A Quilled Friendship

Bombay hospital, offices of eminent Paediatrician Dr. Anil Dasaani…

“Your son’s test reports are back. Everything is normal. His blood work is absolutely clear. Physiologically speaking, there is nothing wrong, no deficiency at all.”

“But Doctor then why is my son so withdrawn. I mean, there has to be some underlying cause, right? There has to be something that makes a healthy, happy twelve year old boy withdraw and lose interest in things?” a perplexed Mrs. Mehta asked. 

“Perhaps, as I initially suggested, his problem is not physiological but psychological,” Dr. Dassani replied gently. 

“Psychological? You think my son is going mad?” burst out Mr. Mehta. 

“No, no, not at all Mr. Mehta,” Dr. Dassani patiently explained, “a psychological issue need not necessarily mean a psychiatric one. Rohan is an only child left alone at home with an aged nanny. He is a shy by nature. Nothing wrong in that but when you add a new school, a new residential location and parents who are often away for work; then it behooves a situation in which the child may become emotionally reticent.”

Disturbed at the diagnosis, Mr. Mehta reached for his wife’s hand. For months now they had been doing the rounds of doctors till they had landed at Bombay Hospital. Dr. Dassani came highly recommended.

“What do you recommend Doctor,” asked Mr. Mehta at length.

“To start with, I recommend that you both spend more time with him. He is a child, he still needs his parents. Be with him, do things with him. That will help.”

“So, no medicines then?” asked Mrs. Mehta.

“No. Your child is fit as a fiddle.”

“But…I mean… are you sure…” began Mrs. Mehta, still a tad unconvinced. 

“Madam, I’m the doctor. I know my job. Trust me on this. I’ll review again in three months time.”

Partially assuaged the couple silently filed out of the doctor’s office. But Mrs. Mehta could not contain herself. “Rishabh, what if it’s true? What if, we are the problem?” she asked her husband. “Have we failed as parents?”

“Roshni, if we are the problem, then we are the solution too. Nothing matters more than Rohan. We’ll both spend some more time with Rohan. I’m sure that will help.”

A bit relieved, Roshni turned to her son she asked “Rohan how about a Mom and son day today?”

“Whatever.”

Lately it had been like this. His replies were down to syllabic answers. 

“Dad has to go back to office but I can take you shopping. We can grab a bite to eat, maybe even Chinese – your favourite? What say?’

Rohan’s eyes perked up a bit at the suggestion.

‘And, then let’s go to the vintage shop in the old market? Let’s check out some model ships?”

Rohan finally turned to look at his mother. He was crazy about ships. He collected models. His parents often brought him ship models from their trips. His room had an entire showcase displaying his collection. 

“Sure Mom. That’d be neat.”

Glad that he had agreed to something Mrs. Mehta hailed a cab. They bade Rohan’s dad a farewell and were soon off. 

*** 

The old market popularly known as Chor Bazaar is a heavily congested area, dotted with cramped antique stores that appear piled one atop another. So densely packed are the stores that their common walls often give the illusion of an entire lane being a single store, bifurcated with walls. Narrow lanes branch off into by-lanes, creating a literal maze in which connoisseurs congregate haggling for prices. 

It was to this locality that mother and son made their way, post lunch. Mrs. Mehta’s father had been an internationally renowned appraiser for a major auction house. As a child she had visited the old market on numerous occasions with him. A particular store had been their favourite. She made her way back there now.

The wind chimes on the door jangled as she pushed it open. Even after over two decades, the store seemed familiar. The layout had changed but it still smelled the same, of mystery and intrigue. It was crammed from floor to ceiling with artefacts and collectibles. The minute Rohan spied the nautical ships, his demeanour changed. His eyes shone with excitement as he darted between the display racks. He suddenly seemed roused from his insipidity. 

Mrs. Mehta smiled and thought, “Maybe the doctor is right.”

Rohan pressed a salesman into service and jabbered away. He had a thousand questions. A few patrons turned and smiled. Pretty soon, he had selected the replica of a model that he wanted to buy. As he picked it up, something fell from the shelf. 

Intrigued, Rohan picked it up and examined it quizzically. 

