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Neela November 16, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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2. Neela
Dolly was late that day.

Sheep clucked impatiently. She had eaten her breakfast and now her lunch, and the pile of books from the library had been re-read three times. Where was Dolly?

Summer afternoons in Delhi have an eerie stillness. There is not a whisper of a breeze, or a hint of motion. The streets are empty of people, and only the trees are left to wilt in the searing heat.

It is this solitude, however, that proves so immensely attractive to vacationing young minds. Troupes of children colonise staircases in different apartment buildings, playing ‘Red letter ‘A’…’, ‘Monkey Memory’, safe in the knowledge that they would not be called in to eat, sleep or study. Those whose parents went to work thrived on this unstructured time till the evening. Those with mothers at home blessed the heat that made the adults so drowsy.

Sheep heard a loud whoop right outside the door, followed immediately by the sound of several running feet. She wrinkled her nose. Large groups of people were not her idea of fun. She usually spent her mornings reading until Dolly came, and then they went out together.
She perused the books in front of her wondering which one would be most suitable for a fourth reading. A low quavering sound filled the hallway just then, and Dolly ran to answer the bell.

“Isn’t our new bell funny?” she laughed, as she opened the door. Instead of Dolly, however, there stood a man before her. He was clad in blue shorts, and wore the expression of a missionary.

“Come, Aadab, let us go play with the other children,” he said, and smiled.

She shook her head and clutched the curtain in her hand. My name is Sheep! She said inwardly.

“All the children are outside,” he insisted.

Exactly, she thought, shrinking further behind the open door. She gave what she thought was another firm shake of the head. And since he wouldn’t stop smiling, she looked at his teeth. Yuck! She thought, and giggled. They were yellow like her socks.

This nightmarish figure was Gokulnath V. Konda. He was the man who lived next door and made a lot of noise in the mornings. She always heard him when she was on her way to school, gargling, rinsing his mouth, talking on the phone. Once she even heard him flushing the toilet, for he would leave his door open all the time.
Her mother distrusted him because of that. Leaving a door open all the time! Shameless, she would exclaim. Vulgar! Like people who did not draw their curtains across after sundown.

Sheep did not understand what ‘vulgar’ meant, but try as she might, she could not imagine what was so shameful about letting others catch a glimpse of warm, yellow light, from outside.

She had seen Dolly pause, sometimes, in the middle of a game to look into homes that had open curtains. Why are you looking? Play your turn, na, she would tell her, but a few minutes later, Dolly would turn again to look at the curtain-less windows.

Dolly’s older sister Rincey seemed to share her mother’s opinion. Dolly had been forbidden, under threat of sisterly violence, from giving as much of a glance at anybody’s window. She had escaped so far because Rincey helped her mother at work and did not play with them. Once, however, she had walked in on one of Dolly’s reveries in the middle of a game and had slapped her, and pulled her hair. Sheep had been shocked. Dolly and then Rincey had started crying but Rincey’s sobs were different from Dolly’s. Sheep took to staring hard at windows to understand the problem, but it was no use. Open windows were just open windows to her.

It was shameful for girls to sit with their knees apart, that she knew. Or to come to play without bloomers. Sister Clarita had said big girls must wear their bloomers. Sheep hated the ones she had. She had tried to get out of wearing it, the first time, by arguing that other people called her a little girl and that her bloomers had flowers on them. Sister had merely looked at her and said, you will get used to the flowers, and Renita had been called to begin the game.

Sheep had always been fascinated by Renita’s long hair which she wore in a braid. How lucky she was to have a religion that did not allow her to cut her hair! Her mother always said little girls should have little hair, or they don’t grow tall. Renita was tall; maybe little girls of Renita’s religion grew despite the hair.

Games at school were more than enough for her, she thought, but Gokulnath V. Konda disagreed. He wanted her to come out with him and the other children and play tag and pitthoo at the playground in the colony. He never asked Dolly, though, and Sheep and Dolly usually slipped out together before he came calling. And come calling he did, every other day, until the appearance of Neela and Nabir threw his routine out of whack.

They came in the middle of the summer break, a girl and a boy, sweating from the heat. The girl was as tall as Sheep and carried a battered suitcase decorated with stickers of Shahrukh Khan. The boy had a suitcase too, and was peering uncertainly into Gokulnath V. Konda’s open house. Ma had seen them waiting and had come out to ask if she could help them.

It turned out that they were Gokulnath V. Konda’s niece and nephew. Ma was shocked, as were the others in the building. Somehow they had all assumed that GVK, as the older people called him, had no family. In a way the presumption was not too far off the mark, for GVK’s only brother had died many years back. Neela and Nabir were his only living relatives, a fact he had obviously been pleased to hide.

