Heaven and Hell


She pushed him hard. He snapped back, ” You are such a cry baby!”  Sure enough, the tears were pooling in her eyes. Her lip taking on a familiar quiver. Bindu stepped in quickly before the situation escalated.

“Stop it, you two! It’s always the same with you. Either make up, or go home. We’re not here to watch you fight. We are here to play.”

Sparrow twisted her face, and looked away. She knew her tantrum would have to wait. Avinash looked abashed. He was getting to the age where playing with girls would soon be uncool. He was still too young to join the older boys who played cricket on the maidan. Our group of five girls had accommodated him from the very start. For one, he wasn’t rough-and- tumble like the other boys. For another, we felt sorry for him. Poor motherless boy.

It was only when Sparrow moved into the locality that the trouble had started. None of us really liked Sparrow. There was something very sly and shifty about her. Besides, she was permanently in a bad mood.  But Mrs Kaul, Rupa’s mum, had insisted we include her in all our games. Rupa was well liked in our group. Also, Sparrow’s parents were their tenants. Consequently, Sparrow had become a little appendage to our crew. Barely tolerated, but there nevertheless.

I turned my attention to the game. Heaven and Hell. Heaven was any raised surface you could climb onto, before being caught. Hell was being caught, and put in the unfortunate position of the catcher. It was going well today. Arshi and I were the last ones left, and Rupa, between fits of giggles was trying to get a hold of one of us.

” Sonia, there there… Arshi, get on the wall quick”

The rest of them kept shouting instructions at us, till Rupa finally  managed to grip the hem of my dress, and Arshi was declared the winner.

“Hello uncle”,  said Bindu slightly startled. Sparrow’s father had emerged quite suddenly behind her. His mad scientist look always made us uncomfortable.

“How is it going?”, he boomed. Sparrow ran and clung to him. We smiled politely. “Come upstairs for a drink children. You must be worn out…all this running around in the heat…”

Since we had been playing on the street in front of their house, and intended to keep playing for a while, we had no choice. We followed him reluctantly.

Rupa whispered, ” A quick Rooh Afza, and we’ll leave. Promise. ”

We looked at her reproachfully. Baby, her sister who was ever so slightly dim witted, was the only one who grinned and nodded. Rupa could do no wrong in her eyes.

Sparrow and her parents lived in the rather cramped two rooms that had been let out to them by Rupa’s parents. They weren’t rich. Not even solidly middle class like the rest of our families. Yet, the way Sparrow’s mum had furnished her living quarters, you would be at a loss to bracket them into any particular class or caste. Fab India jostled with Khan Market purchases. The curtains were some kind of gauzy fabric that billowed in the breeze, but couldn’t possibly give them any protection from the merciless Delhi heat. There was an undone air to the entire place, something that discomfited us. Us with our Rexine sofas and striped curtains and Sarojini Market bedcovers. “Bohemians”, I had heard my mother mutter to my father sometime ago. I didn’t know what that meant, but from the disapproving tone, I gathered it was something really bad.

To look at Sparrow’s mother though, you couldn’t imagine her being anything bad. She was just too beautiful. Even us, as children, were dumb struck in her presence. She was rather dark and played up her complexion in vivid vegetable colour textiles. Her large eyes were kohl lined and heavy lidded. She wore backless cholis and sarees slung so low on her waist to be positively indecent.( Rupa’s mother’s words, not mine). Her hair was long, thick and worn loose to her waist. She could have been an actress. She certainly had friends from the acting world who came to visit. What she was doing in our little suburban locality was a mystery, and the subject of much gossip amongst the plump, nondescript housewives that peopled our block.

Those doe like eyes were focussed on me in puzzlement right now. Oh! Right. I had forgotten to answer her question. I nodded quickly, not sure what I was agreeing to, and was handed a ham sandwich with a glass of the crimson sweet concoction that I could tell had only been bought to appease Sparrow and her friends. Somehow, Sparrow’s mum, or Mitali aunty as mother had asked me to address her as, didn’t seem like a Rooh Afza sort of person.

When she turned her back, I quickly took the ham out of the sandwich and hid it in the potted plant. I was  a Brahmin and couldn’t eat meat, least of all pig meat. Rupa caught my eye and giggled.

“So, girls, have you played nicely today?”, Mitali aunty probed gently. Her eyes fell on Avinash, and she said apologetically,  “and you, Avinash. I could hear you out there, laughing and running about. It must have been fun,na?”

“Yes aunty”, chirped Baby. “We played pitthu, oonch neech ka papda, kho kho and Heaven and Hell. So much fun. No school for another three weeks. So mummy allows us to play for longer. We have mostly done our holiday homework too. ”

She seemed to be laughing at us as she asked, “And what holiday homework did you get?”

