“If a flask could crack over a blazing flame, so could we, Chichi.” Veena reasoned. Of course, talking to a stuffed toy was no reasoning of any kind, but it meant she needed a break. Veena stared at the screen, at the other kids in her class who looked just as frustrated. In her low, husky voice, their Miss explained fractions.
Veena muted the microphone and whispered to Chichi, “Let’s run away.”
Chichi’s thick voice sounded in Veena’s mind, “What about Aai and Baba?”
“We could write a note for them.” Saying, nine-year-old Veena pulled a word document on the screen the way her Miss had taught them. With smart insight and sure movements, she began typing, the phonetics clear in her mind.
Dear Aai Baba,
Subject: Notification for the need for
a the break from the screen time. Please excuse my absence.
“Chichi, do we put the subject before or after the salutation?”
“Somewhere before the letter begins, I think.”
“Okay, then” Veena’s molars dented her lower lip as the girl concentrated.
I, Veena Ninad Katkar, am writing a letter to notify
Aai Vandana Katkar, Baba Ninad Katkar, that I will be going away with Chichi for a few days. We are suffered with too much screen time and homework. The eyes are watered, and hands aches.
“I think there is something wrong with these sentences, Vi…”
“Well, then, it helps our cause.” She frowned. “They didn’t teach us tenses yet, did they?”
“They sure did,” Chichi’s disapproving tone mellowed down, “But your head hurt badly that day. I remember.”
Veena nodded. Continued with the letter.
I would be taking the blue bottle of water,
a two small juice box – “Chichi, do you want chips?”
“We love them”
a bag of chips, a
small big Cadbury bar – “A big one will last for a week, sure,” Chichi agreed.
two cupcakes. We will leave the other two in the pink box for you, Aai Baba. Chichi and I promise not to eat it before any meal.
We will be back in – “A week, Chichi?” The rabbit nodded.
a week. Please excuse our absence.
Love to Aai Baba – “That’s implied, Vi,” Chichi said with astute confidence.
to Aai Baba
Veena Ninad Katkar & Chichi
“Now what, Chichi?”
Veena, with her tongue between her teeth, went about the printing hoopla. She inserted a blank paper in the printer tab and carefully gave the print command. The paper came out a little skewed, but the message was clear. She folded it neatly before sealing it inside a sharp white envelope. On it, she initialled her and Chichi’s name.
With nimble toes eating the floor, she crossed to the living room. Both Aai and Baba were on calls and had their eyes glued to the screen. Veena conspiratorially looked at Chichi while nudging the kitchen door open. The blue bottle sat on the marble counter. She picked it in her small hands, toppling a little under its weight, before making her way back to her room. There she stuffed it in a backpack. One by one, she brought all she needed from various corners of the house, packing everything meticulously. Then she stood still in the centre of her room, thinking how to break the piggybank without making any noise. Her fingers played with the small ponytail as she schemed.
When she was sure what she wanted to do, Veena closed the door of her room. She pulled up the beginning credits of her favorite show on the computer. In the bathroom, she pressed the flush knob and sat Chichi on it to work the water for a few minutes longer. In the noise around her, she threw the ceramic pig on the bathroom floor. It broke with a thwack, scattering shards, coins, and notes on the tile. Veena waited for a beat in case her parents heard anything. She hoped the noise-cancelling headphones did their job.
When no parent bellowed, Veena collected all the money, securely stashed it in the unicorn clutch, and picked Chichi by his ears from the bed where the rabbit sat watching everything.
“Now, what do we do, Chichi?”
“Hmm. We could use the window.”
Veena looked at the window of their second-floor apartment. “We aren’t physical creatures, Chichi. The jump’s too high for us.”
“We could Rapunzel down using a bedsheet…”
“Chichi, you have got to stop watching fairy tales. Things don’t work like that in real life.”
“So says someone who constantly makes a conversation with a stuffed toy.”
Veena puffed her cheeks. “Are you going to help?”
“Fine. Fine.” The rabbit scratched his head. “You could make an excuse of going to Shalini’s?”
“We aren’t supposed to go to anybody’s home, remember?”
