Thwack...Cling...Crash.... Another of my pull shots had flung the season ball high in the air, only to smash a window pane at Vitthal kaka's house. There was a loud sigh of agony from my mates. All the boys stopped the game and beckoned me. Yes, all eyes directed that I should be the one to go and reclaim our prized ball this time.
Atul, Hari, Satish, Dhairya, Mitul, Rakesh, Vaibhav, and me Nihar...we met every evening for a game of gully cricket. School was closed for the summer, and our cricket games extended beyond the mandatory evening hours into the morning and afternoon hours too, much to the chagrin of our mothers, and right now, it was 3pm. I knew that Vitthak kaka, the retired Government servant, would be fast asleep. Going to his house to claim my cricket team's cherry ball was nothing short of a Herculean task. Vitthal kaka was renowned for his grumpy scowls in our neighbourhood. He scowled at everyone in the vicinity, especially at us boys when we broke his window panes. He was also known for a cookie jar on his table-top, which was rumoured to store the best cookies one could have ever savoured. All of us had eyed that cookie jar, with watering mouths, but never ever had the courage to beg for a taste of one yummy cookie.
Rakesh nudged me. I handed my bat to Hari, and with drooping shoulders and a loud sigh grudgingly trudged towards Vitthal Kaka's second storeyed apartment in the corner of the narrow lane.
I mounted the steps, paused for at least three minutes before the looming wooden door that bore the letters in bold Devanagari script, 'Shri Vitthal Ramarao Deshpande'. Timidly, I knocked at the door latch, knowing that I was going to get a good dose of Vitthal kaka's scowl.
A couple of minutes after my first knock, the door opened. It was not Vitthal kaka who stood there. It was a nice-looking lady in a hospital nurse's outfit. I asked her about kaka, so she invited me in and showed me to his bedroom towards the left corridor. I slowly followed her in and saw Viithal kaka lying on a large bed, a saline bottle tied to his left arm. Kaka asked me in a hushed voice, "What is it?"
I told him that I needed my ball back. "So it was you who just broke the window pane in the other room," he retorted. I bowed my head and nodded in silence, expecting a good dressing down. Strangely enough, the man said, "Fine, I will return your ball, but on one condition..."
"Okay..." I wondered, asking, "What condition, sir?"
"Well, you have to come here every evening and pay a penalty for breaking my window pane, only then will I return your ball," he said sternly.
I was flummoxed. Why was this grumpy, old man, whom I barely knew, asking such a strange thing of me? Was he going to put me through third-degree torture? Or, was he going to rip me off my pocket money?
"So, do you agree?" A long pause ensued. Various thoughts came into my head, I especially thought of the wrath of my friends that I'd incur if I didn’t return with the ball today. I hesitantly muttered a faint, "Yes."
"Ok, go fetch the ball and come back here after your game," he stated, and shut his eyes.
I was completely confused, what did this old man want from me?
The game ended by sundown. The other boys were all heading home. But, I had to turn and go back to Grumpy's house.
I knocked, the nurse opened, I entered. Vitthal kaka asked me to have seat by his bedside. He spoke slowly, in a deep drawly voice, "Look son, you remind me of my grandson. I am ill and bed-ridden now. I cannot even walk across to the bathroom by myself. My grandson stays in a country far away, in a town called Richmond. He hasn't come to see me in two years. I am too sick to go to him..." An awkward pause... "What's your name?"
"So, Nihar...will you...?"
I did not hesitate to say yes. I noticed a tear well up in Vitthal kaka's eye. The grumpy old man did have a heart. In fact, he reminded me of my own grand-dad, whom I fondly called 'Ajoba'. I promptly, replied, "Ho Ajoba," and held his hand.
This was the first time I saw Vitthal Kaka beam.
Suddenly, he reached forward for the big cookie jar, which was now kept on his bedside table.
Yes, the same infamous cookie jar. All my friends would have been in awe of this moment, as we had all turn-by-turn eyed this big yellow translucent jar stacked with the yummiest cookies, and that waft of fresh-baked goodies was a familiar one. But none of us had dared to sample any of these, ever. Today for the first time since I had been to this house, I got a treat of a cookie from the treasure jar. It melted in my mouth, the smell, the flavours... I relished my first cookie...the first of many more.
Indeed, I cherished my time with Vitthal kaka that summer.
Thirty years have gone by. Vitthal kaka is no more. But today, I remembered that first cookie. I remembered Vitthal Kaka's smile. I remembered that lane.
I am at a bakery in that same lane, near my ancestral home. I have come to my hometown after several years. I am here today with my son buying freshly-baked cookies for him, and I will tell him my story, The story of the Cookie Jar.