An hour passed with us discussing our homework. Then Bindu decided to display the latest Kathak moves she had learnt at school. We all danced to an Amitabh Bachchan song, and finally Sparrow’s dad brought out his guitar, and Mitali aunty sang a sad sweet English song  about love that none of us much understood.

” It was nice, haina?”, Arshi asked me as we walked back together.

“Yes, it was. I like Mitali aunty. She is so pretty and kind. Sparrow is so horrible. Do you think she’s adopted?”

” No yaar. Sparrow looks like uncle. She must be jealous because everyone likes her mummy and not her.”

I digested this fact silently.

“Is that why she doesn’t like Avinash either? We like him. He’s a good boy and plays so well. He even has good ideas for new games. I’ll miss him when he goes to the hostel.”

Arshi blushed. She had been nursing an unrequited crush on Avinash for a while now.

“Oh sorry Arshu! I forgot. You’ll miss him more, na? Maybe he’ll write to you? Or maybe he won’t. Boys are not very good at writing letters. Anyway, let’s make the most of these weeks before school starts. Then we’ll only get to see him next year in the summer holidays. ”

A little deflated we returned home to our dinners and families.

***

How or why we chose the street in front of my house the next day I’ll never remember.  But it  all started out good-naturedly enough. Our usual games had been exhausted. We had broken up a fight between Sparrow and Baby. Mother had given us samosas with tomato ketchup, and we’d sat on the steps munching silently.

” My mother thinks you’re stupid”, Sparrow suddenly hissed to Avinash.

Avinash coloured slightly but decided to ignore her. He carried on licking the crumbs off his fingers.

“She thinks you have no manners and look like a girl”, she persisted venomously.

“Sparrow…”, Bindu warned narrowing her eyes.

Sparrow ignored her. She had found her pace, and nothing would distract her.

“Well, how could you have manners? You have no mother to teach you any. She ran away didn’t she? Didn’t even take her with you. Na  naa na nana”, she stuck her tongue out.

Avinash’s attack was so sudden and ferocious, that even nimble footed Bindu couldn’t react quick enough. He had managed to sock her one in the eye and tear a clump of hair off her head before we pulled them apart. They continued to struggle and scream, and Mother had to come downstairs to calm everyone down and dispatch all the children home.

” Sonia “, Mother asked me later, “what is going on with all of you? You kids used to play so peacefully before.”

I was too shaken to answer,  refused all offers of jalebi and milk, and went to bed instead.

***

Neither Sparrow nor Avinash came to our next few meetings. But Mother told me that the parents had met and brokered some kind of peace between the two. When we met next, they ignored one another but played nicely with the rest of us. An uneasy truce had been declared.

Mornings were spent at home, gathering up various flora and fauna for our Science project. Then after lunch and a nap, we were allowed out at 4pm, when the worst of the heat had dissipated. We then had a free run of all the streets in our block of the locality. Most people knew us, and they put up with our noisy play with a sort of neighbourly tolerance. All except Mr Kalsi.

“Bloody children! Can’t you b*gger off and play somewhere else?”

He was an elderly widower of about 75 with a grouchy temperament, and a reputation for getting a little too familiar with his maids. He lived in one part of a rather decrepit bungalow. The other side had been left to rack and ruin. At some pre historic time, someone had very optimistically nailed a TO LET sign on it. Over the years, one of the nails had come loose, and the sign hung askew.  An ‘i’ had been inserted between the ‘o’ and the ‘l’, and just incase it wasn’t clear enough, there was a rough sketch of a man squatting, with a large turd hanging off his bottom.

We were alternately attracted and repelled by the place.  Attracted by all the possibilities of new games it offered us. Hide and Seek. Exploration of the Unknown, and Scaring of the younger ones. Repelled by the aura of gloom that hung about it. The chance of it being infested by cockroaches and rats, or even a ghost or two. Mr Kalsi was purported to have been married to a very sickly woman who had died in the house. The more imaginative in our lot claimed to have seen a grey figure floating about at night, wailing and complaining of a tummy ache.

“Shall we go inside today?”, asked Bindu.

Rupa  hung back, holding on to Baby. I was game and so was Avinash. I could tell Arshi wasn’t keen, but was willing to go along for his sake.

“No, you can’t!  My mother has said we can’t enter other people’s properties. It’s called tres..tress….I don’t know what it’s called. But it is wrong!”,  Sparrow ended with a flourish. She delighted in pointing out the obvious.

Bindu sighed. Her attempts at livening up our games had failed again.

We dispersed soon after, promising to meet at the same time next day, this time at Avinash’s house.

