By Vidula Sonagra
Unlike kids her age, Kaju was never very excited about summer vacations. For her it meant no school, no math class, no meeting Rani and Pooja, no playing hopscotch. Several of her aunts and cousin aunts from across Madhya Pradesh and few from Maharashtra spend the entire summer vacation with their children. It meant more work for her mother and kakis*. Which in turn meant more household chores would be assigned to Meena didi*, Heeru didi and herself. Nonetheless she looked forward to meeting her cousins — Tina, Babli, Ankita, Neelu, Pintu, Rahul, especially Nikita and Avni. Nikita and Avni were daughters of Chand bua, who was her father’s first cousin.
Chand bua always received a grand welcome by her brothers, cousins, and sisters-in-law. She lived in Bambai (Mumbai) where Nikita and Avni went to English medium Convent school. They wore readymade clothes and always wore colourful socks with their shoes. Kaju was a year younger to Nikita and a year older to Avni. They had difficulty in adjusting with the toilet system, yet they seldom complained about it. They were a bit snobbish, but they were often bullied. Sometimes Kaju protected them and sometimes she participated in bullying them. Kaju wished, she was just like them, some days she wished she could punch them in their face.
When they arrived, both wore lemon yellow dresses with black hair-bands and shoes with matching socks and mushroom haircuts. Kaju was thrilled to see them. But also, a tiny bit envious of them, especially of the shoes Nikita wore. Nikita wore the shoes all the time. The label on it said, ‘Made in USA’. To Kaju’s annoyance, Nikita without fail mentioned it to everyone. She bragged how her father got those for her when he went abroad. Truth be told, her father never travelled out of the country. Her mother had bought them from the flea market outside Ghatkopar station. After patiently exploring and skillful haggling, Chand bua had a knack of finding and buying classy clothes.
Kaju and her cousins spent the summer like most other summers. Playing, fighting, pulling each other’s hair, stealing dried berries and imli*, forming and reforming teams, plotting against each other, learning to fly kites, playing challas* and simply making memories that would someday be cherished by them or haunt them. When no one was looking, Kaju wore the ‘Made in USA’ shoes. They fitted her so well. She walked across the room like she was a movie star. She dreamt of wearing them to school and flaunting them to Rani and Pooja. She wanted them so much so that she hatched a plan to steal them and hide them till her school reopened.
A day before Nikita and Avni’s departure Kaju took the blue shoes which she had thought of during the summer. She meticulously planned when she would steal them and also where she would hide them. The attic would be the best place to hide her steal. Except Seema kaki, Hiroo didi and Meena didi, Kaju had not seen anyone access it. She had seen them going to the attic only a few times in the wee hours. When she asked Hiroo didi and Meena didi to take her to the attic, both forbade her to go to the attic and spoke. They had only gone there to feed the monster who came in their dreams when he was hungry. They warned her against going to the attic as the monster was not fond of children. Kaju knew they were fooling her. But didn’t have the heart to go to the attic till that day. She had heard somewhere; monsters are only wake up in the night. If she went in the daytime, she could still hide it.
Just after lunch, Chand bua was busy packing for her return. Nikita and Avni were fast asleep as they were tired from meeting relatives all morning to bid adieu and have sumptuous meals and sweets prepared especially for them. Kaju slowly entered the room where dadu* and Viju kaka* were napping. She picked up the shoes and went to the middle room hiding it under the frills of her layered frock. It was one of the darkest rooms with one clerestory window borrowing light from the kitchen. It had the door to the attic. Boo was lying on the bed. Kaju thought, Boo too was napping. But to her terror she was wide awake. Staring. Staring into nothingness. Boo has been that way since Magan dada* — her stepson died last winter. They were just eight years apart. She had taken care of him like a kid brother since he was two years old. She never doubted that she would be the first one to go. She wasn’t prepared to live in a world without him. Kaju soon realised, even if Boo was staring, she wasn’t seeing anything.
Kaju slowly climbed the table that had the tailoring machine and unlatched the door from the top. She climbed the steps like a cat. The attic was stuffy and dusty with pigeon feathers all around. Proximity to the iron roof made the dung floor even hotter. Window at the end of the attic was on source natural light. Kaju, three feet two inches, could barely stand straight in the middle of the attic that had slanting roofs.
On the one side there were two large, rusted trunks, with several bundles of cloth. On the other side there were heaps of stove woods, few chipped pots, a large rat cage, a string on which several stained cloth pieces were hung. It was nothing like she had imagined it to be. In her mind the attic was a room with a large bed for the monster, cupboard, table, TV, and a large pot of drinking water. Kaju was terrified with the setting and aura of the attic. Before she could find a clean and convenient spot for her shoes, Kaju heard some rattling from the opposite end of the attic, she hurriedly left her shoes at the window, and quickly climbed down the stairs. When she entered the room, Boo was still staring, Staring into nothingness. Kaju with a racing heart got on the tailoring machine table. Carefully latched the chain at the top. Dusted off her layered, frilled frock. Still a bit shaky, Kaju tried her best to pretend everything was normal.
Next morning, when Chand bua with all her bags packed was ready to leave for the station with Nikita and Avni, Nikita frantically started searching for her shoes. While Laxmi dadi* and Chand bua were still crying, everyone else started to look for the shoes. About fifteen minutes later, Chand bua firmly suggested Nikita wear spare shoes, or else they will be late for their train. Upon hearing this Nikita threw a fit and started crying. But Chand bua was in no mood to waste time mollycoddling her. She slapped her instead and asked her to wear the spare shoes. Nikita tried hard to stop crying, but tears continued to roll down her cheeks. She quietly wore the spare shoes and got into the tonga.
Kaju felt guilty. Not only did she steal Nikita’s shoes, but Nikita was also slapped by her mother in front of everyone. Though she couldn’t forget the crying face of Nikita for many days, she brought herself to confess the fact that she not only stole the shoes but had hidden them in the attic. She was terrified that her mother would thrash her for stealing. Stealing something from Chand bua’s daughter. Kaju was so petrified and ashamed of her act that she could never muster up the courage to take another trip to the attic. Not until the incident had faded in her memory.
Kaki – Father’s younger brother’s wife
Didi – Elder sister
Bua – Father’s sister
Imli — Tamarind
Challas – Ludo, a board game
Dadu — Grandfather
Kaka – Father’s younger brother
Dada – Elder brother
Dadi – Grandmother
Vidula Sonagra is an independent researcher, writer and translator who is interested in society, literature and music and loves reading fiction and petting street dogs and cats.
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