Monday, March 30, 2015

Story Time

These are a few stories I wrote for the young and young-at-heart ...enjoy!!

Puppets on a String
It was the last show in Bhaniyana. The puppet or kathputli troupe was moving on to the next village in the morning. The show featured an episode from the Ramayana in which Lakshmana cuts off the ogress Surpanakha’s nose and the brothers’ battle with Khara and Dushana. The tent was packed and the kids cheered every time Rama and Lakshmana scored a direct hit on the rakshasas with their arrows. They clapped and laughed when Surpanakha was humiliated. Ramdhin was in charge of manipulating the Surpanakha puppet. 
Afterwards, he carefully fixed her nose back, brushed her dress down with a soft cloth and then laid her gently in the wooden box which was her home between shows. There were two Surpanakha dolls — one that depicted her as the ogress and the other, the shape-shifting beautiful woman who tries to entice Rama. It required great skill on Ramdhin’s part to quickly substitute one for the other twice — once when she was watching the brothers and Sita and then when she changed back to the ogress. 
The puppet who was the ogress had bristling eyebrows, angry eyes, thick red lips, twin tusks jutting out of her mouth, long, sharp nails and wild-looking hair. The Sita puppet was the most beautiful, with arching brows, doe eyes, pink lips and long, flowing black hair.
After he had put the puppets to rest, Ramdhin settled down to sleep on the floor next to the wooden boxes. Inside the boxes, the puppets lay sleepless, eyes wide open, gazing at the wooden ceiling of the boxes that imprisoned them.
Ramdhin came awake suddenly. He had felt something brushing past his face. At first he thought it was a rat. He lashed out with his left hand. It connected with a solid wooden object. 
He sat up and rubbed his throbbing hand. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw that the wooden box containing the ogress puppet was lying on its side with the lid off near his mattress.Ramdhin looked around for the missing puppet. Had a thief crept in and stolen it while he had been asleep? Maybe it was the thief who had brushed past on his way out. Then he heard sounds of grinding teeth coming from the corner in which he had stored the Sita puppet. Had a rat got into the box to chew up the doll? 
Ramdhin jumped up with a muttered curse and ran to the box. When he looked in, the blood froze in his veins. The ogress was on top of Sita and she was busily tearing the stuffing out of the doll with her sharp nails, gnashing her teeth and grunting with pleasure as she dismembered her rival. Ramdhin’s scream stuck in his throat when she turned and glared at him with bloodshot eyes. Just before a merciful blackness engulfed him, he saw Surpanakha leap from the box, her talons extended and teeth bared in a triumphant grin.

The Genie's Revenge
Aladdin was once a rag picker who lived a hand-to-mouth existence. He was now a rich man and a lamp was responsible for his good fortune. One day, Aladdin had found a heavy old brass lamp in a dump. He took it home to clean it up. He planned to re-sell it in Chor Bazaar. He rubbed it with a soft cloth. He could see that it was an antique, etched finely with the script of a strange language. As he rubbed it briskly, there was a bang and dense white smoke filled the air. When the smoke cleared, Aladdin saw a giant of a man dressed in scarlet pajamas standing before him. He was naked from waist up. On his head was a silk turban and in its dead centre gleamed a pigeon’s blood ruby. Gold chains clinked softly round his neck. His head brushed the roof of the shack.
“W…w…who are you?” Aladdin stammered, cowering in a corner. “Where did you come from?”
He could not imagine that this monster had been squeezed into a tiny lamp.
“I am the genie of the lamp,” said the giant. “You have awakened me from a sleep of 4000 years. Now you are my master. Command me!”
That was the genie’s undoing because Aladdin’s greed was insatiable. Even after he became wealthy beyond his wildest imagination, he drove the genie mercilessly day and night.
One night, Aladdin went to sleep as usual. He had a weird dream that he was locked out of the house. He mumbled, “Let me in... genie, let me in!” He awoke feeling that he was a very, very small being trapped in a very, very small space. He yelled and tried to move about but bounced like a ball off the metal walls of his prison. Where was he? Was it a horrible nightmare? He thrashed about wildly. Claustrophobia overwhelmed him. He kicked and shouted and hammered at the walls.
All at once, he heard sounds. Voices drifted through dimly. Then a boy’s voice said, “Do you have any old things you want to dispose of, sir?”
A man’s voice replied, “Here boy, take this sack of discarded stuff. It was lying in the dump. There’s a brass lamp in there that might be good for smelting.”
“Thank you, sir.”
A terrible thought entered Aladdin’s head. Was he inside the lamp? Minutes later, Aladdin had his answer. Scorching heat flowed into the narrow space.
“Let me out, let me out!” he yelled. “Someone save me!”
His voice was lost in the roaring of the furnace and somewhere in the world far away, a genie was finally his own master.

