress for wifey. 100 pounds.’

If you every join us for dinner, my friends, please do not ask about this game. Needless to say, we don’t play it anymore.

Short Story- Valentine's day

‘Happy Valentine’s day’, said the boy to his grandmother. He was only nine.

‘What!’, said the old woman, amused …and distracted from her prayers by what the little boy had said to her. ‘Since when are you getting interested in this Valen day?’, she said, unable to pronounce “Valentine”. She had heard this was‘Read your schoolbooks young man, don’t worry about love. We will find you a soni kudi (beautiful girl) when the time is right.’

‘No thank you’, said the boy. ‘I have found her already. On the internet. Her name is Lucy. Lucy. Lucy’, he chanted.

‘Oh, Amreekee (American)?’, said the old lady, now indulging the boy. He was becoming very talkative of late and amused her with many things.
‘Very good. Tell me about your friend Lucy’, his grandmother coaxed, putting aside her rosary beads to think of more Earthly matters.

‘I would, but you wouldn’t understand grandma. This is love. True love. You wouldn’t understand.’

‘And why not?, she replied, surprised at how quickly her little boy was trying to grow up. ‘Young man, what has given only nine year olds the right to find true love?’, she said pinching his cheeks affectionately.

‘Because you did not have the internet when you were young. And you only find love on the Internet. Everyone knows that. But tell me did the internet come first or did love come first?’, said the boy, full of the joy of finding his Lucy.

‘Singh saheb (Mr. Singh), utho(wake up)…..’; she said his grandmother, now diverting her attention to her husband. She did not want the old man to miss out on this conversation. ‘Your grandson thinks you don’t love me anymore’, she said in jest, pulling at the old man’s long grey beard.

Old Singh, irritated by her waking him, retorted ’He is speaking the truth. And if you keep disturbing me like this, what do you expect?’

She continued tugging at his beard playfully.
‘Oh!’, she said, ruefully, ‘after all these years, you wont even defend me before your little grandson? What kind of man are you Singh saheb, great Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab)? I wonder sometimes how I agreed to marry you !’

Singh smiled wearily having now given up even the pretence of being asleep. ‘You were too young to know’, he said. ’Only eight when we got married. You did not have to agree to marry me. Your father had to agree. He was a good man. Naïve. But good.’

Turning to his grandson he said, ‘Haan (yes)…..so what were you talking of this internet? In my time, men found love in the wrestling ring of the village. And I was the best wrestler in all the village. So all the young girls would line up outside my house for a glimpse of me. The internet …..it is a stupid thing. Surely love came first. Stupidity always follows love’, he said amused with what he had just said.

‘Then, why did you choose to marry dadi (grandma) among all the girls in your village dadaji(grandfather)?’, asked the boy. His grandmother was wrinkled and shrivelled. He now wondered how she looked when she was eight.

The grandmother now got into the act. ‘Your dadaji had nothing to say. He sat stuffing himself with sweets while our parents finalised the arrangement. Then we were married.’

‘See, you never fell in love. I told you dadi (grandmother). You don’t know all this love,’ said the boy.

‘Moorkh (foolish child)’, said the old man. ‘In our time, first you married, then you fell in love. It is no different that loving first and then marrying. You are stuck for life anyway.’

‘So how did you fall in love then?’, asked the boy. ‘Did you go to the cinema and sing songs like ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ on a train?’

‘I wish’, sighed his grandmother. ‘ But do you think this wrestler had the sense to woo me like that?
We were poor people beta(child). Your grandfather worked in the fields all day and he would return after dark. I would have some rotis and curry ready for him. I would press his legs and put him to sleep. We would speak for a few minutes ….no train songs for us. Maybe we fell in love in those few minutes every day,’ surprised why she was saying all these things. In front of her husband and to a nine year old.

‘But how would you know? ‘, persisted the boy.

‘You know. Now go and play, I will heat your breakfast.’. With that the old woman started to get up.

‘But how?’, persisted the boy. ‘Dadaji, you tell me. Dadi is too shy. Tell me, ’ he pleaded.