Nobody knew why they had suddenly appeared, but GVK was reluctant to play uncle. He took to staying away from home as much as possible and ignoring them when impossible.

The neighbours felt sorry for them, but the two children kept to themselves. Nabir was a silent boy, who stayed indoors and drew all day. Sheep only caught a glimpse of him now and then when he went out for a walk. Neela was more visible. She would stand at the balcony every evening, staring into space, until she came to be friends with Dolly and Sheep.

She had watched them playing Gil Stapu every day and fighting just as often. Once, in the middle of a particularly heated argument, Dolly and Sheep found Neela grinning at them.

“You are just a SHEEEEP!” Dolly had said, and Neela had burst out laughing.

“Is that really your name?” she wanted to know.

“No, but I prefer it to Aadab,” said Sheep, trying to sneak her stapu past Dolly.

In no time at all, the three of them realised they were kindred spirits. They abhorred karela, tinda and geography and went into collective raptures over the same cartoon shows. They liked Gil Stapu and imaginary quests, Uncle Chips and Suppandi. They started spending all their time together and GVK with his strange, missionary zeal to unite the colony children and be a nasty relative seemed a distant nightmare.

Neela told Dolly and Sheep that her mother was unwell. Everybody thought Amma would die soon because she had been sick for so long. A week before they left for Delhi, she had finally been brought home from the hospital.

“Doesn’t that mean she is getting well?” asked Dolly.

“I thought so, but Nabir says no,” said Neela.

“What will happen to you when she dies?” Sheep had asked.

“Nabir said that is why they sent us here…” Neela grew silent. “He didn’t want to come; he hates our uncle.”

“Why?”

“He thinks he killed our father and is now killing our mother.”

Sheep and Dolly were wide-eyed. “Really?”

Neela nodded. “Black magic. Nabir says it’s easy. You have to hate a person enough and tie up some chillies with a lemon. He looks through the house everyday; once he finds the chillies and lemon, he is going to reverse it on our uncle.”

“Don’t you also look with him?” Sheep asked.

Neela didn’t reply. She squatted on the ground and picked up a twig. With deep concentration, she drew a face in the soil. This is Amma, she smiled; don’t I look just like her? Dolly and Sheep looked dubiously from the drawing to Neela’s face.

“You don’t wear earrings…” muttered Sheep.

“Your nose…” said Dolly.

Neela continued to crouch on the ground. She looked at Sheep and Dolly thoughtfully.

“Can you keep a secret?” She asked.

They nodded.

“You have to swear that what I tell you will stay between us.”

“God promise, I won’t tell,” swore Dolly, pinching her throat with her thumb and forefinger to seal the oath.

Neela shook her head. “No, that swear is for babies. You have to swear my way.”

“Here, spit on your hands like this and hold it out in front of you,” she said. “Then we count to three and slap our hands together.”

She rolled her eyes at their expressions of disgust. “Everybody seals big oaths this way!”

They counted to three, slapped their saliva smeared hands, and that was it; anybody who broke this oath would have all their teeth fall out in a day. Dolly was impressed in spite of herself; it sounded a lot more binding than ‘God promise’!

The secret was revealed as Neela slowly inserted her hand into her pocket and drew out a piece of crystal. It was a magic crystal, she said. Nabir and she had found it outside their home.

“This stone,” said Neela, holding it up against the sun, “acts like a magic mirror.”

“There is no such thing-,” began Dolly, but Sheep shushed her.

“Whenever I want to see what Ma or Nabir are doing, all I have to do is concentrate on this,” continued Neela.

“Can I see?” asked Dolly, still sceptical, but Neela shook her head. Carefully, she put the crystal back in her pocket.

“If Ma dies, we can go on seeing her face,” she said, a little quietly.
*** ***
It was the empty streets that put the idea in their heads.

“Let us find the tunnel!” exclaimed Dolly.

The tunnel? Their eyes glowed with nervous excitement.

Local myth and legend had it that back when this part of Delhi was an undeveloped jungle frequented by thieves and bandits, a tunnel had been dug to create three escape routes out of Delhi. One led to Meerut, famous even now for day light robberies, and another to Agra. As for the third, nobody knew where that one led.

How true the legend was is debatable, but the reputation of the tunnel was filthy. Every parent in the neighbourhood had forbidden their children from even approaching it. A few of the less obedient ones had tried, ofcourse, but all they had to report was a crumbling entrance that could have been the mouth of the tunnel and a snake or two in the area.

Dolly’s restless soul had longed to be one of the disobedient ones, but she had been too scared of Rincey to try. Now, however, emboldened by Neela’s presence, and the hot noon that kept most people indoors, she suggested the tunnel.

Neela was delighted. A forbidden adventure to spice up their quests!

Sheep was a little doubtful. “Shouldn’t we ask Ma…?”

“And you think she’ll say yes?” Dolly rolled her eyes.