An Amulet for Biru
It was around seven in the evening and I was almost home. I was trekking down to Mashnu where my parents had just settled after retirement. I was humming a happy tune and lost in a daydream, which was why I did not notice the big rock, half-concealed in the grassy track. I tripped and fell headlong.
I lay there winded. A few minutes later, I started when I felt a light touch on my shoulder.
“What happened, beta?” said a woman’s quavering voice.
I turned my head and found a nut-brown, wrinkled face half-covered with a white saree pallu, peering down at me. “Nothing serious, amma,” I said, and got up with an effort.
“Are you hurt?” she asked with concern in her cataract-clouded eyes.
“Just a few scratches I think.”
“Phir chalo, beta,” she said with a grin revealing three stumpy brown teeth. “I will give you a cup of tea. I live very near here.”
Dak Bungalow No.3 was a crumbling edifice with moss-stained walls. Night had fallen and a heavy silence surrounded us, broken only by the chirp of crickets and ominous rustlings and squeaks in the undergrowth. An owl hooted suddenly, making me jump.
The woman led the way into a damp, musty kitchen, the dim light from her lantern throwing enormous shadows on the wall.
“Haven’t had visitors in a long time,” she muttered. “Good that I have some milk left.”
She soon set a chipped cup of steaming tea before me. I drank it gratefully.
“Are you going to Mashnu?” she asked suddenly.
I nodded, wondering what was coming…
The old woman hobbled to a mildewed cupboard and brought out a blackened amulet strung on a thick red thread.
“You see beta, my son Biru is in Mashnu, He is a forest guard at the sanctuary near the town. This amulet will protect him from black bears. Can you please give it to him, beta… please?”
She looked at me, her eyes glinting with tears. I took the amulet from her shaking hand and put it in my bag.
“May God bless you, beta,” she said and touched me on the head with ice-cold fingers, sending a shiver down my spine.
I turned back at the fork and there she stood, her sari gleaming in the pitch black gloom. I almost ran the rest of the way home, arriving breathless at the door and prompting my parents to ask if I had seen a ghost!
I went to the sanctuary the next day. Biru took the amulet from me with bad grace mumbling something about ‘that crazy old woman’.
On my way home, I stopped at a wayside chai stall. The elderly owner was a friend of the family.
“I noticed you going in, beta,” he said, giving me a cup of tea.
“Yes, Uncle, I had to deliver an amulet to a forest guard called Biru from his mother.”
The man gave me a strange glance.
“Biru? Are you sure?”
I nodded, dreading what he was about to say next, goose pimples breaking out on my arms.
“Arre bhai, Biru worked here many years ago. He was killed by a black bear one night. His mother went quite berserk. She lives in the Dak Bungalow on the way to Mashnu. If she can get hold of some passerby, she gives him an amulet for her beloved Biru.”