His grandmother stopped to look at her husband. Almost frightened of what he would say. Love was not talked about like this. Why were they speaking of it today?

‘Kya karogey jaankey?’, started his grandfather,
‘Pyaar tumhey bhi hoga jab?
Asoon bahaogey,
Pyaar tumhey bhi hoga jab.’
(What will you do knowing about love. You will understand when you fall in love, when the tears flow, when you fall in love )
Singh recited. He was a bad poet.

The old lady was shocked. ‘What is this nonsense you are reciting. My child will never cry.
Uff!! you are such a funny man. Always boring us with your silly poetry.’

‘Don’t worry grandma’, said the child trying to reassure her. ‘I don’t understand what he keeps singing anyway. Tell me dadaji…. But don’t sing.’

The old man sighed. ‘Yeh aaj tujhey kya ho gaya hai?’, he said. (What has happened to you today?) ‘I don’t know about her beta. But one day, she had to go return to her village for a few days. I remember, as I went to sleep those days…alone..without her..., it was not my legs that ached…bus kaleja dukh gaya. (it was not the legs but the heart that ached) Ha ha’, he tried to laugh it away.

His old wife heard him silently. Touched.

Slowly he continued…

‘You will not understand yet. But I am glad you made me say it today. I never told your dadi this before. Ok, now go play outside. Your dadi will make some breakfast for you’, he said getting up to go away.

The boy was pensive for a moment.

‘No, no!’, he said. ‘You have to tell me now dadi. Your turn. Does dadji love you? Why did he not tell you till today? This is not true love. You have to show love. Tell me dadi. Tell me’, he repeated.

‘Chup kar(Quiet!)’, said the old woman. ‘You go love your Lucy. And everyone loves everyone. Now go. These things do not have to be said everyday.’

‘No, I wont’, persisted the boy. ‘And if you don’t tell me, I will hold me breath.’

‘Hai rabba…pagal ho gaya hai! (Oh Lord, he has gone mad)’, she moaned. ‘What do you want to know? Child, in the 54 years that I have been married to your grandfather, not once has a tear fallen from my eye. I have never asked him if he loved me. I always thought it was too obvious. Now stop embarrassing us and lets both go have breakfast.’

The old man felt pride. Dignified. And loved. But his face showed no emotion.

The boy had more to say. ‘But he never showed you the Taj Mahal even once Dadi. It is the most beautiful monument of love in all the world, no? You don’t wear gold jewellery like the other women. You never wear silk.’

The old man cringed. What he boy said was true. He had never given his wife these gifts.

But how could he? He never had any money. All his life he struggled to earn , so his children could go to school. So his children could have good clothes, books, food. He never had anything to give his wife. Even today, they lived well within their means. And the boy had noticed this. The old man cursed his poor beginnings and started to get up to walk away.

His wife held him by his hand. Making him stop.

‘Beta’, she said to the child, ‘when we were poor, sometimes your dadaji could not buy sweets on Diwali. Sometimes we borrowed salt from the neighbours for our food and sometimes we would not drink even tea for days. Often we ate only bread for dinner. In the many famines even bread was scarce. I remember all that beta. And you are right. I don’t wear silk and gold.

But look at your dadaji. Even today he only wears the clothes that I have stitched for him.

Your dada was poor. But whenever he had, whatever he had, your dadaji always gave it to me first.’ She said with pride and the tears swelled in her eyes as she remembered the penury of the past.

‘Why have you started us talking about this, you Badmaash (rascal)?’, she said quickly. Realising for no reason, so much had been said that morning. ‘Go play, I will heat some parathas for you. Happy Valen day indeed.’

The boy was pensive for a moment.

‘Do you think Lucy loves me dadi?’, said the boy.

‘I am sure she does. You are the sweetest boy in the world. Everyone loves you.’

‘When I meet her, will she be poor?’

‘It does not matter child.’

‘Will she be pretty?’

‘If you love her, she will be.’

‘Will she let me kiss her?’

‘Arrey baba (oh child!)…stop this. I’m sure she will. Study hard and become something useful in life. Only then she will marry you and let her kiss you.’