“Oh come on! It’s just a tunnel!” pleaded Neela. “Your mother hasn’t even seen it, how can she know it is bad?”

Sheep turned the matter over in her head. Neela clutched the crystal in her hand for good luck.

“Okay!” grinned Sheep, suddenly, and off they went.

The directions to the tunnel were pure hearsay. They followed the path by the playground that went around the Pump House to the boundary wall of the colony. They made their way to a broken bit of the wall which had created a no-man’s land of sorts, overgrown with weeds. Here there was no line to define where the slums ended and the colony began.

At first they couldn’t spot anything that looked out of the ordinary. Then Dolly found it; a crumbly arch, four feet off the ground.

“That does not look very much like a tunnel to me,” said Sheep, doubtfully.

Ignoring her, Dolly and Neela approached the structure and peered in. It smelled musty. Gradually their eyes adjusted to the darkness, and they beckoned to Sheep. There was a raggedy blanket inside, a mug and stubs of several beedies.

“Do you think bandits still use this place,” asked Sheep, wide-eyed.

“Don’t be silly!” said Neela.

“Should we go in?” Sheep did not really want to hear the answer.

“We can’t.” Neela pointed beyond the beedi stubs. The tunnel was blocked up by trash of all sorts, big plastic boxes, scrap iron and blocks of broken cement.

“Do you think the tunnel actually branches into three behind that?” asked Dolly, excitedly.
They didn’t know, but it was fun to guess. Now that their curiosity had been satisfied, it would have made sense to find better smelling places to play in. The mystery and allure of the tunnel, however, was too strong, and they found themselves returning to it almost every day.
*** ***
Half a month after the arrival of Neela and Nabir, Sheep woke up one morning to a lot of commotion downstairs. She heard shouts, curses and many angry voices. Running to the balcony she immediately spotted a crowd of people gathered up the road, gesticulating at each other. She could see GVK in the crowd and Dolly’s sister. She rushed next door, but neither Neela nor Nabir knew anything about the matter beyond the fact that their bell had rung early in the morning, and GVK had gone out.

It was from Dolly that they came to know that there had been a burglary in the colony the previous night. There had also been a murder in the slums behind, and both crimes were suspected to be connected.

From Rincey they learnt that the Colony residents were accusing the slum residents of harbouring the suspected criminal, which had the indignant slum residents pointing out that as the suspected burglar was a suspected murderer for them they had a greater interest in finding him!

The row continued for a few hours. The Police came in, took down complaints and eventually came to the conclusion that a disreputable old man and his teenaged grandson had committed both crimes.

The excitement faded, and the colony resumed its inertia. No sooner had the afternoon stupor set in than the daily exodus of the children began.

Sheep, Dolly and Neela went, as usual, to the tunnel.

They were there for several hours and Neela was playing with her crystal when Sheep suddenly gave a start. Drawing her finger to her lips, she gave a warning glance to the others and pointed towards the tunnel. Soon, they saw what she had seen; a sense of movement within the darkness, and faint sounds from within.

“Is it a dog?” whispered Sheep, half hopefully.

“Only one way to find out…” replied Dolly and made her way to the entrance.

“Nothing!” she called out in relief, and Neela and Sheep joined her.

All three of them peered inside, blinking against the sudden darkness. Sheep’s eyes again caught sight of movement. Their eyes adjusted at the same time, and they found themselves looking at an old man and a boy, half covered by the blanket that lay there.

An old man and a boy!

They stared at each other, not sure what to do. The man was drunk, and his eyes were bloodshot. He tried to say something, but he slurred his speech and subsided. The boy was blinking his eyes rapidly. He must have been about Nabir’s age.

Seconds ticked by, and the figures on this run-down patch of land, claimed by neither the colony nor the slum, or by both, when it suited them, seemed to have been paralysed. Finally, the boy hung his head, and the man yawned.

“Shall we leave?” asked Sheep quietly. Neela nodded, and the three of them made their way out.

The girls sat in Sheep’s home, wondering what to do. Should they tell somebody? There was little reason not to tell, and yet…

The matter was soon taken away from their hands. Before they could come to a decision, GVK overheard Neela talking to Nabir after dinner and he wouldn’t let her alone till she told him everything.

The news was all over the building in seconds. GVK was all for dragging the man and the boy out of the tunnel then and there, before they ran away, but the others calmed him down.

You don’t know if that area is safe at night, said some, and they might have already run away. Besides, who knows if they are actually the culprits? One can’t trust the Police anyway…

They went to bed that night with a strange sense of foreboding.

Early the next day, Dolly came to see Neela and Sheep. The Police had gone to the tunnel but it was empty. Everybody was very angry. They had taken away the blanket and the mug, she said.