Srini’s Best Friend
When his parents said that they would be visiting his grandparents in Munnar for the vacation, Srini gave a war whoop of delight. He was ten years old, a bubbly, mischievous boy who asked a question a minute.
The moment they reached, Srini ran off to explore. He was still exploring, when it started becoming dark. He knew he had to go home or he would get a thorough scolding. As he walked past a banyan tree, a huge dog silently appeared and jumped up at Srini, almost knocking him down.
“Hey, stop it, get off!” he shouted, pushing away the black Labrador. It stood there, wagging its tail, its pink tongue lolling from its mouth.
“Where have you come from?” asked Srini. “Go home, grandpa won’t allow you inside.”
The dog trotted away obediently, turned down a bend and vanished.
The next day, it came running up to him as soon he was out of the house.
“Hello,” said Srini happily, patting it on the head. “Come on, let’s play!”
When Srini went home, the dog always stopped outside the gate, as if it knew that it was not welcome inside. It also never ever barked which was a bit odd, but it didn’t make a difference to Srini. He missed having a brother or sister and the dog was a boon companion.
Early one morning, Srini decided to go to the lake, though he had been forbidden. His canine friend, who he had named Kaloo, was waiting for him. The sandy bank was strewn with glinting coloured pebbles. Srini thought he would build a small fort and decorate it with the pebbles.
He needed just one more stone to complete the roof. As Srini gazed about him, he saw the stone he wanted, but it was in the lake. He waded out into knee-deep water and stepped forward to pick up the stone, when the lake bed suddenly sloped downwards. All at once, Srini was floundering in neck-deep water.
“Help!” he spluttered, for he didn’t know how to swim. “Help me!”
He felt a dark form beside him. It was Kaloo! Srini threw his arms gratefully round its neck. The dog swam slowly to shore and deposited the bedraggled boy on the sand.
His grandma took one look at Srini’s wet clothes and knew something had happened. Out came the story, amidst sobs. His grandma hugged him.
“Thank god you are safe! I won’t tell your mom and dad, but don’t do such a thing again!” she said sternly.
The next day, Srini and his grandma went looking for the dog, but it was nowhere to be seen. The watchman at the bungalow next door said there was a black Labrador which had belonged to the Cherians, but that they had moved out two years before.
“They had a small son. One day, he fell into the lake. Fortunately, the dog had followed the boy and it jumped in and pulled him out.”
“Two years ago?” said Srini’s grandma. “Are the Cherians still staying somewhere close by?”
The watchman said slowly, “No. There’s another reason why I can’t understand how you saw the dog. It saved the boy but sadly, it died of pneumonia a few days later.”

A Spirited Act
It was Sudhir Malhotra’s tenth movie on the supernatural. He wanted his latest movie to surpass all the others, but he had not yet found the lead actor to play the ghost! The ghost was to be the spirit of a former maharaja who haunted a historical fort.
Malhotra had auditioned hundreds of actors and he was exhausted. Night had fallen on the makeshift set built in a crumbling old fort in Raigad. There was still one more hopeful left to be seen.
Malhotra told his assistant irritably, “Come, come, I don’t have all night. Send him in.”
The man, whose name was Raghoji, sauntered in. He was very fair, tall and gaunt, with hollow cheeks and a feverish light in his grey eyes. His voice was deep and resonant.
“I am Raghoji,” he announced. He said he lived in the village below the fort and had acted before in tamasha. He took just five minutes to memorise the lines and to the director’s surprise, his delivery was faultless. The entry and exit were made without a single fumble.
Malhotra prepared the contract immediately thanking his lucky stars that he had found such a good actor. Raghoji inked his signature laboriously in an ornate Devanagari script and left, after promising to report to work at nine the next morning.
As the shoot progressed, Malhotra was more and more impressed by his new find, Raghoji. He was always on time, learned his dialogues in a twinkle and was generally a director’s delight.
“Cut!” said Malhotra as one more scene was completed to his satisfaction. “Raghoji you are out of the world!” He was all smiles as he clapped the actor on the back.
The rest of the unit was amazed at how Raghoji duelled as if he had been born to it and how he could change his costume and make-up in what seemed like bare minutes.
The film released in theatres at the end of the year and everyone agreed it was indeed Malhotra’s greatest effort. No one was surprised when it got the Best Film award from a leading magazine. Raghoji was the obvious choice for Best Actor. At the awards ceremony, there was thunderous applause when Raghoji went up to the stage to receive the statuette.
“Thank you,” said Raghoji and took the mike from the emcee. He cleared his throat and then spoke in his sonorous voice. “I once ruled over a mighty empire in the 17th century, till it was snatched away from me by the British. I wanted to experience the love and admiration of the living one last time.”
The mike fell on the stage with a clatter. There was a puff of dense white smoke and when it cleared Raghoji had vanished.