‘No’, said the boy. Nowadays, people first kiss then marry ,dadiji,’ he said …winking at her.
‘And anyway, I will not study. I only have to become a wrestler like dadaji’, he said and skipped away. ‘Dadi..bhook lagi hai. Khana lagao.’ (Grandma, I am hungry. Put out some breakfast.)

‘Abhi ayee (I am coming)’, she said, wiping her face with her dress. Laughing away thoughts of Lucy and her little boy.

‘Singh saheb’, she said to her husband. ‘Maaf karna. Bachey ney bahut kuch bulvaa diya.Chay lengey?’ (Forgive me..the child made us say too many things. Will you have some tea?)

‘Zaroor’ (of course), said the old man.

‘Par suno (but listen)….

‘Haan’. (Yes? She asked)

Suno..yeh sirf tumharey liyey, (I say this only for you)

Itney din guzar gayey,
So many days have passed
Itney saal ki ab yaad nahin shuruaat
So many years, that I cannot remember the beginning
Raat kahan gayee,
The night has long gone
Jabsey payaa tumhey,
Since I met you, it is only the moon that I see
Sirf chaand nazar ataa hai,
Kab kartey hain tumsey…aur kab apney sey baat?
When is it I speak to you and when to myself?

Saal beet gayey, par tum wahee kali,
Years have passed but you remain that charming rose
Jharney sey behtey ho, haat na ayey kabhi,
Flowing like a brook, you can never come to hand

Paas atey ho, phir jhatak key jatey ho door ,
You come near, and with a flick, you are gone
Arpsara kehtey hain, yaa phir hoor,
You are what they call an angel

..and then with a naughty smile you could only see if you had looked into his eyes, he said..

Is umar mein, mujh boodhey pey
In this age, you still set
Lagatey ho aag,
your old man on fire
Aao aaj, bhag chalen…tum aur mein,
Come, today. Lets run away..you and I
Kiseee kaliyon key baag.
Into a garden of flowers

And taking her hand, he kissed it gently.

‘Aap bhi’, Singh saab, she said, blushing. ‘Umar ho gayee hai’. (We are too old for these things.)
‘Valen day aapko bhi’ (A happy Valentine’s day to you as well’). And she turned and shuffled to the kitchen…as fast as her old legs would carry her.

Singh got up to begin his day.

In the background he heard his grandson chanting ; happy Valentine’s day, Happy Valentine’s day’. He heard the TV and the familiar Sir Boycott commenting on Sachin Tendulkar’s batting.
He heard his wife in the kitchen.

His son’s bedroom door opening.

‘Malik ney bahut diya’, he acknowledged gratefully(the Lord has given me all).

And he chanted again to himself, feeling very good about this day…

Itney din guzar gayey,
So many days have passed
Itney saal ki ab yaad nahin shuruaat
So many years, that I cannot remember the beginning
Raat kahan gayee,
The night has long gone
Jabsey payaa tumhey,
Since I met you, it is only the moon that I see
Sirf chaand nazar ataa hai,

Kab kartey hain tumsey…aur kab apney sey baat?
When is it I speak to you and when to myself?

Saal beet gayey, par tum wahee kali,
Years have passed but you remain that charming rose
Jharney sey behtey ho, haat na ayey kabhi,
Flowing like a brook, you can never come to hand

Paas atey ho, phir jhatak key jatey ho door ,
You come near, and with a flick, you are gone
Arpsara kehtey hain, yaa phir hoor,
You are what they call an angel

Short Story: All in the family

It was in the year ’62 that the Chinese attacked us”, said the old man.

The retired colonel gulped down some brandy and set himself erect on his chair. “ Yes, we were the first troops to confront them on the border. The Assam Rifles.” He spoke with pride. “Child”, he continued, “ I fought with real men. Our unit was reduced to seven men before we were ordered to retreat. 152 men died that day and we survived”, he said, almost sadly.

Colonel Sukhbir “Bob” Singh’s family had a history of army men. From the mutiny of 1857, six generations had served in the Indian armed forces. Five had laid down their lives in the line of duty. They were worshipped and the colonel envied them. To him, there was no greater glory than dying for the country.

