Parul tucked her Ludo board under her arm and went searching. Lunch was over; perhaps Chhoto-kaka was free. He usually went up to the terrace to smoke surreptitiously after lunch. Sometimes he went out to his friend’s house, because it was easier to smoke and gossip there. In that case she would have to find someone else.
Finding someone else to play Ludo was not easy. Post lunch was siesta time for the ladies of the household. As for the men, apart from Chhoto-kaka, they were all too serious to bother playing with a five-year-old girl.
Grandfather would be in his room quietly smoking his hookah. Bikash, his manservant would be there at the foot of the chaise-lounge pressing Grandfather’s feet. Jethamoshai would be tucked away in his corner of the vast drawing room that they called the Baithak-khana, immersed in the strategies of chess. This was his practice session; his preparation for the chess marathons with his cronies from dusk till almost dawn. Nau-kaka would be immersed in his newspapers. As for Nau-kaki, Parul did not like her at all. Nau-kaki looked mean. Ketaki-mashi, the old maid who had been with the family for almost fifty years, told her, on oath of secrecy, that Nau-kaki was really a witch who could cast spells, bad spells on people. Parul had listened wide-eyed to this horrifying revelation, and had stayed clear of Nau-kaki ever since. That left only Parul’s father, but the child dared not go to him. He always had such a strange vacant look about him. Sometimes he lifted her chin with his forefinger and stared into her face, as if looking for something or someone. Parul did not feel at ease with him at all.
Jethima was the one that Parul loved the most. But Jethima, though tender and loving, and the best of persons to be with when one was sick, was no fun at all. She was too busy with the cooking and the running of their large house to stop and play with Parul.
Jethima had two sons who were almost as old as Chhoto-kaka. The younger son was away studying at a college in a distant city. The elder one stayed most of the time with his maternal uncles, ostensibly helping them with their garment business. Parul wasn’t very familiar with them since they only came home for holidays. She didn’t much care for them either, because when they did come down to stay, even if it was only for a week, they took Chhoto-kaka away from her, claiming his attention with their stories and jokes.
Sometimes Sundari played Ludo with Parul. Sundari was the other maid who lived with Ketaki-mashi in the maid’s rooms. She was much younger and therefore a better Ludo adversary than Ketaki-mashi. But playing with Sundari was no fun either; firstly because she made too many mistakes, and secondly because she was often called away during a game, just when it had begun to get interesting, to complete some chore that she had left half done in order to indulge Parul.
Parul completed her inspection of the house with her Ludo board under her arm. Chhoto-kaka was nowhere in sight. Neither was Sundari. Ketaki-mashi was probably snoring away in her corner. Parul crossed the wide courtyard that was half cement flooring and half hard clay. The clay half was where the courtyard ended and the outhouse area began. A cement tub that had a solitary tap on one side hugged one corner of this end. The tap provided water for a couple of hours every morning, which was stored in the tub. A little away from the tub was a large flat slab of stone, which didn’t serve any purpose other than to provide a seat for the servants as they squatted, brushing their teeth with Neem or Guava twigs, and gossiped in the morning. This part of the courtyard was for the servants. The tub was for the washing of their clothes and their ablutions. The servants’ latrine was further down, beyond the rear side of the main house, several meters away from the stone slab. So sometimes, when the wind blew in the wrong direction, Parul had to hold her nose.
Parul saw her as soon as she reached the slab. She was sitting on the stone and waiting quietly. Parul didn’t know her name. Parul would not be able to recognize her if she saw her anywhere else, for she had never seen her face, ensconced as it was, deep in the folds of her sari, the edges of which she kept tightly drawn at all times covering her head and face. Parul did not even know who she was, other than that she was her friend. Not just any friend though, the woman sitting on the stone slab was her best friend and Parul’s favorite Ludo-mate. This was because she always played fair. Unlike Chhoto-kaka, she did not treat Parul like a green horn at the game; every time Parul won, which was almost always, she felt that she had really won after a hard game, and had not merely been allowed to win. Not being allowed to win was very important for Parul’s self-respect, though she did not take kindly to losing either. Her playmate seemed to instinctively understand this. But that was not the only reason why Parul liked her so much.
Parul’s friend seemed genuinely interested in her everyday activities, her little problems, her quarrels with Chhoto-kaka, her fear of Baba, her dislike for fish and her preference for mutton with gravy. She just did not nod her head in an absent-minded manner like Jethima. She did not tease her like Chhoto-kaka, though he almost always made up for it by bringing her toffees or picture books later on. And, she didn’t dissolve into silly giggles for no reason like Sundari or mutter incantations under her breath like Ketaki-mashi. Parul’s playmate listened carefully to everything she said. She sometimes put in a word of advice or small admonition in her soft, slightly nasal voice. But she spoke so gently and kindly, there was so much affection in that voice of hers, that even though Parul never saw her face, she felt totally at ease.
Parul did not remember when she had first met her playmate. She felt that the two of them had been friends right from her birth. Parul remembered playing that childish finger counting game, where she spread out her fingers on the slab while her playmate sung a rhyme softly, (so softly that it seemed to Parul that a breeze was rustling the leaves in a rhythmic manner): “Ikri Mikri Cham Chikri, Chaamer Kata Mojomdar, Dehe Elo Damodar…”, and she folded each finger turn by turn where the rhyme ended, until all her fingers were tucked inside her fist.
Once when Parul had skinned her knee, her friend had staunched the faint trickle of blood with the edge of her sari, and Parul had felt immediately healed. Another time, when she had been scolded for something that was not her fault, Parul had run sniffling to the slab and found her waiting there, as if she knew Parul needed to be comforted. Parul had fallen asleep that day, soothed by her gentle words and feather light touch. A very worried and contrite Jethima had brought her home clasped tightly in her arms just when dusk had begun to crimp the edges of the sky. Parul had been forbidden to loiter around the slab alone. But after a while people forgot to keep an eye on the child, and she was back again, playing Ludo on the slab of stone under the glare of the afternoon sun.