Ganpati Bells the Cats
The air was filled with indignant squeaks, like a thousand doors with rusty hinges opening at the same time. Whiskers bristled and black button eyes flashed fire. Tails whipped furiously from side to side and ears twitched angrily.
What in the name of heaven was happening in the Abode of the Gods? Mount Kailas trembled with trepidation.
The cause of the hullabaloo was the IX Convention of Mushikas. Like the eighth before it and the seventh and the sixth, no solution had still been found to the age-old problem that had plagued mice down the centuries. The million-karashapana question was: Who will bell the cat?
Of course, you couldn't expect just one cat to live here. There was an army of the feisty felines in Shivaloka. During the day, they arranged themselves tastefully like fluffy rugs of different colours all over the place. The ganas would trip over them as they went about their errands and curse. The cats would open one eye, glare balefully at the ghosts who walked, and then go back to their naps.
At sunset, they would awaken and pace the corridors of Shivaloka regally, looking for tasty mice to put in their khichdi. The mice would cower fearfully in dark corners. The glittering green eyes would bear down on them suddenly like a pair of searchlights. There was carnage every night and surprising though it may sound, the mushika population was dwindling. They had to do something about the cats.
The Convention broke up for lunch and the hall that legions of mice had dug out beneath Mount Kailas echoed with the sound of a multitude of gnawing teeth. Little groups of mice stood here and there, chewing juicy baby corn cobs, crunching on crispy peanuts and slurping on delicious honeyed panaka.
"We must find an answer this time," said Rajatakesha, a mouse named for the line of silvery fur that ran down his back.
"Yes," said Mundita who had a coin-sized bald patch on her head. "The stress is making my fur fall out."
An antique bell was rung (yes, that very same bell that generations of mice had tried to tie around the cat's neck and failed) and the mice scurried to the centre of the hall to listen to Mukhyashika the venerable elder.
"Ahem!" he said finally in a gravelly voice. "Has anyone any new ideas yet?"
There was not a squeak to be heard for two whole minutes. Then a whisper ran round the room. Someone had raised his or her paw!
It was Vidushika, the stand-up comic.
He looked around boldly and said, "Let's ask Ganpati to help us!"
There was a chorus of squeaks.
"What?!" exclaimed everyone. "Why would Ganpati help us?"
"I overheard him the other day complaining to his dad," replied Vidushika, "that he didn't have a vehicle to transport him.
"One of us could offer to be his vehicle if he bells the cats!" Vidushika continued. "He can do it in a jiffy. He just has to throw the bells around their necks with his trunk!"
There was stunned silence, and then Mundita burst out laughing.
"Don't you know how fat Ganpati is? How could a mere mouse bear his weight?" she said.
"I can do it!" shouted Prabala making everyone jump. Prabala was a fitness freak who exercised with Indian clubs. He strutted about now showing off his biceps.
"Yes, yes, yes!" cried all the mice. "Let Prabala the mighty mouse, be Ganpati's vehicle! Then we can be safe forever! Three cheers for Prabala!"
And that's how Ganpati belled each of the cats in Shivaloka in return for a mushika vahana. The cats? They didn't like it one bit, not at all. However, Ganpati promised to feed them as many delicious modaks as they wanted as a reward. After all, he had an endless supply, especially during Ganesh Chaturthi!