The colonel’s grandson, a lad of twelve, looked up and smiled softly. Sitting at his grandfather’s feet, he looked up with admiration. “Go on grandpa”, he said.

Outside a storm raged. The colonel gulped more brandy and continued.
“It was a fine morning when we returned home. The agony of war replaced by the joy of reunion. In our village at Tarantal, I was welcomed a hero. Your father, then only seven, ran to my arms. When I picked him up, he put on my cap and sang out the national anthem. The Lord is kind to me. Few men feel such pride.”

The boy hugged his grandpa’s knees.

“Your father”, continued the old colonel, “ was a very bright boy. And a strong lad. Like his father and grandfather before him, his only aim was to join the forces. He joined army school, graduated with honors and then joined the National Defense Academy.”

The old man shut his eyes and leaned back on his chair. A tear ran down his cheek but he continued.

“Your father went one up on his old man. At the academy, he graduated as top student. Your grandma and I were there at his passing out parade. I remember General Rathod’s words to me. ‘The boy is following in your footsteps Singh’, he said. ‘Watch out for that one’, he told the others.”

“When your father joined the Air Force, he quickly proved his mettle. He was very good . An outstanding combat pilot with a very strong heart.”

The old man fought back tears. His grandson sensed the turmoil.

“Grandpa”, said the boy,” don’t be sad. One day I too will join the air force. I will be a good fighter pilot like my father and you will all be proud of me.”

The old man smiled feebly. He couldn’t hold back longer. “ And child”, he said, “ your father was a leader of men. He led the first attack against the enemy this morning.”

And then he broke down. And the boy cried too. For his father would never return.

For Colonel Singh, life had come a full circle. A few hours back he had received news of his son’s death at the war front. Now his grandson’s words filled him with pride. Life would surely go on.

Strange are the ways of life. For the Colonel, his son was now memories, remembrances in his old age. For the boy, his father was now hope, the flame that would shape his destiny.

And for the family, it was just an episode replayed so many times before.

Short Story- A small town tale of terror

A Small Town Tale of Terror

The evening had turned out to be perfect! Mrs. Srivastava was delighted that all the guests had complimented her on her cuisine, her décor, and most importantly, on her nephew marrying a lovely Caucasian girl he had met in America. Nothing could tarnish her spirits on this lovely April evening.

“Girish, come on over and meet Mrs. Godbole and her daughter,” exclaimed Mrs. Srivastava from across the room. Filling his glass with a third helping of mango juice, Girish looked up with a surprised expression on his face and made no attempt to approach the group of three. He knew what this was about. His wife would ask him to tell his tale of terror again. Why did she make him do this so often he thought. Anyway, he liked the attention he got, and the adulation she gave him each time he told his story. “Oh c’mon Girish’, she said, knowing he liked to be coaxed. “You must get to know these wonderful people,” she continued.

Girish walked up and said a polite hello to the ladies. He eyed the younger Ms. Godbole closely. ‘Pretty young thing’, he thought.

‘Renu studies Theology’, said his wife to him. She had noticed the look -down Girish had given the girl. ‘I thought she would like to hear your story’, she continued, ‘maybe make sense of it.’

That was the cue. ‘Do you believe in God, Renu?’, began Girish, looking into the girl’s eyes.

‘I study religion Girish,’ she said. ‘Gods are symbols. Representations of religious beliefs. So, yes, I believe in God. Not in miracles, but in God,’ said the pretty young thing with the enthusiasm of a young scientist.

‘Well, then it makes my story easier to tell’, said Girish. ‘For only if you believe in God, will you believe in the Devil. And my tale, it is of unexplainable and sinister happenings.’

The two Ms. Godboles seemed shaken by his last comment. But did not have time to deliberate on it before he started his tale.

……..the tale of the Chudail of Pipalgarh (the witch of Pipalgarh).