”Mom, what is this? It looks kinda funny?” 

“Beta*, it is a quill,” replied old Ahmed Bhai*, the owner of the shop. 

“What’s a quill?”

“It’s a magical pen made of a swan’s feather.” Ahmed bhai’s eyes twinkled. 

“Magical?” Rohan said sceptically. “Really?” How could funny looking feather be a pen, let alone magical? 

“See now,” said Ahmed Bhai demonstrating the use, “you dip the pointed end of it in ink like this. That sucks up the ink into the hollow shaft. Then you can just write with it. The ink will flow down due to capillary motion.”

“Wow!”

“You know, this belonged to a famous magician. Magicians always use quills,” added Ahmed Bhai, winking.

Rohan was enthralled. The prospect of owing something that had been owned by a magician was too enticing. Eagerly he turned to his mother. 

“Mom, can I please, please, buy this.”

Roshni looked at her son. His eyes shone with childlike excitement, something she had not seen for some time. 

“Of course, Rohan! We’ll buy it,” she acquiesced. How could she not when it made her son so happy.

“Yipee! Thanks Mom. You’re the best.”

“Young man, take good care of the quill,” advised Ahmed Bhai ringing up their purchases, “remember it’s magical.”

***

They reached home late. Rohan could not wait to use the quill. Eschewing food, he slipped into his room, plonked himself on the bed, pulled out the sheaf of parchment paper that Ahmed Bhai had provided, dipped the quill in ink and wrote-

“Rohan.”

With a magical swish the quill flew out of Rohan’s hand, moved a line down on the parchment and wrote – 

“Hi there, young lad.”

“Whaaaaaaaaaat the…..?” dumbfounded Rohan uttered. In disbelief he rubbed his eyes, rapidly backing away from the parchment. Boxed against the wall, he sat and just stared. He opened his mouth to speak but no words emerged. Scared, he was about to yell out for his Mom when the quill moved swiftly and wrote –

“Hey! Don’t panic. Hush! Hush! It’s all right, it’s all right. It’s just me. I’m magical, remember?”

Seeing but still disbelieving, Rohan peered at the parchment from a little way off. Sure enough, the quill was actually writing on its own. Chewing his lower lip, he sidled a bit closer and said, “Ye…yessss, but?” His voice trailed off, fearful and confused still. Magical or not, this was beyond what he had imagined. Could this really be true? 

But soon his interest was piqued. His bewilderment soon turned to wonder. It seemed fantastical but it was also real. It was really happening!  Wow! He actually owned a magical quill. Thrilled at the prospect he scooted closer again. 

Picking up the quill he wrote, “Are you really magical?”

Of course I am. Did I not show you just now?”

Now Rohan’s boyish inquisitiveness took over. His fear vanished and intoxicated with excitement, he wrote, “Oh man! This is totally rad.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, yes… Who are you? Are you a Genie…… like in Aladdin?”

Gosh!…Ha ha …what a tease you are! No, no… that happens only in the Arabian Nights. I am just a regular old magical quill. My name is Quilly.”

“Rohan, come for dinner.” Suddenly Mom poked her head into the room.

Before Rohan could respond, with a gentle swoosh all the words on the parchment disappeared. Rohan looked from the parchment to his mother in apoplectic disbelief. What the…? Could it really be? But then…?

 “Ye..Yes Mom… five minutes.” He somehow mumbled at her retreating back.

Fearful that the magic was lost, he hurriedly picked up the quill and scribbled, “Hey! Are you there?”

“Of course I am.”

“Why did everything disappear?”

“Because laddie, I’m your secret magical friend. If you tell anyone about me, they’ll think you’ve lost your marble. You know gone cuckoo?” wrote Quilly.

“Jeeeeez. I did not think of that. This is awesome, my very own secret magic friend. Wow!” 

“Now lad, you best go get some dinner and rest. You’ve had a long day. We shall meet again tomorrow.”

“Awww! I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted. I’ll quickly gobble my dinner and be back in a jiffy,” scribbled Rohan before scampering out of the room.

But, that was easier said than done. The Mehta’s had taken the doctor’s advice to heart. So, post dinner the family went out for Ice-Cream. A tired Rohan slept in the car on the way back home. 