“I hope I’m not late,” said Parul, a little breathlessly.
Her playmate said nothing. She took the Ludo board from Parul and set it on the slab. Then she sighed softly. Parul rolled the dice.
“No six! It’s your turn,” she said.
But Parul’s playmate did not roll the dice. She held it in her hand, which was as usual covered by a corner of her sari.
“Roll. It’s your turn,” said Parul, impatient for the game.
She sighed again and held on to the dice, as if uncertain about her next move.
“How you have grown,” she whispered. “You will soon be going to school.”
“Oh, yes,” said Parul proudly. “Jethima told me that Baba has already spoken to the head mistress of the convent school. You know, I will be taught by white women in long black gowns! I will be fluent in English soon. Just like Chhoto-kaka! ”
“I know,” she said. “I am happy and proud for you. But you won’t have time for me then, my little darling, will you?”
Parul frowned as she pondered this question. “But we can always play on Saturdays and Sundays!” She said brightening up. “Please roll.”
Her playmate rolled the dice. She got a six. Then another and another.
“It’s cancelled!” cried Parul gleefully. “You got three sixes! Now it’s my turn!”
They were soon engrossed in the game. Luck seemed to be entirely on Parul’s side today. Her playmate hardly got any sixes, so two of her Ludo-men were still inside. She seemed to be getting mostly ones and twos from the dice. So her Ludo-men, the two that were lucky to come out, moved very slowly.
“You are very unlucky today,” said Parul.
“I am a very unlucky woman,” she whispered.
“Why are you so sad today?”
“Because, I keep thinking that you will be gone soon…”
“Don’t be silly! I’ll be back tomorrow at the same time!”
Her playmate paused, dice poised to roll. “But you will have other friends, once you go to school. You won’t want to play with me.”
“Of course I will. Now you’re being silly again.”
“Am I? My little Parul. Everyday you grow a little older, a little wiser.”
The woman’s shoulders shook a little. She began to roll the dice. Parul did not see the tears, but she felt them. Why was her friend so sad today? It was beginning to spoil her mood for the game.
“Oh Ma go! God help us!” The scream rang out from a throat stricken with fear.
Parul spun around. Sundari lay prostrate on the ground; dirty garments lay scattered around her and a cake of yellow soap went rolling down. Parul ran up to her. Sundari had her eyes closed tightly, while her mouth muttered “Ram Ram Ram Ram” in a frenzied chant.
“Silly Sundari,” said Parul to her playmate. But her playmate was no longer there.
The commotion had brought the other members of the household to the tub area. Someone threw a bucket of water on Sundari to revive her. Jethima caught hold of Parul and led her away.
“I have told you so many times, Parul-shona,” said Jethima, giving Parul a little shake. “You are not to go there. That place is for the servants. Just suppose a wicked man kidnaps you?”
Jethima’s admonishment was not unkindly. It brought tears to Parul’s eyes nevertheless. She desperately sought her playmate that seemed to have vanished for all practical purposes. Parul felt betrayed. Why didn’t she ever want to meet the rest of her family? Then Jethima and everyone would know what a nice person Parul’s friend was; they would know how safe Parul was with her, that there was nothing to fear.
The commotion had brought grandfather out too. He still held his hookah pipe, while Bikash scurried near him with the bowl end of the hookah in his hands. Now grandfather’s bellow rang out above the hubbub of the servants’ voices.
“What is the matter? Is everybody too busy in this house to look after a poor little motherless child?”
Parul looked up at her grandfather with round eyes. Jethima hurried inside, grumbling under her breath, “What Parul really needs is a little brother or a sister! But does God listen? He has taken my youngest and dearest sister-in-law away and…as for the other… He’s made her barren and mean! And God, forgive me. God, I am so old. I am too old…”
With that little whispered outburst, she clutched Parul to her heart and wept. Right now, Jethima’s bosom felt warm, soft and comfortable. Nau-kaki’s bangles tinkled agitatedly from behind the curtains. The hullabaloo from the servants’ quarters grew faint as Jethima hurried into her room and shut the door. Parul would take her afternoon siesta today clutched against Jethima’s heart whether she felt sleepy or not.
The stone slab remained near the cement tub and the banana trees cast doubtful shadows. The sun turned an increasingly cold eye on the Ludo-board where it had been abandoned so hastily, its red, blue, yellow and green pieces patiently waiting for the dice to move. Everything was quiet now. And, the day rolled along the back of time, controlling the lives in the house, just like the dice that controlled the fate of the Ludo-men in Parul’s Ludo board. However, another sunny afternoon would arrive, soon enough, when everybody would have forgotten this afternoon’s episode, and the playmates would be together in their own happy world, again.
Rumjhum Biswas’s fiction and poetry have been published in all five continents in print and in online journals and anthologies. She has won prizes in poetry in India and was long listed in the 2006 Bridport Poetry Prize and also was a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. One of her stories was among the notable stories of 2007 in Story South’s Million Writers’ of the Year Award. She was a participating poet during The Prakriti Foundation’s poetry festival in 2008. In 2009 she was a featured poet at the Poetry Slam jointly organized by the US Consul General, Chennai and The Prakriti Foundation. She was an invited poet at the first Hyderabad Literary Festival organised by Muse India and Osmania University Centre for International Programmes in December 2010. She blogs at http://rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com and http://polyphagous.wordpress.com. She also posts from time to time at Flash Fiction Chronicles, edited by Gay Degani.
© 2011, Rumjhum Biswas