‘Strange business’, started Girish. ‘I remember it was our fifth year of marriage- ten years back. Sunita (Mrs. Srivastava) was pregnant with our son Neeraj. I was asked to visit the village of Pipalgarh to evaluate progress on a dam near the village that was being built with World Bank loans. Work called, so apprehensive of the situation at home, I set off to study the dam at Pipalgarh. Just so you know, the dam project was called off four years back.’

‘It was a typical monsoon night when I reached Pipalgarh. Heavy downpour…relentless rains. At the station, I took a tonga (horse drawn carriage) for the five mile ride to the village. Uneventful, the tonga driver and I kept to ourselves. I smoked my cigarette and he, his beedi(a rolled tobacco leaf smoke). The rain drummed a musical beat on the roof of the carriage, the horse added to the symphony with its trot.’

‘This was fine by me. I am not a very talkative passenger and I was more keen to get to dry ground quickly. The ride seemed to be going well, till about a half hour later, the driver stopped the carriage and asked me to get off.”

“Have we reached?”, I asked him. “No, saheb”, he said, “ but my carriage can go no further. The path is very slushy….you will have to walk the last mile. Enjoy your stay here saheb. When you want to return, inform the guest house keeper and he will contact me.”

What? I began to think. Is this man serious? A heavy downpour, slushy path, late night. And now a walk through sparse forests to the guest house, which I would have to find all by myself. What nonsense was this?

‘How to I get to the rest house?’, I asked, very irritated and hoping my annoyance would get this man to see things my way, and maybe decide to drive me the last mile as well.

‘Just walk along this path for a mile’, he replied showing no sympathy for my situation or concern at my irritation. ‘You will see its lights. Enjoy your stay saheb. But be good to our women. I hope you will not meet the chudail of pipalgarh.’

He had obviously practiced this routine often. For before I could react, he let out a cynical laugh and pulled on the reins to get his carriage moving off at speed. Leaving me drenching in the downpour looking into the dark path ahead.

‘Drunk idiot’, I thought to myself as I pondered over his reference to this ‘chudail’ character and my predicament in the rain. I am not a superstitious man, nor a believer in evil spirits. But I just found it irritating to be told of some silly chudail, when I was just getting into this village. ‘Go to hell’, I said to myself, cursing the tonga driver again.

I was drenched within a minute. Holding my raincoat tightly around myself, I picked up my suitcase and started off on the path the driver had indicated.

The combination of a dark night, monsoon rain, slushy path through a forest are a heady mix. I was surprised how quickly I was walking through the slush. A half hour of walking though the rain, cursing the tonga driver, I saw the lights of a building in the distance. ‘That must be it’, I thought and started running which soon had me gasping for breath. Reaching the door, I knocked loudly. Once, then twice. ‘Damn, is there no one inside?’ I feared. ‘My luck is turning on me. At this rate I will surely meet this chudail character tonight’, I said to myself laughing at the thought.

The door opened then, and I was greeted by an aged housekeeper. Pretty old guy, slow in his movements and speech.

‘Namaste saheb’, he said, ‘aapka intazaar tha’…I was expecting you. Saying this he took my suitcase into the house. How did he expect me? Maybe the office had sent a telegram. Anyway, good for me that I have a ready room here. This trip was looking more comfortable now.

‘Kya barish hai, (What a terrible rain)‘ I said to him, trying to build a conversation.

‘Jee huzoor (Yes sir)’, he said. That pleased me. These ‘huzoor’ types are housekeepers of an older generation. Docile, obedient and trustworthy.

‘Aapka kamara samney hai. Aap apney khana khaya?’ (Will you rest. Have you eaten?)

‘I have eaten’, I said entering my room, Ek chai bana dena bhai, I said. Main abhi ayaa.
(Make me a cup of tea, I will be with you soon)
‘Jee huzoor’, he said.

I entered my room, glancing at little, but eagerly tearing off my clothes, rummaging through my suitcase to bring out some dry clothes for the night. A cup of hot tea followed and then I fell on the bed eager for a good night’s rest before venturing into Pipalgarh in the morning.

Life in Pipalgarh.

I settled well into life at the guest house and at Pipalgarh. The village was not far from the guest house and the dam was reachable on a bicycle kept at the guest house.