***

Avinash was rich. This much was certain. We knew it from the size of his house, from the décor and from the foreign car that stood on his drive. His father came from a very wealthy family, but had been disowned on account of having married outside their social strata. He had gone on to make his own millions, effectively thumbing his nose at his family. The fact that the marriage subsequently collapsed had not detracted from his aura. Mehra uncle was working from home today, and  dismissed us to the garden, after politely enquiring after our families, and getting all the names muddled up.

Sparrow was unusually quiet. Out on the street, it was an equal platform. Here, in Avinash’s house, she was at a disadvantage. She trailed behind us as we climbed trees, and swung on the hammock. We ended up in Avinash’s room, admiring the posters he had on his wall. Pop stars we had never heard of.

“Isn’t this one from Wham?”, Arshi asked shyly.

“Yes, and this one is Eurythmics….and this is Boy George”, Avinash was enjoying himself. He rarely had an opportunity to show off. We were all rather impressed. Most of us had to share our rooms with our brothers or sisters, and  like most Indian households, privacy was unheard of. Having one’s own room, with a door with which you could shut out the outside world, was an enormous luxury.

“And who is this?”, Sparrow asked softly.

We turned to her in surprise. Most of us had forgotten she was there. She was holding a sepia toned photograph of a woman with her face sightly turned away from the camera. The woman had a cigarette in her hand and she seemed to be laughing at something just outside the periphery.   Avinash snatched the photo out of her hand.

“Where did you…how…how dare you….?”, he spluttered, and suddenly, unaccountably, burst into tears.

We stood there, stunned.

Sparrow laughed, ” You are such a ninny. Why don’t you boast about this photo,huh? That’s your mother,isn’t it? The one who ran away. Maybe she didn’t want to stay with a boy who behaves like a girl. You are such a girl. Why are you always hanging around us? Why can’t you go and play with the other boys? Scared that they’ll beat you up? Fraidy cat! Loser!!”

“That’s enough!”, Bindu snapped. “Avinash has more guts than you. And he’ll prove it too! Tomorrow, we’ll meet outside Mr Kalsi’s and we’ll see who the fraidy cat is. Yes, that’s right Sparrow, we are going inside the haunted house. You can wipe that smirk off your face because if you don’t show up, you will be the loser. And you can forget about playing with us again!”

Arshi and I walked home, subdued and a little worried about the next day’s challenge.

“I really don’t like cockroaches, Sonia.”

“I know. I’m not too fond of them myself. But it’s Mr Kalsi that scares me the most. If he finds out, I am in BIG trouble. He’s related to us.”

“What? I didn’t know this. How?”

For a while we discussed the complicated permutations of extended families. Then, worryingly, we came back to what was uppermost on our minds.

” That house has been empty for a long time. It must be really dusty inside.”  Arshi paused, “Do you think Sparrow will show up?”

“Well, if she wants to save face, she had better. But I kind of hope she doesn’t. Then we’ll be rid of her, na?”

” But Rupa’s mum? She’s always insisting we play with her. What if Rupa spills the beans?”

“Listen,  Rupa won’t say anything.  And Sparrow daren’t get on Bindu’s wrong side.”

” Yes, that’s true….but….”, she gnawed at her nail and came back to what bothered her most, ” the house….what if there are rats?”

***

The next day was a Friday, and our weekly visit to the temple. I prayed long and hard for a miracle, and was rewarded with a pat on my head and a ladoo. I agonised over not going, knowing fully well I would.

“All but one”, smiled Bindu. “Well, well, I wonder where Miss Sparrow could be?”

I caught Rupa’s eye, and a nervous giggle escaped her. Bindu looked at her enquiringly.

“Only”, she hastily supplied, “this morning we heard Sparrow’s mother shouting at her father. Then she walked out. I don’t know if she came back?”

We pondered this fact. Our mothers never shouted at our fathers. It just wasn’t done. What a peculiar family. So, maybe Sparrow wouldn’t show. That would let us off the hook. We sat on the wall and chatted for a bit.

“Of course, we could still go in”, declared Bindu.

“Or not”, muttered Avinash quietly. I looked at him , amused at his sudden reluctance.

“Well, it sort of defeats the purpose”, he flared up. “I don’t have anything to prove to you. It’s that little flea bag that needs to be taught a lesson.”

“Speaking of who….”, Arshi interjected.

Sparrow was running towards us, all flushed.

Triumphantly, she came to a stop at the wall.

“I bet you thought I wasn’t coming?”, she said, her eyes gleaming. Since we couldn’t deny this, we pretended to examine the bricks.

“What happened to your face?”, asked Baby innocently.

“Nothing”, said Sparrow, rather cross.” Well, are we or aren’t we? Or are you just as chicken as him?”

At this Bindu reasserted herself.

“Avinash, you get that rock from there to break the lock. It’s so old, it’ll probably just need a good thwack. Sonia, Arshi, you come in behind me, and be quiet. Sparrow, you go in first, since you seem so eager. Rupa,” she turned to her kindly, “why don’t you stay here with Baby and give us fair warning if anyone comes by?”