The Toothless Fairy
Ronnie opened his mouth wide, positioned the cheeseburger in between his teeth and chomped down hard.
"Fall out, fall out!" he whispered to himself as he chewed. "Come on!"
Ronnie was eight years old. He had started losing his baby teeth when he was six. He had been terrified when the first one had fallen out, clinking into his glass of milk. He had tasted salt and when he probed the gap and pulled the finger out, it was coated with blood.
"I loth my toot. I loth my toot!" he had yelled. "Therth tho muth blood, I'm dying!" 
"Ronnie dear, it's just your baby tooth," his mother had crooned. "If you keep it under your pillow tonight, the tooth fairy will take it and leave you a gift."
Ronnie had dried his tears, carefully removed the tooth from the glass, washed it, and placed it under his pillow. He had tried to keep awake to see the fairy. However, he had fallen fast asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he had found a gleaming Hot Wheels car next to his pillow. A Bugatti, something he had always wanted!
"Wow! The tooth fairy actually knows what I like," he had exclaimed with glee.
He wondered why someone would want his baby teeth and where she got her gifts from. But he was quite happy not to have answers to these questions!
He checked his teeth every morning when he brushed to see if one of them had become loose. He shuddered to think that he might swallow a tooth and miss getting a gift. He knew he would have 20 gifts by the time he was grown up. That was the number of milk teeth that would fall out.
Ronnie had read all about teeth on Google, enough to impress the dentist who he saw frequently. He was lazy about brushing his teeth and fond of eating sticky toffees. Most of his milk teeth had fillings.
"The tooth fairy is not going to want your teeth anymore," warned his mother. "You'd better brush twice."
Not that the warning had any effect on Ronnie. Even brushing once was a chore. He was usually half-asleep and moved the brush around desultorily in his mouth. He gargled quickly because the toothpaste left an awful aftertaste of chalk in his mouth.
Now, to his great delight, he heard a satisfying crunch. Ah! That would be the left incisor. To his parents' chagrin, he put his finger in his mouth and poked in the debris of the chewed-up burger, searching for the tooth.
"Ronnie!" his mother exclaimed. "Stop doing that! It's so disgusting."
Her mouth set in a grim line when she saw people at the adjoining table in the hotel stare at Ronnie.
"Gotcha!" said Ronnie.
He grinned cheekily and deposited the tooth in a paper napkin. He wrapped it up carefully and put it in the pocket of his jeans.
That same night, he was woken up by a bright beam of light. A tiny woman with gossamer wings was hovering over the bed.
"The tooth fairy!" gasped Ronnie, coming fully awake. "Have you brought my gift?"
"No more gifts," said the fairy. "Of what use are your rotten teeth to me? I can't even chew with them!"
The fairy opened her mouth and Ronnie saw that her teeth were black with cavities. A whiff of nauseating bad breath floated towards him, and he gagged.
"Are those really my teeth?" he groaned.
"Yes, really," said the fairy, and then vanished slowly like the Cheshire cat till only her black smile remained.
At breakfast, Ronnie surprised everyone by asking for a new tube of toothpaste.
"I'm going to brush twice from today," he announced.
"Oh wow!" his mother said, hiding a smile. "That means I can cancel your dentist visit next week and hold my puppetry workshop after all!"

