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They used to run ahead of their parents among the rice fields, nothing on their minds, just two young children, breathlessly racing each other. The blue Dalma Hills in the distance formed a magical backdrop. Minnie and Birsha never looked down at their feet as they flew through the vast fields of rice plantation. The trick is to place your foot in the middle of the mud bank and not on the sides, Minnie would keep repeating to herself as she ran behind her brother. Then they would enter the woods at the foothills, glance at each other and the race would begin all over again to the top of the hillock, a hillock with the most beautiful name – Phuldungri.

It was always Birsha who would reach the top first, ahead of his younger sister Minnie. He would scramble, crawl and fall on his way up but that didn’t bother him. Minnie, on the other hand, dreaded falling down on the red soil blackened by decaying leaves, hating the thought finding a crawling bug or spider underneath. She climbed as quickly as her little legs would carry but could never beat her brother. By the time their parents reached the top, the children would be busy playing with strange shaped red stones found all over the hillside, building stories in their heads. Sometimes the stone would be an egg laid by a giant bird, sometimes it would be a chocolate cake for the whole family. This was almost a daily routine for the family and they never tired of it.

Artist uncle, as the kids called him, lived in a beautiful little house in Ghatshila, a town somewhere in the state of Jharkhand, where Birsha and Minnie had come for their winter vacation with their parents. Artist Uncle lived with his ageing mother and did not have a wife. He painted beautiful landscapes on canvas that were so lifelike that Minnie would stare at them for hours. The garden around the house was captivating with little orange and yellow seasonal flowers. The kids loved it and would inspect every little plant or weed that grew in there. Some of the plants were taller than they were and yet not so tall as to tower over them. Beyond the little wooden door in the far corner, there were bigger trees -guava, mango, jamun or Java plum and the huge shaal trees of course. There was one jamun tree with a gigantic bee hive that scared Minnie no end. On days that they would go to Phuldungri, she would move past these bigger trees quickly and wait for the others on the road that lay adjoining the house. She did not even dare a quick glance at the bee hive lest the bees found it offensive.

Artist uncle took them to lovely places – the Rankini temple with its colourful walls in a village nearby was beautiful and so was the peaceful and scenic Burudih Lake and dam situated about nine kilometers from Ghatshila. Artist Uncle had said that the green forest surrounding the artificial lake was home to wild elephants as it was part of the main corridor from the Dalma range to Midnapore in West Bengal. The children did not feel like running around in these forests and preferred to stay on the boat as they floated around on the calm waters. But Minnie’s favourite spot had to be the Subarnarekha River. She would run across the fields, squealing as the wild grass flowers poked her bare legs. She would then sit patiently by the river, picking out each little thorny flower embedded in her skin. The river was magnificent, quiet and peaceful; Minnie and Birsha would spend hours just sitting there and sketching on sheets of paper provided by Artist uncle. The adults sat a little distance away and talk about things Minnie couldn’t understand. The sound of the river would at times drown the voices of the elders, and then Minnie would hear her mother laugh out loud. Once in a while her mother would sing a song so beautiful that Minnie’s mind would wander beyond the mountains and her fingers would fly across the paper trying to draw everything she saw around herself. She would hum the tune as well and try to understand the words of the song. She knew that Birsha could understand the songs better than her because he would recite them later at night when he was under the covers. Although just five, Minnie liked to consider herself as mature as her 7-year-old brother but these were the times when she had to come to terms with her brother’s obvious higher intellect.

Birsha spent his time playing with words in his mind. He filled the pages of his yellow diary with stories of all that he saw and how he felt. The incredible quietness of this place gave him the opportunity to grasp the words that whirled around his head and put them easily on paper, something that would be impossible anywhere else. At night, he would hear the beating of drums and the rhythmic chant of the tribals who lived in small settlements not far from where they stayed. This was a world far removed from the one they were used to in Kolkata. He loved the trees and hills more than all the houses in the big city. Kolkata was good. It had the magnificent Eden Gardens, the ‘trophy’ tank from the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the pavement-hawkers selling Enid Blyton books, the fabulous restaurants on Park Street  and of course, grandma’s house where love was always in abundance. But every time their taxi crossed the old Howrah Bridge and sped towards the railway station, Birsha and Minnie would bid a gleeful farewell to the city and its muddy river Ganges.

The restaurant they frequented in Ghatshila was a local eatery which had the same menu every day, but the food was prepared fresh, which gave even the simple daal and fried potato that incredible taste. Minnie and Birsha loved the smell of the place too. Fresh lime and fried fish combined to produce an aroma so tempting that lunchtime was never boring. The children would skip and jump all the way to the eatery, hanging on to Artist uncle’s arms, to feast on the simple fare. In all the time that they were there, Birsha and Minnie never complained about the food.

It was after one such satisfying lunch one day that they all had to run for cover as a sudden downpour caught them unawares. The kids ran and stood under a tree as the heavens opened up. The morning had been clear and there had been no intimation of rain when they left the house. Caught unawares they all took shelter under a large Shaal tree, panting and laughing at the same time.