The guest house sheltered some government engineers and a bloke from the world bank by the name of Samir. Each of us met quickly but not frequently after that. The engineers followed a routine which forced them to work on the construction site through the night. Samir, well, he was often late in coming home, which he explained was due to his having to meet the village headman and government regularly in the evenings to update them on the project. In our brief meetings, I enjoyed Samir’s company very much. Of the same age and tastes, we enjoyed some Johnny Walkers together.

One such night, the two of us were sitting in the guest house lawns after dinner smoking cigarettes and debating on the finer whiskies when I recalled the tonga driver’s words on the chudail of Pipalgarh.

“Hey Samir “, I said, “this village has a resident spook I am told.”

“Yeah?”, he said, “tell me about him.”

“Not him, her. A genuine Chudail. I don’t know her story, you think the house keeper here would know? He seems to have been around long enough to know.”

“Mazaa aayeyga (it should be fun), hav’nt heard a good story in ages. Ramlal!!”, he shouted. ‘Oye Ramlal, bhai idhar ao.’ ( Hey Ramlal, come here man).

Ramlal, hobbled across the garden and came to us. ‘Jee huzoor? Aur barf chahiyey? ‘ ( Yes sir, do you want any more ice?)

‘Barf nahi yaar, kahaani sunao. Chudail ki. Suna hai Pipalgarh mein chudail hai? Milaogey nahin?’, said Samir. (No ice, you tell us a story. I have heard there is a witch in Pipalgarh. Will you not introduce us to her?)

Ramlal was not happy to hear about this. ‘Saheb’, he said, ‘surely that foolish tonga driver has told you all this. He is an idiot. In this ambience, why do you want to hear all these stories. I will get you some ice. Enjoy your drinks with the songs of Asha Bhosley.’

‘Leave Asha alone with the ice,’ said Samir. ‘ You tell us a story that I can take back to my office. The story of a real witch. Come, sit with us.’

Ramlal crouched near us, reconciled to his fate of now having to tell us a story.

‘The story goes like this. A hundred years ago’, he started, ‘when the British were here, there was a gentleman by the name of John who stayed at the village. He was responsible for building the railway line here. A nice gentleman I am told. He was here for 2 years, in which time he got acquainted with the village folk. They all trusted him.

He liked the villagers as well. Unfortunately, liked them too well. John fell in love with a village girl. They were married and lived together for 6 months.’

‘Then one day,’, continued Ramlal slowly, he was called back to England. ‘He did not tell anyone where he was going, said he was off to Bombay for a few days. He never returned.’

‘Some weeks after he left, he was replaced by the new English gentleman. That’s when the girl found out that John had gone back to England. She was sure he would come back for her, and she waited for his return for five long years. Finally, one morning, she went for her bath to the river and never came back. In body. Her spirit it is said, still haunts Pipalgarh.’

‘You will ask how we know,’ said Ramlal, obviously having been asked this question by a previous audience. ‘We don’t anymore. But when I was a child, we believed the chudail protected the women of Pipalgarh. In the police station the deaths of Mr. Chaudhary in 1952, of Mr. Khan in 1961 and of Mr. Patel in 1977 remain unsolved mysteries. What is clear is that these men had forced relationships with Pipalgarh’s women in the time they were here. Each of them was found dead on the morning they were to leave this village. Each of them, naked…like in the final act of copulation, when they died. No sign of injury, assault or struggle. Just marks of love all over the body, and death.’

‘It is now 25 years since these last occurrences. We are simple folk and we believe in the chudail’, he said, a little shaken up by his own tale.

“But you are good sahibs and have nothing to fear.”

Samir and I were silent on hearing the story. Neither of us spoke. Perhaps he was thinking of his stay at Pipalgarh and I was thinking of mine.

Neither of us spoke again of the chudail. We both professed to have no belief in these matters.
A few months later, our assignments came to an end. Mine a few days before Samir’s so I waited for a while in order to leave with him. We were both going to Mumbai anyway. Neeraj was due any day now and I was full of anticipation.

