Today again, the fish didn’t sell well. Neeraj snagged the rag from his pink cloth bag, covered his fish basket with deft movements of a ten-year-old, and counted the money. Then, before forgetting, wrote the numbers down in a small diary his mother kept for their meagre finances. He stashed everything into the bag along with his science notebook.
The dusk closed in rather hurriedly for his liking as he set out on his way back home. At an intersection, he stopped, unsure which road to take. On the one that strayed from the Vashishti river, going around the cricket ground, waited the bullies Bhanu and Pallav. His hand went subconsciously to the bump behind his skull. The bandage there went around his head, touching the fringes of his eyebrows. His heart thundered softly in his ears remembering the near-death thrashing he had received the day before. Since he didn’t fancy any more fights, he figured he ought to take the second road.
On the second road was just one house. It sat remote, along the banks of Vashishti, surrounded by dense woods. As the lore went, the old lady living in the house had sixteen cats and four ghosts. Nobody crossed the lady unless they wished to die.
But even as he thought about it, the gravid sky came bursting down. He lugged the fish basket over his head to shelter from the heavy drops, chanted the Lord’s name, and took the second road. His slippers left tiny marks on the slowly dampening earth as he ran to cover the two kilometers to his house. Light thinned in the woods, but he didn’t stop. The road curved, straightened, but the gushing Vashishti kept him company.
Since his ears were trained on the sound of the river water, he didn’t hear the cat at first. When the russet cat hurled on the path, he skidded back and fell. The basket flew from his hand, landing near the cat. Even as Neeraj got up to whisk the basket out of the cat’s way, a small voice ordered,
“Here, Mini, come back!”
The hair on Neeraj’s head nearly froze, seeing the old woman standing just inside the gate. The house that flanked her looked like it would pounce on anyone disturbing its mistress.
“I am sorry, M… Ma’am.”
“I… spooked y-your cat?” He didn’t quite know why he was apologizing, but it felt like the thing to do standing in front of a haunted house.
“We are sorry for scaring you… Where are you off to in this weather?”
“Where’s your umbrella, child?”
“Ah–I don’t have one, Ma’am.”
The woman walked out the gate with a green umbrella. Its dome, deep like a birdcage, would have hidden most of her small built if she hadn’t titled it far behind her. For an old woman, she had a strong hold on the heavy umbrella.
“Take this umbrella.”
“Ah–thank you, Ma’am, but I will be home in ten minutes.”
“You are Neeta’s kid, isn’t it? Do you want your mother to worry about you? Isn’t she already doing enough?”
How did the woman know anything about them? They had newly shifted to Chiplun.
“Look. Why don’t you give me the fish, and take this umbrella in exchange? You can return the umbrella tomorrow.”
Dear Lord! The fish must be for the cats. If she had sixteen cats, she had four ghosts too. Neeraj made a quick decision. He handed the woman all the fish keeping some for the night meal, took the gigantic umbrella, and said his thanks. And all the while, the russet cat stood there like an arbiter watching him.
The next day, Neeraj got up to a bright sunny morning alive and well. On the way to his school, he decided to return the old lady’s umbrella. At the rusty-old gate, he banged the iron latch handle. There were no cats today or signs of the old lady. Since he was getting late for school, he hooked the engraved handle on a middle rung of the gate and attached a small thank you note.
On the way back home that day, he took the lesser taken route again just to check if the umbrella was still at the gate.
It wasn’t. Neeraj, curious, leaned on it, checking the place. The gate, unlatched, under his force swung in with a grating noise. He stumbled in. The fear of being caught snooping had him all but steal away, but when he heard no noise from inside the poorly lit house, he tiptoed towards a window. His brown eyes narrowed. He could make out the green umbrella dangling on the back of a chair at a desk facing the window. It made him smile. But just for a moment because the russet cat lunged at the window taking ten years of his life. He jumped back and, this time, ran all the way home.
That night a storm broke. Water dripped through the rickety rafters of their house, but Neeraj was used to it. His small bed was perched in the far corner under a plastic cover specially hung for such nights. In his sleep, he laughed when a fat cat frightened Bhanu and Pallav. Mid-dream, his mother woke him up,
“Neeraj, get up!”
“Wha–what happened…let me sleep, Ma…” his voice dragged with sleep.
“Neeraj, sweetie, please wake up. We have to go.”
Neeraj sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Go? Where?”
“The house is flooding. Vashishti is overflowing. We have to move to a shelter.”
“But…but how can we leave the house?”
“We have to. Now, hurry. Take your bag…The truck’s waiting.”
Within minutes the water had seeped into the low-lying house. They waddled through the mud water. Even as they came out, Neeraj realized something.
“Ma…Ma, the old woman?”
“What old woman?”
“The one…the one who lives along Vashishti.”
“She would have been rescued by now, child. They sounded the bugle. She must have heard it.”
“But…but she is old…How will she get out?”
Before she could reply, Neeraj wrenched his arm free and ran towards the old woman’s house. Branches broke above him, the water slowed him, winds swayed him, and at places, he almost went under, but he didn’t stop.
Once at the gate of the old house, he called out, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” The rain lashed at his back as he peered through the window. Seeing no movement inside, he rushed up to the door. It was ajar.
He opened it and called out, “Ma’am?”
Water was waist-deep, but not for a minute he feared about entering the creepy house. He combed through two rooms but couldn’t find anyone. Then near the back door, he found a set of narrow stairs. Neeraj climbed the stairs, two at a time. On the landing, the old woman lay whimpering. She’d taken a nasty fall. The umbrella lay beside her. Neeraj pulled the woman’s head in his lap. Sprinkled water from the bottle he carried in his backpack. The woman came to slowly,
“What are you doing here?”
“We have to go, Ma’am…Your house is closest to the river.”
“Yes…I know. You should go… Leave me…”
“No…No…We can make it…Trucks are ferrying people near my house. Please…please… we can make it…”
“I won’t make it, child. Go!”
“No! My mother…she will get us some help.” He helped the woman upright. “She knows I am here…”
“But…but I can’t walk.”
“You can. We can… You must trust me.”
“Where is it?”
“I… I don’t know.”
Neeraj helped the woman up, gave her the umbrella for support. He scanned the room on this level. The cat sat over the almirah. He held his hands up to the cat. It eyed him for a whole minute before dropping down on his shoulder.
Neeraj darted out to the old woman who was halfway down the steps. He took her arm over his one shoulder. They grappled to the main level, where water was neck-deep. With the will of a lion, Neeraj walked towards the door. He didn’t let the fear seep in until they were out the gate, and he had to walk on his toes to stay afloat. Within minutes the water would swallow both of them.
And that is when he saw the army helicopter hovering near them. Two men took hold of the old woman, the cat Neeraj held up, and gently pulled them up into the copter. By the time the men reached for him, Neeraj’s feet had left the ground, and he was swimming in the water. It took them two attempts to pull him out against the current of the water, but finally, they hauled him up on the helicopter’s floor. A bolt of thunder streaked through the window of the old house, setting it on fire just as the copter flew away towards safety.
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