Butterflies in My Stomach
Shabnam hated the phrase. She never ever used it in her compositions or when speaking. It raised such an awful image in her mind. Just imagining fluttery, soft-winged creatures with eerie antennae and thin tongues flying about in her stomach made her queasy.
Before every test in school, her best friend Punita would whisper wickedly in Shabnam's ear, "I have butterflies in my stomach." Shabnam's stomach would start churning.
"Stop it!" she would whisper back fiercely.
Moths came a close second on her 'hate' list. Sometimes one would fly into her face or zoom around her table lamp. She lived in the terror of finding a moth getting inside her pants hung on the clothesline. Shabnam would whisk every piece of clothing thoroughly before putting it in her cupboard. Her younger brother complained about the mini tornado it whipped up.
"Suppose it crawled up my pyjamas when I was asleep? Ugghhh!" Shabnam would shudder in disgust.
One night, her worst nightmare came true. When she pulled out some tops from the back of the cupboard that she hardly wore, there were fat white slug-like things roosting in the darkest corner. They were moth larvae. She shrieked so loudly that the people in the adjoining building came to their windows to gawk. Her parents rushed helter-skelter into the room and it was some minutes before they could get sense out of Shabnam. She was standing frozen in front of the cupboard, her hands clutching the sides of her head, her mouth open and her eyes popping out with shock. Her father later remarked that he had thought of the Edvard Munch painting The Scream. Shabnam just stared at him balefully.
Dad! He could be so dense at times. Not one person understood her phobia (it was called lepidopterophobia, by the way, a suitably yucky name). Not Punita. Not mom. Anyway, from that moment on, Shabnam became even more obsessed with keeping butterflies and moths out of her life.
That very week, as luck would have it, Mrs.Arora, their biology teacher, announced that they would be visiting a Nature Centre the next day to attend a 'Breakfast with Butterflies' session. Shabnam tried to get out of it by pretending to fall sick in class, but the teacher saw through her ploy.
"Shabnam, I am going to have a test when we return!" she announced with a gimlet glint in her eye.
With a quaking heart, clammy palms and what else, but butterflies in her stomach, Shabnam climbed into the bus.
As Shabnam peered hesitantly into the terrarium containing the eggs of a butterfly, the guide said it was called the Striped Blue Crow. A butterfly called a crow! The hairy caterpillars gave her the heebie-jeebies. The sticky-looking pupae hanging from the underside of the leaves, made her want to throw up.
"Now, pay attention girls!" said their guide Shuba. "You can see an actual Striped Blue Crow being born."
Shabnam didn't go too close, but she was fascinated nevertheless. The cocoon split open and a greyish, bedraggled creature struggled out of it bit by bit. It emerged fully and clung to the stem for a moment, as if breathless. Then it fluttered a bit and before the girls' rapt gaze, it opened marvellous golden-striped wings. The upper wings were inky blue with white spots. The butterfly hung on for a minute, opening and closing its wings as if testing them.
"Oooh!" breathed out the girls in unison. "It is so pretty!"
They let out a muted cheer as it flew up into the open air. And then, a miracle happened. Shabnam stretched out her hand with shining eyes. It floated softly towards her and settled on her palm, its wings glittering velvet gold and blue as it caught the sun.

A Gift for Dad
Shikha felt sorry for her dad. He was in front of the mirror, combing his hair. He usually spent hours doing it. It was very funny because he didn't have much hair!
Dad caught 12-year-old Shikha's eye and winked. "You girls don't have to worry. You just run a comb through and presto! You have great-looking hair that stays put all day!"
He glanced down at Tuppy their Lhasa Apso. "Even Tuppy here has enough hair for two dogs though he is so small."
Then he ran his hand over his own smooth head and sighed. "Not me. Guess I should have expected this. Your grandpa went bald too, but not at thirty-five."
He pulled up the thin strand of hair from the side and tried to camouflage the bare spot on his crown. The strand flopped down after five minutes, looking like an orphaned comma!
He always joked that he was saving money on haircuts, hair oil and shampoo, but Shikha could tell that he badly wanted a sleek, shiny thatch of freshly-shampooed hair that he could gather up into a 'puff'.
Shikha couldn't bear to see him so miserable about his hair. He was such a poppet. She loved the movie Mrs. Doubtfire because the character played by Robin Williams was so like her dad — fun-loving, kind and full of laughter.
His birthday was coming up in a month. Ummm…what should she buy him? Yes! That was it! A wig! Shikha googled 'wig' and hit 'enter'. She was amazed at the number of sites that came up. She could even upload Dad's photo on the site and try out the wigs to see which would suit. Wow!
She finally settled for one that had nice 'quiff' in front. She had saved up a bit of pocket money but she would have to ask her sister Sujata to chip in since it cost a wee bit more than she'd expected.
The package arrived a week later. Mom knew what it was because she had to ask her permission to order it online. When Shikha had told her, she had smiled and said, "Oh, good idea, dear!"
Shikha hurried into her room with the package, Tuppy following close behind.
"Tuppy, get away! Shoo!" said Shikha.
She set the package on her bed and cut it open carefully. There it was! A perfect head of hair for her dad! She wrapped the box nicely and stuck a big satin bow on top.
"Hmmm, that looks pretty," she said to herself. "Doesn't it Tuppy?"
Tuppy wagged his bushy tail and sniffed at the box.
Shikha put it in the bottom shelf of her cupboard behind some clothes, and banged the door shut. Ufff! It never closed quite tight. Then she went to eat dinner, humming a happy tune.
The next morning, she ran to the cupboard and opened it. She gave a gasp. What had happened to her present? The paper was in tatters, the box was open. There were holes in the wig where the hair had been gouged out by sharp teeth.
Tuppy! He had chewed up her precious gift! Shikha tried to redo the box, her body shaking with sobs.
"Shikha, sweetheart, what happened?" asked her dad coming in. "Why are you crying?"
"Oh, daddy, I bought you a present. Look what Tuppy did to it!"
She held out the wig, tears streaming down her face.
"Shikha, what a thoughtful gift!"
Dad went to the mirror and put on the wig. He struck such funny poses that Shikha burst out laughing. She hugged him.
"Happy birthday, daddy. I am so sorry…your gift is all spoiled."
"That's okay…a full head of hair with a few holes. Better than no hair, right?"
He pulled out his mobile phone.
"Come on, let's take a selfie. Handsomest dad with the sweetest kid in the world!"