Rupa agreed readily but Sparrow was having none of it.

“Why can’t Baby stay outside, and Rupa come in? This is a quiet street, and hardly anyone passes by at this hour. Why do we need two guards?”

No one could refute this logic, and Rupa reluctantly had to join our breaking-and-entering mob.

We had never been quieter in our lives. Partly due to apprehension, partly because we knew there was no turning back.

The house just stood there, like an entity in its own right. Grim and forbidding. The toilet sign swung slightly in the breeze. Cobwebs had wrapped themselves many times over it, giving it a silvery sheen. The sky had darkened in the past hour, and there seemed to be a dust storm brewing in the distance. Little flurries of dust danced like whirling dervishes on the open porch.  Arshi grasped my hand tightly. I gave it a reassuring squeeze, although I could not swallow the lump of fear in my throat. I looked over at Sparrow who seemed to have a look of desperate determination plastered on her face. Avinash was concentrating on not dropping the rock he held. Bindu led the way, fearless as always.

The lock didn’t need any thwacking after all. It had lost its battle against the elements a long time ago, and lay on the floor rather forlorn and useless. Bindu pushed the door, and it swung open noiselessly. We entered single file, bemused at how easy it had been. The interiors were gloomy, but not especially scary. Furniture had been covered with sheets that were further covered with dust. A black and white picture of a young Mr Kalsi and his pretty wife sat on the mantelpiece. We looked around at the unremarkable room, and conveyed our disappointment to each other with our eyes. Bindu motioned for us to explore further. Something scurried over Arshi’s foot, and she jumped clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. Rupa turned white and clutched Sparrow, who shook her off with annoyance.

We shuffled in behind Bindu. It was all the same. Dull, dreary furniture, a few pictures on the walls, and a general air of neglect that hung in the air. Reality compared very unfavourably to the visions we had conjured up in our minds.

Outside,the dust storm had arrived, and where previously, we would’ve been ensconced in our respective houses, we were now stuck here, waiting for it to pass. Rupa was starting to worry about Baby.

When we heard the sob, we thought it was Rupa. But Rupa looked back wide eyed, and shook her head. Arshi whispered, “It came from over there”, indicating a door further down the hallway. A chill went down my spine and I wondered if Mrs Kalsi’s ghost was about to declare herself. Sparrow looked at Bindu and then at Avinash. With her finger, she pointed to the door, as if to say, “Come on!”  Avinash looked terrified. Bindu was slowly turning the colour of puce. Sparrow, with a vicious tenacity, grabbed Avinash’s hand and started to drag him towards the door. Bindu stood powerless and rooted to the floor.

There was a clap of thunder, and with a torrential downpour the skies opened. We huddled close to one another. They were nearly there, and Sparrow, in her moment of vengeance had completely forgotten her fear. She grabbed the handle of the door and was yanked in as it swung open dramatically at exactly the same moment.

“Aiieeeeeee”, Rupa screamed and passed out.  Bindu and Arshi ran outside in a panic. I stood there trembling, watching Avinash at first turn white and then a deep, blotchy red. Abruptly, he turned on his foot and stomped out, a look of fury on his face.

Slowly, I made my way to the open door.

Sparrow stood there open mouthed looking from her mother to Avinash’s dad, and back again. Mitali aunty’s saree was abandoned on the floor, and Mehra uncle sat bare chested on the bed, smoking a cigarette. They all turned to look at me. Mitali aunty smiled absently, and picked her saree off the floor. I backed away as quietly as I had come in.

***

“Arshu, do you remember that Summer we discovered Mitali aunty’s affair?”, I asked Arshi over our monthly cappuccino catch-up.

“Hmmm….vaguely….It was all quite scandalous, na? So many years ago now.”

“Funny, how Sparrow and Avinash never really fought after that….”

“Well, she wasn’t really around for much longer. Didn’t they move away?”

” Yes….and then a few years later Bindu eloped with that rather unsavoury character. Gosh, we did have some exciting times there.”

“I wonder what happened to Sparrow and the rest of them? Rupa  emails me occasionally. She’s just had a baby boy.”

” Baby’s still living at home. But here’s the surprise! Guess whose article I came across in the newspaper today? Kruttika Ghosh aka Sparrow! She’s made quite a name for herself.”

Arshi skimmed the article with a smile on her face.

“Bitchy, as always, I see?”

We laughed. “She’s putting her bile to good use”

“And Avinash?”, she asked me rather wistfully.

I shrugged and  turned to the sink to rinse out our cups. I’d heard he’d moved to New York with his male partner. But I didn’t tell Arshi that.

Some illusions are best not shattered.

THE END

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