At the Mumbai airport’s waiting lounge, Karuna carefully looks at the business program that was being telecast by one of the popular English news channels. The lady on the screen giving her expert opinion looked very familiar to her. A face she could not forget in years to come. Karuna waited and waited for the name to get flashed on the screen. And when it did, she was doubly sure that it was Shazia, her childhood friend who was in the top management of an investment bank giving her expert opinion on the government’s economic policies.
It was a chilling winter night when Ali, Shazia’s father along with her sister Huma and little brother Feroze were standing looking helplessly at Mrs Kumar. Mr Kumar, her husband, had recently got transferred to Kashmir. This was the Kumars’ first winter in the northernmost state of India and as expected, they Mrs Kumar was not prepared for it.
Ali was the Kumars’ new domestic help. On that day, Mrs Kumar was struggling to light up the bukhari in the living room. In her endeavour, she dropped some large chunks of embers on to the woollen carpet. In a flick of a second the carpet caught fire and before it could spread further Ali with his bare hands saved the household from burning down.
That was not the only episode when Ali saved the Kumars. On another day, Mrs Kumar had stepped out for some work and left Karuna and Karthik at home. Aware that their mother was away, the siblings planned to climb up to the attic for some fun. Unmindful, as they both rushed up the stairs, Karthik erroneously stepped on a rusted piece of iron and got badly injured. Ali heard Karthik’s shriek and rushed up to help. He lifted Karthik up and sprinted to the nearest hospital for first aid.
Ali never introduced his kids to Karthik and Karuna. Although living in the same premises, Karthik, Karuna, Shazia, Huma and Feroze would never play together. Ali thought that since he was the helper, it was not appropriate for his children to play with his master’s kids.
But no one could keep the children away for long. They soon became friends and played together. Ali was oblivious to the fact that the kids had already connected and would meet every morning at a secret hideout. They assembled at the same spot everyday and would feel liberated from their parents’ bickering and problems. They played to their hearts’ content without anyone there to judge them or scold them.
Shazia and Huma had introduced Karthik and Karuna to many indoor games which they had never heard of in the plains. The games that they played the most were dark room, aakus baakus (an indigenous version of akkad bakkad), haar (a game using a seashell ), carrom board , chess and other games of pretention. After hurriedly finishing their morning studies and breakfast, Karuna and Karthik would tip toe quietly and sneak into the secret hideout. Shazia and Huma would first help their mother with the domestic chores and then quietly sneak out. Feroze was the youngest and had no duties. He would merrily tag along with his sisters for the fun games.
The kids’ secret hideout was an outhouse, not far from the Kumars’ bungalow. According to Ali, the house where the Kumar’s lived was owned by a carpet dealer who had moved out of Kashmir for business opportunities. The house was some fifty years old. The outhouse was a kind of a store and housed the oldest belongings of the owner. Ali was the housekeeper for the carpet dealer’s property.
The outhouse was two-storied but the ground floor would always remain locked. The room on the top was unlocked. The children would unapologetically barge into the first floor room and get started. The room was dimly lit. It had two rectangular windows to the world outside. The wooden windows with stained glass panes blocked most of the natural light. It was a haven of all things old, tattered and ancient. The walls were last distempered when then carpet seller must have been born. The walls had pegs and the iron nails on them. Leaning on to the wall were old, ragged carpets, namdas, floorings and so on. On the other side of the wall was an old, rusted cycle, a wooden table, a broken kerosene lamp, piles of books, old cricket bat and ball, worn out paper machete stuff, old copper utensils, broken household items and much more. Besides all of this there were other unused, unimportant, unwanted belongings.
The children had a complete calendar planned out for the activities and the games played by them in the outhouse. Since winter days in Kashmir were very short, they would always prefer the mornings. The calendar had each day allotted for chess, carrom, quiz, drawing, pretending games and a lot of other things. The schedule for all the activities was designed and managed by Shazia and Karuna since they were the eldest. They would boss around and be the mother hen to all the little chickens. On most of the days they would park their board games in their secret hideout. But for many other activities like drawing, they would secretly get their colours and books into the room. Once they decided to take the things back home with them. But still the most captivating activity in the room would be discovering the room itself. The many untold things that had been left unattended for so many years had a story to say. Both Shazia and Karuna along with Feroze would be the ones always excited to embark upon this journey of ‘Room Discovery’. Shazia would pretend to hold a fake camera and shoot Karuna and Feroze discovering the abandoned articles in the room. And Karuna would act as if she was some discoverer or a historian and would give her commentaries on the articles while pretending to be recorded by Shazia’s fake camera. Life was full of fun and enjoyment.