The Tree that Ate Kites
Arjun finished his homework, hurrying through it, eager to be part of the jostling crowd of boys at the kite shop round the corner.
"Uncle, uncle, please give me that green one with the big blue bird," he shouted above the hubbub, "and one manjha, too."
The shopkeeper smiled. "Be careful not to cut your hand on the manjha!" he warned while handing over the bag.
Arjun pulled a cheeky face and edged out of the shop. He headed to the maidan.
"Must remember not to go near that tree," he muttered to himself as he prepared his kite.
There was a massive fig tree that stood in a corner of the maidan. It was bursting with fruit and there was plenty of bird traffic weaving in and out of its branches. The ground below it was squishy with rotting half-eaten figs.
The boys feared the tree because it snared their kites with amazing regularity. During the kite-flying season the tree was festooned with tangled and torn kites. They fluttered and flapped in the breeze like Tibetan prayer flags. The boys had named it patang khau and it actually seemed as if its gnarled branches stretched out to catch a kite and gobble it down.
"You know, it eats kites," Bobby had whispered to Arjun once, looking at the tree with round, terrified eyes. "The next day, you can't see your kite hanging there anymore!"
Arjun hadn't believed him at first but once his kite had tangled in the tree's branches. He had tried to pull it out and then given up. He had gone on to flying another kite. When he was going home, he glanced at the tree and was shocked to see that his first kite was no longer there just as Bobby said! He had run home then without stopping, his heart thumping loudly. That night, he dreamed of the tree. A huge mouth opened in its trunk and it was full of gnashing teeth. Its sharp branches reached down to grab him, when he woke up with a whimper.
Today, he would not sacrifice his kite to the tree. He would stand with his back to the tree, facing away from it. Soon, he had his kite aloft and as it soared up into the sky, Arjun carefully let out the manjha, holding the running spool between his hands. His heart lifted and sang too, as the kite rose higher and higher, till it became a tiny speck.
Suddenly, the string jerked in his hand. A moment later, Arjun heard a soft thump behind him. Distracted, he lost control of the kite and it whirled down, spinning crazily in the air. Arjun ran backwards and sideways. He tried to slacken and tighten the manjha in turn, but the kite refused to heed him. It fluttered down… down… and into the waiting arms of the fig tree.
Arjun quickly rolled up the string and tugged. It was no use, the kite was stuck and now it tore with a rending sound. He turned to go, when he heard a fluttering sound. It was a pigeon and one of its wings was slashed and dripping blood. Arjun knelt beside it as it flapped its good wing weakly and blinked its pink eyes at him.
"I'm so sorry, little bird," he said and tears filled his eyes. "Did the manjha from my kite hurt you?"
Arjun spread his handkerchief on the ground and lifted the bird onto it. He pulled up the corners and got up gently, holding the bird in its makeshift sling. For a long moment, he gazed at the tree.
"You were not gobbling up our kites, you were looking after the birds," he said softly to it, stroking the pigeon. "Wait till I tell Bobby how wrong he was! Won't he be surprised?"