The night before our departure, I had an early dinner. Samir was still in the village, bidding farewell to the friends we had made. I decided not to wait for him.

The last night

This was my last night at Pipalgarh. Like any other night, I stepped into the bedroom and closed the door behind me. I looked about my room, my home of the last few months. An old portrait of the King and Queen of Pipalgarh hanging over my bed. It was strangely tilted at an angle now. I had not noticed that earlier in the day.

The windows had been shut for the rain had started again, the curtains had been drawn.

I felt a chill in the room, I noticed the hair on my hands standing as if from static. I tried to ignore all that, switched off the lights and lay down. But couldn’t fall asleep.

A half hour later, I noticed I was still awake. But now sweating. Some how, I was scared, some unexplainable numbness had entered my head. Unable to understand why, I reached for my flask of whiskey and downed its contents, forcing myself to fall asleep. It worked and I think I fell asleep for a few hours.

I got up, not woken by any loud sounds, but gentle steps. It sounded as though someone had been walking bare feet near my bed. The gentle vibrations woke me, but I could not hear anything now. Maybe just a dream, I felt then.

The curtain to the window fluttered. That caught my attention because there was no breeze in the room. Yet I noticed now that the curtain had now actually parted. Enough for the moon light to strain in and now illuminate the portrait over my head in a strange dull glow. Sometimes, you don’t feel good about something. Your stomach churns. Maybe out of some fear or anticipation of an unpleasant occurrence. I felt that way. Scared suddenly. Like a little child afraid of the monsters hiding in his closet. I wanted to run and get out of the room.

I heard Samir’s voice in the next room, he was speaking to someone. Maybe, I though, I should go and sit with him for a while . Have a few whiskies.

But Samir was not alone. I heard a young female voice speaking to him. ‘Wapas aogey na, merey liyey?’ she was asking, softly. ( you will return, for me?)

‘Dil chodh ja raha hoon, tumharey pass, leney zaroor aaonga’, replied Samir. ( I am leaving my heart with you, I have to return to collect it.) ‘You must leave now’, he told her.

The girl giggled. ‘Ek aur baar, phir jaoongee.’ (One more time, then I will leave.)

I was surprised to hear them so clearly. And still very scared. I was continuing to sweat profusely. I heard the clock near my bed tick. The time was nearing 2.00 am. Sweat drenched my undershirt, yet I felt a chill all over. I decided to get up and go to Samir.

I couldn’t move. I was paralysed, unable to get out of bed and walk to the door. Unable to cry out aloud. Like some force was holding me back. Holding me immobile.
‘Was it the whiskey that had dulled me completely?’, I kept thinking to myself. Chidail! Chudail! Chudail…I began to hear screams in my head.

I know tears started flowing down the sides of my face. My head was writhing convulsively on the pillow. I heard loud laughter. Evil laughter. Coming closer to me. This is the end, this is the end , a voice screamed in my mind. And then, I blanked.

The morning after:

It was strange to wake up the next morning. I felt relieved to be alive, though I wondered why I should feel any other way after a nightmare. It felt like any other morning. Just a nightmare, I told myself as I got up from bed. The curtains were covering the window as I remembered them last night. The portrait over my bed, horizontal. The king and queen, sombre as I had always known them. My flask of whiskey, by my bed side, full. Maybe I had imagined the drink as well, I smiled to myself. But what a nightmare that was.

I opened the windows to see that the sun had come out today. Maybe to set us off on our journey, I thought.

Slowly I walked to the door and opened it calling out to Ramlal.

I didn’t have to call out.

Ramlal stood outside my door as two men carried Samir’s body on a stretcher to the ambulance waiting outside.

His eyes were still open as he stared emptily at the ceiling. He was dead. Naked. Lipstick marks on his neck and chest. But dead….as if he had died in the act of copulation.

Ramlal was shaking. Suddenly, I was in no better shape. I took a step into Samir’s room. The police were already there. The room was as I had always seen it. Clean and tidy. Not a thing out of place. No sign of a disturbance, of anyone else having been there.