His father carried him home and tucked him in bed, hoping he would have sweet dreams.

***

The next day was a school day. Rohan left for school early but could not focus. His mind kept wandering to his magical Quill. He was bursting to share the secret. But, how could he? He had no friends in the new school.

Soon as he got home, at 5 pm, he rushed to his room and wrote-

“Hi Quilly.”

“Hello young lad. How was your day?”

“Oh you know, the usual…boring.” scribbled Rohan. “So, Quilly tell me…what all neat magic can you do?”

“Hmmmm…. I cannot perform random magic. I was always intended to befriend people and be their guide.”

“Seriously! Oh no.” slightly deflated by this admission Rohan continued, “So you mean you cannot do my homework for me?”

“Ha, ha…afraid not, young lad, afraid not.”

 ‘Awww….shucks.”

“ha..ha. So, tell me what are you doing indoors? Why aren’t you out playing with friends?”

“I don’t have any friends.” 

A disappointed look crept onto Rohan’s face. Although Quilly could not see it, he sensed the change by the quiver in the hand that held him. 

“Now, now young Laddie…, why do you say that?”

I don’t like it here Quilly. I don’t like the new school. I miss my old neighbourhood and friends,” wrote Rohan, his words indecipherable because his hand shook. He was overwhelmed with emotion.

“Come now, laddie. How will you make new friends if you hide yourself away at home?” counselled Quilly. “Tell you what, let us both go down. Remember, I’m magical? I can help you make friends?”

Dubiously Rohan read what Quilly had written. “Really? You can do that?” he asked finally.

“Sure laddie. Let’s go now.” Quilly urged.”All you got to do is walk up to the kidsand introduce yourself. Just go say Hi…that’s all.”

Still unsure but eager to please Quilly, Rohan changed into a pair of jeans. He tucked Quilly into the pocket of his jacket and called out, “Mom, can I please go down to play?”

“What? Where?” Roshni could not believe what she was hearing. Rohan wanted to go down to play? Or did she mishear him?

“Just downstairs Mom.”

‘Yes, yes…of course. I’ll come with you.”

“No, no…Mom it’s fine. I am almost a teenager. I can go alone. I’ll be back in an hour,” promised Rohan and escaped before mom could tag along. He did not want her hanging around. Quilly’s magic disappeared around adults. 

Once downstairs, with tentative steps, Rohan approached the play area. Hand in his pocket, his fingers curled around Quilly. A bit bolstered by the comfort the feather offered, he took a step forward and murmured, “Hi. I…i’m Rohan. I live in A-2109.”

A few kids stopped playing, looked up. Then a young boy sauntered up to him and said, “Hi…I’m Jai. Wanna play?”

“Errr…sure,” mumbled Rohan. He couldn’t believe how easy that had been. 

“Oh Man! Quilly really is magical,” he thought and joined the play.

An enjoyable hour later, Rohan bounced back home. Roshni happily observed his much improved spirits and mentally thanked Dr. Dassani for his expert advice. 

The evening passed pleasantly enough after that as did the next few days. The magic remained a secret between Rohan and Quilly. Rohan would come back from school and make a beeline for the parchment and quill. He poured his heart out and Quilly In turn, true to his words gave him courage and bolstered his spirits just as a best friend would. Bit by bit Rohan’s reticence ebbed away. He transformed into a happy, jovial young boy. His parents too heaved a relieved sigh.

***

Then one day…

Quilly sensed that something was wrong. Rohan was just back from school. He held Quilly but his hand shook. Or, was it his whole body? Quilly could not be sure for he could not see. He waited. Finally, after a while Rohan wrote –

“Hi Quilly.”

“Hello young Lad. What’s up? You seem perturbed?”

Rohan sniffled and wrote, “I just hate school.”

“C’mon now… what’s wrong?” wrote Quilly. The ink spread a little on the parchment.  Quilly realized that it was wet with Rohan’s tears. “Tell me lad.” He wrote swiftly.

“There is this boy in school. He is always surrounded by his gang of followers. He pushes me, boxes my ears and steals my lunch. I am scared Quilly,” wrote Rohan.

