By Savitri Narayanan
The playground behind the Panchayat office was slowly coming to life. ‘The dog and the bone’ game was in progress. Devyani didi and Nikita were leading. Surprisingly, even Kunal bhaiyya had joined them today. ‘Maybe because Shivam bhaiyya hasn’t turned up!’ thought Ashu, smiling to herself. Usually those two looked down upon the girls. They would play badminton in the clearing beyond the slides, showing off their rackets. Ashu was not included in any game as she was ‘too young’ but she enjoyed watching ‘the dog and the bone’. When more children came, they played ‘catch catch’. It was such an easy game. It could be played anywhere anytime with any number of children of any age, even with just two! Moreover, nobody made a fuss about Ashu being too small!
Soon, the sun was setting in the western horizon but the ground got more crowded. Evening walkers, dog-walkers and sports-loving youth with their rackets, bats and balls continued to come in ones and twos. Soon ‘the dog and the bone’ game came to a close.
“Let’s go home”, said Nikita impatiently, “it’ll be dark soon and Dadiji will be mad!”
“I need to buy some rangoli powder,” said Devyani didi as she crossed the road, “back in two minutes, wait here, please!”
Jagan mama’s store was the lifeline of the village. True, the shop was small but anything and everything was available there!
“Oh! Yes! Tomorrow is Dussehra, we’ve to go home and make rangoli!” said Anu her voice warming in anticipation.
“This afternoon, Sunita didi was chalking out the design,” said Rupa, “she says YouTube has so many designs.”
Nikita was the one who noticed how quiet Ashu was.
“What happened, Ashu? Want to buy some rangoli powder?” she offered, “I have some money, you can pay me later!”
“Thank you didi, but no,” said Ashu with downcast eyes, “we have no Dussehra this year; no celebrations at all!”
“Sorry Ashu,” she said softly, “I had forgotten!”
Ashu had lost her father a few months ago. Employed in some factory in Delhi, he used to come home very often until the lockdown. Then he caught corona and was hospitalised and everything ended too fast. Even the cremation was done in Delhi. In a way, nothing had really changed at home. As always, it was the four of them, Dadiji, Mummyji, Ashu and Guddu, who sat around at meal times but the thought that Pitaji would never come home loomed large.
“Dadiji says good people go to God when they die,” Ashu said more to herself as they parted ways, “See you tomorrow!”
“Poor Ashu, it’s not fair!” said Rupa as they continued their walk home.
“True, it’s sad,” said Devyyani didi, “but when God calls we all have to go!”
“Nobody can stop God’s will!” added Nikita. So they went on, repeating what the elders at home often said in reference to death.
“Let’s do something to cheer up Ashu!” said Kunal, “like a surprise gift or a packet of sweets or something like that!”
They lingered near the water tap, brainstorming on how to surprise Ashu.
“Ashu, Ashu, wake up!” Dadiji called out. Fast asleep, there was no response from Ashu.
The eastern sky was turning red and the rising sun was peeping from behind the mountains. Ashu was somewhere far away, wandering in her own world of dreams.
“Ashu, come out fast, what a surprise!” Dadiji called again.
“Ashu didi, come and see! This is like a dream!”
That was Guddu’s voice and that was not a dream! Ashu rubbed away the sleep from her eyes and came out.
At the front door was a big rangoli. A beautiful design with bright colours with a lotus flower in the middle!
“I opened the door with the broom to sweep the front yard”, Mummyji spoke up, “such a big rangoli, it must have taken so long to make!”
“Gods came down from the heavens to bless you children,” said Dadiji wiping away her tears, “Pitaji must be smiling!”
“Let’s make sooji ka halwa!” said Guddu, “Pitaji will be more happy!”
Dadiji laughed through her tears.
“Guddu is right, God is happy when children are happy! Bahu, bring out that big vessel from the store room, make lots of sooji halwa; share with the neighbours and also the children. Ashu, take your shower, go collect all your friends!”
The rangoli looked more beautiful in the morning sunshine.
By Savitri Narayanan