Three small figures made their way to the tunnel that afternoon as well. Neela, as always, carried her crystal, Sheep carried biscuits and Dolly, a sombre expression.

Dolly had looked in askance at the biscuits but Sheep had shrugged.

The area near the tunnel looked disturbed. Stones had been kicked about and weeds stamped under heavy feet.

“They’ve gone. The Police said they’ve gone,” said Dolly, chewing her hair abstractedly.

The pits of their stomachs were doing strange leaps. It knew, before them, that Dolly and the Police were wrong.

They peered into the darkness and Sheep gave a yelp.

The old man and the boy sat framed against the dark hole, stinking worse than the day before. Several thoughts raced through their minds. The boy was as old as Nabir, wouldn’t he be scared of the Police?

“Why are they back?” whispered Neela, in dismay. Why are you back!

The boy looked like he was about to answer but the old man stopped him.

Sheep took out her biscuits and nervously extended it to them. The boy took it eagerly, but the old man glared at them.

He was so like Nabir that Neela couldn’t help asking, “What is your name?”

Whether the old man would have let him answer nobody would ever know. No sooner had the question been uttered than there was a shout. Nabir came sprinting up to the tunnel, waving a bunch of chillies and lemon.

“I found them! Neela, look!” He cried. Neela paled, and looked at the chillies helplessly.

There was another shout, and they all turned to find Gokulnath V. Konda appear suddenly behind Nabir, eyebrows knitted together in fury and frothing at the mouth. He looked from the chillies in Nabir’s hand to Neela and the boy, his eyes bulging.

“How dare you!” he screamed, though Sheep wasn’t sure which of them that was addressed to.

Neela rushed at him, and pushed him hard. The old man laughed, and something seemed to snap in GVK.

He dashed forward and grabbed the old man by the collar, screaming for the colony security guard as the boy crouched deeper inside the hole. With increasing levels of fury GVK shrieked and cursed, spit spraying off his tongue, as the mute guard watched uncomprehendingly.

The old man tried to free himself, but GVK tightened his hold and punched him for good measure. His eyes fell on the baton carried by the guard, and like a madman he lunged for it, raining frenzied blows on the old man. Again and again the baton fell on various parts of the man and again and again GVK hit him. It was happening too fast; Nabir still clutched the chillies, and the girls stood still as statues. The boy tried to stop GVK, but with a snarl, he turned on him too.

The noise finally woke up the slumbering neighbourhood and drew out the children from the stairs. The slum dwellers came too, and they all surrounded the scene and watched with a fascinated horror as a middle aged man beat a drunken old man and his companion. There was blood everywhere, blood and spit, and GVK was sweating. Somebody finally took the baton away from him, and led him away from his victims.

Twenty minutes later an ambulance arrived to carry away the old man and the boy.

Dolly and Sheep still stood there, shaken and terrified. Nabir was sitting on the ground, his head in his hands. Neela was mute with shock. Blood was mingling with the loose soil around the mouth of the tunnel. She extended a finger and touched the mud. I lost the magic stone, she said, breaking into sobs.
*** ***
The incident was never much talked about publicly. It had shaken up the colony. One was used to hearing of violence and murders being committed in the slums beyond, but here was a member of their own society who had wantonly taken up a weapon and beaten to death an old man. It was a collective secret that everyone seemed to have spat on their hands and sworn not to share.

Neela and Nabir disappeared the day after the incident, and GVK left his quarters soon after. Neither Dolly nor Sheep had seen or heard them go, and the last memory they would always have of that friendship would be of that hot, summer afternoon, when they had returned to a tunnel that now justified its reputation.

Dolly moved away too. She had been soundly thrashed at home for everything that was and was not her fault that day, and her sister had suggested to her mother that they find work elsewhere. There had only been time for a hurried goodbye, because Rincey would not let her stay.

Sheep was now all alone with the memories of that afternoon, and they began to play tricks on her. Had the boy smiled at the biscuits and said shukriya just before Nabir appeared? Had Neela brought her crystal out to play that day?

It was all a blur. Neela’s arrival, Gil Stapu, and the first afternoon when they decided to go adventuring. She remembered the smell of the man and the tattered clothes of the boy. She remembered Dolly and Neela walking up to the entrance; she remembered the first thwack of the baton falling on the man. She remembered the blood. She remembered Neela touching the crimson earth and crying because she had lost her magic stone.

That afternoon had forever entered her sleep. Who knows, perhaps Neela and Dolly shared her nightmares.

She dreamt of the guard and GVK; she dreamt of the old man who now walked around saying I am not dead, they burnt the wrong body.
One day the man was joined by a mud drawing that wore earrings and had a lop-sided nose. “I am not dead”, said the drawing, “they burnt the wrong body.”

She woke up, then, because Neela no longer had her magic mirror and Neela’s mother was dead.