The hissing sound of cracking cumin seeds filled the house. Nose and ears alert, Rahul squirmed in his room with self-pity and hunger.
His seven-year old logic didn’t agree. Why would he, Rahul, apologize to Mrs. Verghese when it was Rohan who’d locked her door and run away? No he wouldn’t. Yet he tried hard to feel the guilt for his father’s sake; remembering the disappointed, angry face.
He flung the comic across the bed.
Nothing he did helped to ignore sounds from his belly. His favourite superhero chose to fly around the city with his girlfriend and not rip off alien limbs. For more than a third of the book. Why would anyone do that? Why, why? The weaver-bird he liked to observe on a Tamarind branch outside the window wasn’t showing up either.
Idiot bird. Useless Duperman.
He pushed his face against the cool pane, nose flattened. The peculiar nest he’d seen woven twig-by-twig swung gently in the early monsoon breeze. Flecks of brown transferred onto the glass from Rahul’s lips.
Chocolates, he’d discovered, didn’t taste good when had as dinner, and then as breakfast. Strange, because he’d always enjoyed an overdose.
Dad’s not going to feed me. He said so. I wish I’d opened the door before he got all angry and worked up.
Disaster. There were none left for lunch. Rahul felt through the shiny wrappers strewn across the bed, hopeful to discover an uneaten tile or two. Even a Badbury’s would do. Harsh, crinkling sounds confirmed the worst. What to do? Smells from the kitchen enticed him, and yet sulk prevailed like it had the previous night and the next morning. Is that potato-brinjal curry?
The next rumble sounded like a disgusting burp. Rahul giggled; then quickly suppressed it. Time to act.
Emerging from his den, he tiptoed across the hall and stood near the table from where he could see his father in the kitchen. The sound was louder than normal. Carrot pieces appeared to be of different lengths. Onion peels littered the floor.
So dad’s still angry.
What to do now? Rahul was hoping his father would’ve forgotten the whole deal and expected him at the table; mostly because he was his father. He climbed on a chair as silently as possible, legs dangled, chin rested in hands.
I am really, really sorry, dad. I’ll never again latch neighbours’ front-doors and run away.
Logic said that may imply he’ll simply latch the front-doors and stay put, instead of fleeing. Now that would not do.
I am sorry, dad. I’ll apologize to Mrs Verghese later today.
That’d surely make his father send him to face the mean, child-unfriendly woman. And for no fault of his. Her own son locked her door, did she even know that? Rahul smiled. Rohan is awesome.
Dad, I’m sorry. Can we forget everything and have lunch now?
Lunch. He wondered what was being cooked. His father was an inventor. Tandoori idli. Who’d ever think of that? Sago-nut crackers. Green tomato curry with lots of potato and lamb mutton. Yum. Slurp. Rumble.
Five long minutes later, Rahul discarded all apologies churned out by a food-deprived brain. He wondered if the weaver-bird had returned with a beakful of bugs. Never able to see the young chicks, he’d heard them chirp from deep within the stomach-shaped hollow of the nest. He imagined the hatchlings being naughty. The angry weaver-bird would then refuse to bring bugs. What would happen? They didn’t even have chocolates in their nest. No worm-filled, ant-cored brown bars. Not even bugglegum. No Wriggley’s gum in their Nestlé. Ha ha.
He looked through the tiny opening in the wall separating the kitchen and the table. Its narrow ledge served as a counter for passing ready food out to the table. There’s nothing on it.
Rahul watched his father’s profile, sprinkling rock salt over something. He tilted away, unsure if he wanted to be noticed. A pan on high flame sizzled to a boil and overflowed. His father nearly dropped the salt pot in a hurry to save the contents. A steel ladle dropped all the the way from the edge of the counter to the floor. Harsh metal-on-marble sound broke the relative silence of the simmering pans. Watching his dad struggle in the kitchen, Rahul felt upset about something he couldn’t pinpoint at, like an itch on the palm.Out of nowhere, he thought of his mum, and that coupled with the sight before him brought a lump to his throat. He looked away.