Thunder rolled across the sky and Minnie shivered. As they looked around, they spotted a beautiful bungalow in the distance where someone was gesturing vigorously at them. Realising that the tree was not the ideal shelter for such a heavy thunder shower, they ran and reached the lovely old house with a verandah, tastefully decorated with cane furniture and lots of green potted plants. The cushions looked comfortable and the glass table had two cups of tea on it. The elderly couple who had hailed them held out dry towels and got hot cups of tea and biscuits for everyone, the kids included. Minnie and Birsha were soon feeling warm and comfortable; they sat there sipping tea and munching on cream biscuits.

The elderly gentleman seemed to be very fond of little children and soon had Birsha describing his experience of Ghatshila. The lady asked Minnie if she could sing for her but Minnie felt shy and shook her head. She and her brother got up and watched the raindrops dance their way to the ground, skimming the leaves and flowers on their way. An hour passed and soon it was time for them to leave and everyone said goodbyes and moved on. Artist uncle was telling Birsha and Minnie’s parents that the elderly man and his wife belonged to a branch of the Tagore family. That night, before the lanterns were dimmed, Birsha asked his mother whether the elderly couple had actually met the famous poet. When he heard that they had indeed met him, he lay awake for a long time, his eyes wide open.

Minnie loved to wear her flowery long dress. One reason was that everyone said she looked beautiful in it. The other reason was that it kept the long thorny grass from scratching her legs. Her brother who was still barred from wearing long trousers yelped and howled whenever they plunged through the undergrowth of Phooldungri or ran around the banks of Subarnarekha.

One day they came to a little shop where Minnie’s father needed to buy cigarettes. It was a little grocery shop which also sold chewing gums and toffee. As they came up to the shop, Minnie, to her absolute horror, saw a monkey sitting peacefully outside and eating things thrown in her direction by the owner who was behind the counter. The monkey, naughty that they always are, spied the little girl as she came towards the shop. The monkey took an immediate liking for Minnie, bounded up to her and hugged her legs with its thin arms and would not let go. The little girl stood still, covered her face with her palms and wept profusely. No one came to her rescue, not even Artist Uncle; in fact among all those laughing at her predicament, she thought it was Artist Uncle who laughed the loudest. Minnie was very angry at the way everyone reacted and did not waste a moment letting them know that. Her intensely hurt and angry face made Birsha change his own expression from one of absolute joy to total concern. He knew how frightened she must have been and felt sorry for her. He was also well aware that her little fists could pack a punch that hurt for days.

Minnie ignored Artist Uncle’s apologies for some time and then forgave him with a big smile when he handed her a bunch of golden wild flowers he picked from the roadside forests as he took them to see a famous copper mine which was also one of the deepest mines in the world.

That is where Minnie heard the scream. She looked at the others but no one else seemed to have heard it. A little perplexed, she hung back from the group as they got off the car and stood looking at the monstrous giant factory that stood dirty and grey among the barren surroundings. Minnie shivered and did not pose for the photographs with the others. She was sure she had heard a little girl scream.

As their car sped back towards Ghatshila, Minnie began to think back about a few things that she had been witnessing but not paying attention to in the last few days. She was now sure she had heard a little girl laugh when the monkey hugged her legs that morning. She was also wondering if she had imagined a little figure in a printed red and white frock that disappeared behind trees every time she looked up when she was racing her brother a couple of days ago at Phuldungri. She was certain of having seen the same frock-attired girl peeping at her from behind the many boulders around the Subarnarekha River. Minnie was now certain this little girl had been following her around Ghatshila and was most intrigued as to why it should be so.

It was very cold and foggy when they awoke the next day. The children always found the mist fascinating. Birsha loved the feel of the wet mist on his hair and face. He would take his woollen cap off time and again, much to the displeasure of his father, to bathe his hair in mist – as he would put it. But the fog and mist had plenty of surprises too and not all of them were very pleasant. The children were a bit scared of the big trucks that would speed through the mist and suddenly appear right in front, lurching like an intoxicated beast.That day as they were on their way to Phuldungri, they heard a loud screeching of brakes and people started running towards the source of the noise. Through the mist, they saw a big crowd had gathered around a truck, carrying industrial equipment and before long word spread that there had been an accident because of the fog.

Nobody wanted to go walking that morning anymore and the children looked completely shaken, so Artist Uncle took them back to his house and showed them his wonderful paintings. From that day, Birsha would keep looking over his shoulder time and again till they got off the main road and walked through the rice fields. The fog would gradually lift and he would invariably catch his breath at the site of the farmlands, so serene and beautiful.

Occasionally, they would catch a glimpse of the farmer hard at work on his field. Artist uncle would stop and speak to him in a strange tribal language that only their father understood. He came back smiling after one such conversation and said that since the children had been behaving impeccably well, he was going to give them a big surprise later that day. Birsha and Minnie begged him to reveal the surprise but Artist Uncle was firm. Then that evening, he took them to one of the tribal settlements.