Being inanimate Quilly could not cry but on reading the words, his soul wept for his young friend. Rohan was being bullied. 

“Now, now…don’t be scared,” he wrote, “We’ll take care of this together. Just remember that bullies are cowards. They feed off of the fear of the victim.”

“I know but I’m scared of him. He is much taller and really bulky. All the boys in school are scared of him.”

“Tell you what young lad; you need to stand up to him. You need to look him in the eye and tell him that you are not scared of him. That’s the only thing that will help and trust me; he will leave you alone forever.”

“Nooooo….I’m too scared of him. I can’t do it.”

“Bah! Scared of that coward! Don’t make me laugh laddie. You know what, take me with you tomorrow. My magic will give you courage. Together we will deal with it.,” wrote Quilly. “How does that sound?”

“I…I..don’t know,” mumbled Rohan unconvinced. He was scared but then Quilly always gave him confidence. He had helped him make friends in the neighbourhood. He trusted Quilly. Finally after a while he wrote, “Okay, I’ll take you to school tomorrow.” 

“Great! Now quit moping and run along to play.”

***

The next day Rohan carefully stowed Quilly in the pocket of his trousers before leaving for school. Half the day passed peacefully without incident before he heard, “Hey if it isn’t the cry-baby.”

Rohan’s legs turned to jelly at the words. His lip quivered and fearfully he looked for an escape route. But, there was none. The bully and his gang were blocking the way. Caught, Rohan was about to succumb to fear when he remembered Quilly. He remembered what Quilly had written to him. Emboldened, he squared his shoulders, looked his bully in the eye and said in an even tone, “I am not scared of you. You may be a bully but only because you are a coward. Your so called gang of friends are too scared to tell you so. They follow you around like puppies because they are too afraid to stand up to you. But, I’m not scared anymore. If you trouble me again, I shall register a complaint and you will be kicked out of school.”

Though he was outwardly calm, Rohan was trembling inwardly. But apparently his words did the trick. The boys that surrounded the bully tittered at Rohan’s words. A few snickered. The snickers turned to grins and finally laughter broke out all around. Some boys came around and clapped Rohan on the back. A few even stuck out their hands and congratulated him. Suddenly the shy boy was popular. He was a hero. It felt good. 

The bully slunk away.

“Quilly’s done it again,” thought Rohan elated. “He has magically helped me again.”

The remaining school day passed pleasantly after that. 

***

That evening, once back home, Rohan happily took out Quilly and wrote-

“Thank you Quilly. Your magic worked. I’m popular and I made a lot of new friends today.”

“Aah! I’m glad young laddie, I’m glad,” wrote Quilly. “Can I share a secret? It wasn’t me at all. It was all you. I am magical all right but like I said the first day, I am just a guide to poor lost souls. And, I think my job here is done laddie.”

“What? What do you mean done?” scribbled Rohan furiously. What was Quilly saying? What did he mean done?

“I mean, it’s time for my magic to go now and inhabit some other quill. I have done my job here. You do not need me anymore lad. You are brave and your bravery will see you through life. But, there are many others who may still need me. I have to go help them. That is my purpose, after all,” wrote Quilly.  “Farewell young laddie.”

Rohan could not believe what he read. He picked up the quill and furiously wrote on the parchment. But, only his scribbling showed. Quilly was truly gone. 

Aggrieved, Rohan slumped against the bed and sobbed. Gradually, the realization of Quilly’s words dawned and he understood. He smiled as he realized how Quilly had helped transform a shy and introvert boy into a brave and happy one. 

***

Unbeknownst, Rohan’s parents only thanked Dr. Dassani for the miracle he worked on their child.

___________________________________________________________
GLOSSARY
Beta* – son
Bhai* – brother
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Sonal Singh

Sonal Singh is the Founder/Director of a manpower search firm called Rian Placements. She dabbles in travel and writing. She believes that life is a repertoire of anecdotes strung together in a colourful array, like a beaded necklace. The various situations that we encounter, the many incidents of every day, make life a melange of tales and conversational tidbits. And, this is what she attempts to capture through her writing.

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