Often when punished, the wilderness next to where they lived offered distraction in the form of a local Animal Planet show through the open balcony door. A corner near the table where he was made to stand post scoldings was directly opposite, enabling a green view of the patch of trees which marked the beginning of a hill. Rahul would pass punishment time looking out for monkeys that jumped from branch to branch and picked nits from each others’ buff-coloured fur. On rare occasions, low-flying peacocks graced the greenery. Once, he’d spotted a stray deer that had wandered away from the nearby forest. None of the friends had believed him.
The front of Rahul’s blue and red striped t-shirt had a dark, wet patch of tears. Stifling sobs, he watched as a huge monkey leapt from one Gulmohur to another, prompting a noisy spray of brown sparrows to rise from the red foliage and scatter haphazardly. The sight didn’t cheer him at all, and he looked through the small window in the wall. Dad’s crying. His father wiped wet cheeks with the back of his hand while he chopped.
Rahul climbed down from the chair and walked away to his room in silence.
Milind chopped the onions with vengeance. The angry neighbours who’d turned up the previous evening to complain had said many things. Loyalty for the wrong sorts. He didn’t doubt Rahul’s involvement in the innocent prank but was equally sure his son wasn’t the mastermind behind all the ones played by the neighbourhood children, like Mrs. Verghese seemed to suggest. The whole locking neighbours’ doors from the outside and fleeing was more likely than not her own son’s bright idea. Actually, he thought it was a fun thing to do. But it’s not right. That boy can’t just push blame on my son like that. Can’t Rahul see through this? Instead, he admires him.
He sneaked a glance through the opening in the wall. No sign of Rahul. He imagined the boy framed in the tiny rectangle, drawing a smiley on the condensed vapour of the cool metal jug while he waited to sample whatever was placed on the ledge. Their own little routine.
‘Of course I understand, must be difficult… I mean, you work from home, agreed. But still, need to pay more attention towards your boy, no?’ Mrs Verghese had said. ‘This was just a prank, but there’s so much defiance in Rahul, I can see him becoming rebellious well before his teenage years. Look, Mr. Mishra, how he’s looking at me. If my boy was…’
Milind mutilated the onions and tossed them into the curry, angry with his son as much as with the stupid neighbours who’d made a big deal out of the matter. He’d only asked his son to apologize, and Rahul had stalked off to the room, banging the door behind him.
More than the prank or the neighbours’ rants, Rahul’s sulk angered him. The boy who always gobbled the tasty meals his father served him had neglected all the knocks, pleas and the notes passed from under the door. Notes that listed Rahul’s favourite savouries, to be ‘ordered’ if he pleased.
A seven year-old boy on a hunger-strike against his own dad. Because I asked him to apologize, or because he simply dislikes that woman? What is he up to?
With expertise, Milind made perfect round chapatis with the wooden rolling-pin. He stopped after three, wondering if he ought to shout at Rahul and force him to have lunch. The boy surely deserved to be spanked. How long could a child go without a proper meal? Had his son taken his threat of letting him go without food seriously? Even if that was so, he could not allow this sort of thing. Perhaps the nosey neighbours were right, he needed to be more strict. He was sure the small supply of chocolates Rahul was allowed to keep in his room, an extension of rule-breaking he allowed after his wife’s death, was exhausted.
Garnished with a coriander leaf, he placed a bowl of Rahul’s favourite potato-brinjal curry on the ledge, only to realize Rahul wasn’t sitting on the other side to taste and give expert comments. I have to get that boy out of the damn room once I’m done with this.
A black-faced monkey sneaked in through the open balcony door and sat on the table, eyeing a cane fruit basket.
It bared teeth at its reflection in the shiny pendulum of the clock on the adjacent wall. The image did the same, and the bemused monkey inched closer, tail lying along the table’s length, shiny eyes moving with the pendulum. Raising one long black hairy finger, it touched the metal and jumped back in fright, spattering the surface with Gulmohur leaves, shifting cutlery around.