While all this was happening right under the nose of the parents, Ali and Mrs Kumar always thought that the kids would be doing what they were supposed to do: Little Feroze would helping his uncle at the farms with the cattle, Huma helping her mother in cleaning the utensils, Shazia sweeping and mopping the house, Karuna and Karthik completing their winter homework.
On one of their escapades at the outhouse, Shazia thought of surprising her friends. She thought of treating her friends with some home cooked food. She carried the snacks cooked by her mother. She hid them under her pheran. No sooner did she step out, did she realise that they would get cold by the time her friends arrived. Prudently she carried a kangri along. The hot kangri would help to keep the snack warm. Careful that her little siblings would burn themselves, she held the hot kangri and handed over the snacks to Huma. All three of them catwalked to the outhouse. They went up the stairs trying to balance the hot kangri and the snacks under the woollen pheran. After they reached the room, Shazia quickly kept the kangri on the table and the snacks next to it. Soon they heard the cracking of the wooden staircase and saw Karuna and Karthik coming. Friskily they closed the door and all were seated comfortably inside the dusty, cosy room. In their excitement to surprise their friends from the plains, Shazia, Huma and Feroze all got up and ran to the table to fetch the snack and the kangri and in their display of enthusiasm, they all banged into each other and fell down. Shazia stood up and apologised and went back to her place. She announced that they would unravel a surprise to the friends in a little while. Till then they could all play a game of carrom. Everyone nodded since no one could defy the eldest sister. For a long time they were busy playing and never noticed that in their burst of excitement the hot kangri had fallen down on the table. Soon the burning, hot embers were all around and had started to burn the stinky, old bolsters. Some of it had fallen on to the books on the table and set them on fire. And some of the hot, burning coal was on the old, faded, rolled curtains. Soon that corner of the room was in fire. The fire was significant enough for the kids to notice. The children started to panic and looked blankly at each others’ face. They were precipitating with heat and fear. They thought it would be best to get out of the room and look for water to extinguish the fire but before they could do anything, Mrs Kumar and Ali heard the commotion and rushed to the outhouse. They were baffled to see all the children there. But their immediate objective was to extinguish the fire.
Mrs Kumar and Ali both ran to fetch water from the bathrooms in buckets and tried their best to stop the fire. Ali got a big bucket and was able to control the damage faster. In all this, the kids were meekly standing at one corner and sobbing. They knew that their parents would be very angry and soon give them the scolding of their lives.
Ali was very cross with the kids. He was most upset with Shazia, whom he thought was the most sensible and responsible. He was unmindful of everyone around and whacked his kids. He plucked a nettle weed and hit the three. He continued to abuse Shazia for her irresponsible behaviour. Shazia, Huma and Feroze could not stop crying and continued to apologise for their behaviour. Ali’s wife stepped ahead to shield her daughter. Mrs Kumar also was very cross with the children. She barred them from watching TV. They were not to get any story books and gifts for the whole week. But what was more upsetting for Mrs Kumar was the way Ali was treated his daughters. There was a lot of bitterness in his behaviour.
Upon enquiry from Ali’s wife, Mrs Kumar learnt that Ali did not the idea of his girls stepping out of the house and making friends. He just wanted them to be involved with the household chores. They were not even sent to a school since he thought that it was a waste of time and money. Ali’s wife did not agree with her husband’s ideology but she could not oppose him or raise her voice. Mrs Kumar understood the scenario. She felt sorry for the girls. She wanted to help Shazia and Huma. She came up with a plan.
Every evening, she would call Shazia and Huma over to her place under some pretext. Mr Kumar also contributed by cajoling and coaxing Ali. He made him understand the strength of education. He promised that Mrs Kumar would home-tutor the girls till they grew up. Mrs Kumar dedicated two hours every day teaching Maths, English and Science to teh girls who loved it. They looked forward to the sessions. This practice continued for all the three months of the winter holidays. Once the holidays were over, Mrs Kumar enrolled them to a school close to the house. The best gift that Mrs Kumar could ever give to Shazia and Huma was education and they returned their gratitude by shining in their careers.