Farewell to Pipalgarh:

I left that afternoon after the police had been assured that no one in the house had heard Samir come in – with or without a visitor. They were baffled. They simply had no case. No motive, no sign of struggle, violence. Nothing removed from the room. They just had to wait for the autopsy to suggest something. I learnt later, the autopsy could show nothing. His death remained another unsolved mystery.

The village was very silent that day. The tonga driver took me back without saying a word. I boarded the train and left. Without Samir.

The double Helix:

‘Something happened in that house that night ladies’, said Girish finally ending his story, ‘and I never understood what it was’, he concluded. Did I just experience a nightmare? Or was it for real? Why that feeling of dread? Of death? Why did Samir die that night? Just like those men before? Naked. There were no signs of injury, poisoning or assault on him. He just died.’

The two Godbole women did not speak.

‘God is great’, said Mrs. Srivastava. ‘And I know my husband passed the Agnee Pareeksha( the trial by fire). He was pure and the chudail did not touch him. He was pure’, she repeated proudly.

That was Girish’s cue to leave. His task was over. No matter how much the trauma of telling the story still affected him, his wife forced him to relive his tale before her friends only to flaunt how virtuous a husband she had. How faithful and loyal a husband she had. To Mrs. Srivastava, the chudail episode had no more significance than the fact that between two men, the chudail had chosen to kill Satish. Lecherous, unfaithful Samir. While her husband, pure, honest and faithful returned to celebrate the birth of their son.

Girish understood this and gave her this gift at each party. His performance, always compelling. His pain, always real.

Girish walked away from the trio, sipping is juice, recovering from telling his tale. He moved slowly to the garden as the mobile in his pocket beeped gently.

He stepped into the garden and spoke into it softly.
‘Hello’, he said.

‘Hello’, said a sweat young voice. Sheila, his secretary. ‘ I want to meet you now Girish’, she said, ‘ right now’, she repeated urgently.

Girish smiled to himself, ‘oh these pretty young things’, he thought, ‘always want more.’
‘At the office in 30 minutes darling’, he said.

Sheila was not surprised, but asked, ‘how do you manage this? Will your wife not be suspicious? She must really trust you.’

‘Oh yes she does,’ said Girish, ‘hasn’t doubted me in ten years.’

‘Ten years’, said Sheila, ‘since the birth of Neeraj, no?’, she asked, just to impress her boss and lover with her knowledge of the important days in his life.

‘Yes’, thought Girish in his mind, ‘since the birth of Neeraj……………and the birth of the chudail of Pipalgarh. Man that story gets better each time I tell it. What a creation, that story. Impresses the wife, impresses her friends’, he gloated.

‘See you then’, he said and disconnected the phone.

He returned to the living room and walked to his wife. Planting a kiss on her cheek he said ,’have to run to the office darling. Some work with the US clients. Need to videoconference right away. Could take all night. Don’t wait up for me, see the guests off. Great party as usual. I love you.’

‘Nahin yaar’(oh no!), said Mrs. Srivastava in mock disappointment. She knew these calls were urgent and called Girish away often. ‘Ok’, she said, ‘carry on, I’ll be thinking of you, love.’

Girish stepped into his Toyota, put on his favourite music and headed off to his rendezvous with his secretary.

Moments later, his wife excused herself, entered the bathroom and dialled a number on her mobile phone.

‘Come over darling’, she whispered to the man on the other end. ‘Yeah, he’s gone again tonight.
To his silly secretary again.

Yes, I got him started on his Chadial story. The guests loved it, and so did he. Yes. I think so too’, she answered to a question from the other end. ‘Telling the story must really turn him on.’ She laughed loudly with her lover.

‘Yes’, she said in agreement with the voice, ‘silly fellow thinks I still believe him. Him and his awful concoction of the chudail of pipalgarh.

The only chudails I know’, said said with contempt and admiring the jewellery that adorned her slender neck, ’are the ones he visits ……. and the one he married!!’

‘See you soon’, she said hanging up, readying herself for her young lover.

This story was begun by Saurabh Saklani and completed by Venkat Rangachari, while at INSEAD in 2003.