Milind paused in the middle of rolling a chapati. So Rahul had decided to eat. He should know I am not happy. He tossed a perfect, flat round piece onto the pan.
‘Done sulking?’ he asked without looking up.
Lack of reaction from the other side was the answer.
‘All right. Let’s eat once I’m done. We’ll talk later. Don’t you dare lock yourself into the room again.’
The monkey looked through the opening into the kitchen and frowned at the sounds, scratching its head. Seeing Milind with the rolling-pin, it inched away from the window and hid behind the wall. Then it grabbed an orange from the basket and bit into it. Juice sprayed everywhere.
Rahul’s father tapped the bowl of curry on the ledge with the wooden pin, a part of him hoping his son would take the bait.
The sound startled the monkey, who threw the half-eaten orange on the floor with a dull thump. With one long hand, it quickly grabbed the bowl from the ledge and hid behind the wall again, staring at the contents and blinking. With great deliberation, the animal dipped a finger in the curry and put it in its mouth. Opening and closing it several times, it frowned and placed the bowl back on the ledge.
Milind saw the bowl from the corner of his eyes. ‘Something missing?’ he asked, spreading dough on a wooden platform. ‘Needs more salt, does it?’
The monkey ignored this and chose a ripe mango from the fruit basket.
The entire fruit went into the animal’s mouth. Specks of yellow spattered the white porcelain plates.
‘Rahul? Why don’t you answer, you…’
Milind banged the pin on the counter and stormed out of the kitchen.
The weaver-bird was absent. Rahul took the long ruler from his desk. Holding one end, he gently moved the nest through the window with the other. The chicks inside chirped with fright. No bird emerged. He dropped the ruler on the desk and threw himself on the bed head-down, tiny frame shaking with sobs.
He sat up at the shrill cry from the hall. Smudging his face with his hand, Rahul got down from the bed and ran out.
He’d barely registered his father’s presence when he saw the monkey, dripping mango pulp down its front, baring long, sharp teeth at his father; who held up a hand in a threatening gesture.
‘Aaarrrrghhhhhh!’ screamed Rahul.
‘Eee.. eee…weee…’ went the monkey, turning around to face him.
‘Get back to your room,’ shouted his father. ‘I’ll chase it out. It may bite!’
Rahul screamed again; frozen at the spot, colour draining from his tear-streaked face.
The animal grabbed an entire bunch of bananas from the table, upsetting a water jug. It then jumped right in front of the boy, and in two springy strides was out of the balcony and onto a tree, dropping the half-eaten mango on Rahul’s head, whose eyes went very round. Swaying on the spot for a couple of seconds, Rahul dropped on to the floor before his father could reach him.
Later at the table, Rahul didn’t dare to look at his father.
‘Eat,’ his father said, pointing at a plate full of food in front of Rahul. ‘I’ve had enough of this since yesterday. You’ve behaved very badly. I hope you realize it.’
Rahul managed a weak nod.
‘I made you drink some glucose when you passed out. See what happens when you don’t eat?’ he took a sip from a glass. ‘Now taste that curry I made for you and tell me how it is, while I decide your punishment.’
Rahul tore a piece of chapati, scooped some curry in it and put it in his mouth, chewing very slowly.
‘It’s ok,’ he said, swallowing it. He couldn’t lie. It’s not as good as usual.
‘Just ok? Not good?’
‘No,’ Rahul mumbled.
His father sighed and took another sip. ‘Alright. No worries,’ he tousled Rahul’s hair and smiled. ‘And I think I’ll cancel the punishment, because the curry’s not good.’
Rahul perked up at the smile. Stuffing his mouth with more, he jumped down and hugged his father.
‘No it’s good! Absolutely yummy. Couldn’t be better,’ he swallowed the mouthful with haste. It actually tasted delicious. ‘I was only joking, dad!’ Even from the table and enveloped in a tight hug, Rahul could see the weaver-bird at the nest’s mouth through his open bedroom window.
© vaidehi patil 2011