The Veggie Monster
Ten-year-old Kushagra let himself into the house, ravenously hungry and wondering what was for lunch. When he lifted the lid off the dish on the dining table, he made a face. Bhindi again! Why did his mother have this mistaken notion that this icky vegetable which looked like dripping snot when cooked was 'good for the brain'? After years of forcing it down his throat in different 'tasty' forms — besan bhindi and bhindi pitla, stuffed bhindi and bhindi fry — he still hadn't managed to make it to the top of his class. Why couldn't Mom make delicious fried potato, pasta oozing with cheese and yummy pizza every day instead? Kushagra quickly ate the chapattis and jeera rice, and then stuffed the bhindi into the rose pot, digging it into the mud so that it became mushy and unrecognisable.
Yesterday, it had been yet another unpleasant surprise. Red pumpkin bharta! Kushagra couldn't for the life of him understand why most Indian vegetable dishes looked like an oil-slicked murky red swamp with bits and blobs floating in it. Mom believed that vegetables were good for growing children. She was a health food fanatic and usually boiled, baked and steamed to Kushagra's eternal disgust, when she could very well fry, grill and deep-fry.
She even gave him carrot and beetroot sticks for short break. The shame of it! His friends had sniggered and he had quickly emptied his dabba into the dustbin and bought a samosa from the canteen instead. The final ignominy had been the karela chips. He had choked and spat out the first bite.
And cabbage! That was the pits. The day Mom made cabbage, the whole house stank like a gas chamber and Kushagra pointedly wore a mask till the evil deed was done. The first thing he did when he came home from school was to shovel the cabbage into a plastic bag and bury it deep under the rest of the garbage in the bin.
Kushagra had caught a thoughtful look on Mom's face recently. Maybe she was wondering why he had stopped protesting about the vegetables she made for lunch. Let her, chortled Kushagra silently. He somehow wolfed down the dinner, vegetables and all, thankful that it was only once a day.
One night, Kushagra suddenly came awake. The alarm clock glowed 2 a.m.
A sudden smell assailed his nostrils making him gag. It was the awful smell of weeks-old rotting vegetables. Kushagra held his nose and turned on the table lamp and froze. There at the side of the bed stood a dripping, slimy vegetable thing. It had a round cabbage head, messy coriander hair, an oblong red pumpkin stomach, floppy snake gourd legs and arms, and worst of all, bhindis for fingers. One of the rotten bhindis prodded him in the chest, leaving a trail of white-dotted green slime.
"Snot, ehhhh?" it said in a phlegmy voice. "I'll show you what snot is!" and it ran ten cold dripping fingers down his cheeks.
The cabbage head opened a cavernous mouth and let out an almighty belch, wafting a horrible gassy mist towards him, "Now how do you like that, boy, huh?"
The pumpkin stomach collapsed inwards, and oozed an orange-red slush like blood. "Would you like to make a bhartha out of me, would you, would you?" it whispered in squishy tones.
And then the thing took a squelchy, swaying step forward, as if it was going to hug him tight. That was the last straw. Kushagra leaped out of bed and ran towards the door, screaming.
"Mom, Dad! Help! Save me, save me!"
"Kushagra, Kushagra!" It was his Mom shaking him. "What's wrong? Did you have a bad dream?"

When his mother next made bhindi, she was taken aback when he gobbled it up quickly, as if he was afraid it would bite him if he didn't bite it first!

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