This time, they walked a little longer than usual, and came upon a village. Women stood by watching them with dark kohl-lined watchful eyes, some of them with dusty little babies in their arms. The huts were made of mud and very simple but each had a unique hand-painted design on its walls. Colourful patterns in different hues were painted on the walls that gave these dwellings the look of carefully prepared exhibits in an exhibition. Artist Uncle confided in Minnie that this is where he got his inspiration for his paintings. All the women had rolled up their long, dark hair into big buns and adorned them with silver jewellery, the likes of which neither Minnie nor her mother had ever seen before. The little girl just stared open-mouthed at the chunky anklets, the fine filigree work on long necklaces, thick bangles that adorned their wrists and ear-rings that had chains wrapped around the length of each ear. To little Minnie, the women looked more beautiful than any of the women whose faces adorned her mother’s glossy magazines and she wondered if she would ever look so dignified when she grew up.

They stayed there long enough to see a group of people break into a spontaneous dance around a fire in a field. The percussion instrument had a lilting sound to it and everyone felt themselves swaying to its rhythmic beat. The women with orange flowers in their buns had formed a long line with their arms around the waist of the next dancer beside them; there was no complicated step, no vigorous jumping around; just an incredible soft movement of the body, just a little swaying that was done in unison.

More and more women kept joining and soon there was quite an atmosphere around the place. It seemed to be a most natural form of celebration and for the first time in their lives the little visitors from the city actually sat through a performance and clapped at the end till their hands were sore. The musical soirees and theatres that they had previously accompanied their parents to had sent them to sleep and they had come out feeling cranky, hungry and most dissatisfied. But this was so different. It was quite dark now and time to go home. As she turned around to take one last look at the dancers, Minnie saw the red and white frocked girl standing in front of the fire. Although her face was in the dark, there was no doubt in Minnie’s mind that this was the little girl who had been following her around everywhere.

That night Minnie stayed awake for a long time. Usually the lanterns would produce shadows on the wall that gave the rooms an eerie feeling. That, coupled with the howling of foxes and sounds of other animals in the distance ensured that the children got into bed early and closed their eyes and ears as quickly as possible. But Minnie couldn’t sleep. She was feeling hot under the covers and wanted to throw them off.

Just as she was about to wriggle her way out from under the thick blanket, Minnie’s mother woke up and asked her what the matter was. Minnie explained about feeling very hot and her mother leant over and pushed one window shutter open. Immediately the cool breeze felt most welcoming and her mother went back to sleep again. Minnie had to take a look at the garden because Artist Uncle had said that it was going to be a full moon night. The garden did look bathed in brilliant moonshine and Minnie was happily nodding off to sleep when her eyes suddenly opened wide. There, by the jamun tree which had the giant beehive was a little figure. She looked lonely as she stood there watching the house.

The next morning Minnie woke up late and was not sure if what she had seen at night was a dream or not. She decided not to tell anyone not even Birsha, her closest confidante. They all had a hearty breakfast of luchi and potato curry and went to sit in the winter sun outside. The children were feeling a little sad that they would be going back to Kolkata the next day and hung on to Artist Uncle’s every word as he regaled them with stories about the village.

Soon after, they heard footsteps in the garden and were pleasantly surprised to find that the elderly couple from the rainy day had come to pay them a visit. The adults sat on rickety wooden chairs, while the children sat on small stools that they had painted patterns on. There was a lot of laughter and happiness around and Minnie felt completely at peace. She told them about the beautiful dance she had seen the previous day and the old lady said she used to give mathematics lessons to a five-year-old girl named Dumni from that village a long time ago. She had presented her with a gift after she had learnt the eight times tables by heart. It was a beautiful red and white frock and the little child was so happy. Dumni’s father was an employee of the copper mine that they had visited last week and her mother was a cook in a local restaurant. The little girl used to bring lunch for her father every day. One day, the curious little girl went inside the mine and never came out. They found Dumni’s body a few days later; she had fallen somewhere deep inside. The whole village mourned her loss for weeks. She was such a free spirit.

Minnie knew Dumni was a free spirit. That she had a twinkling laughter; that she could run like the wind. She got up from her stool, walked towards the Jamun tree and stood there quietly. A big truck went by. Then she saw her in her red and white frock through the smoke and dust. Minnie waved at her, shyly at first, then with more urgency. After what seemed a long time, little Dumni waved back.

Next day, as they boarded the Steel Express that was to take them back to Kolkata, Minnie kept looking back. But other than Artist Uncle, no one else had come to see them off. Birsha was taking a lot of memories back home – red soil, tall trees, green rice fields, naughty monkeys, hillocks, foggy mornings and the Subarnarekha River. He had myriad stories to write and could hardly wait to begin! Minnie leaned back on her seat, closed her eyes and much to her parents’ surprise began to recite the eight times table without a single mistake. 

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Published on: 04 Oct, 2015

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