“Then there is only one thing you can do” Chichi folded his arms at the hairy chest. “Use the five minutes window just before the lunch hour. Baba goes for…you know…” he cleared his throat. “Baba uses the washroom to read the newspaper while Aai is in the kitchen hollering for everyone to assemble.”
“Not bad, Chichi. It’s as if you have been planning hard for this”
Chichi looked down at his nails. “You were marching towards this day.”
Veena rolled her eyes. Sitting on the bed, legs crossed, she waited.
At two minutes before lunch, she picked her bag and peeped out.
The living room was empty. She tiptoed to the door, opened it a crack, and rushed out without stopping. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it until she came out of the society gate.
“Chichi, we don’t have a mobile,” Veena huffed.
“Whatever do you need it for?”
“How can we call a cab?”
“Where were you planning to go? Cabs are expensive. We got nothing more than 500 and change.”
“We could go to Madhavi Mavshi’s place.”
“And she will drop you back home.”
“You think she’d know what to do? She is younger to you by three months!”
But even as Veena produced names and Chichi smashed them skilfully, a black-yellow taxi stopped in front of them. Not one to cower easily, Veena stared at the old man in the driver’s seat.
“Vi, maybe we should cross the road,” Chichi murmured.
“Okay. But you gotta help me.”
“Check left, then right–“
“Really, Chichi. I am nine! Give me some credit.”
“Fine. Step off the curb.” Then Chichi screeched so loud, it startled them both. “Stop! Don’t go peeling off. It’s a busy road.”
But just as Veena began crossing the road, the driver of the taxi blocked her way.
“Kid, you don’t want to do that.”
“Why? Who are you?”
“Manners, Vi,” Chichi murmured.
“You wanted a break, didn’t you?” The man’s left eyebrow went up.
“Y-yes. How do you know?”
“I know everything. Get in the cab.”
“I am not going anywhere with a stranger.”
The man looked at Chichi. “Maybe you could tell her?” Chichi stayed mum. “You should have known better, Chichi. This is a dangerous expedition. What if she gets lost?”
Chichi sighed. “Fine. Vi, you should listen to Madhav.”
“You know him?”
“Yes, I know him.”
“Who is he? And why don’t you ever talk about him?”
The man interrupted Chichi’s reply, “Because the rabbit’s an idiot. I made him. That ought to get me some respect, you’d think.”
“You made him?” Veena asked lamely.
Madhav looked at her. “Stop repeating everything! Get in the cab. I mean no harm.”
“Where are we going?”
“Some place.” When Veena stalled, he added, “If you don’t get in, I will take you back home.”
Veena reluctantly climbed into the back seat of the cab, placing Chichi beside her. She whispered to her friend, “How does he hear you?”
“He has powers.”
“You mean like magic?”
“Does it mean you can speak?”
“Why don’t Aai, Baba ever hear you?”
“Because Madhav made me for you. Only the two of you can hear me.”
Veena saw the wonder in that. Her orbs dilated to the size of the globe in her room. “Do you know where we are going?”
Chichi scoffed, “Of course I know. He is taking you to his workshop.”
Madhav turned in his seat as the cab lurched forward, “You ask too many questions, Veena.”
“You-you know my name?”
“Hattt! That screen of yours has fried your brains.”
The man hummed as he looked everywhere but at the road ahead.
“Should-shouldn’t you be looking at the road?”
“No.” No further explanation was provided.
Veena looked out the car window at the blurring buildings. The speed, empty stomach, and fear had her breakfast lurching to her throat.
“Open the pocket of the seat in front of you” The man pointed a thumb towards it. Veena obeyed but stared at the man’s face. He rolled his eyes. “Put your hand in!”
Her fingers reached inside and curled around an apple. Veena frowned, for there was no bump on the flat surface of the pocket. But her tongue ignored it, for the stomach was threatening to spoil its taste. So Veena took a big bite out of the green apple. For a long minute, she ate in silence. When she realized Chichi was staring at her, she asked, “You hungry?”
“Not for an apple.”
“Why aren’t you ever hungry? Rabbits eat carrots, don’t they?”
“Not this one. Chichi has a liking for… ice cream.” Madhav supplied.
“Who do you think eats all the ice cream at home?” Chichi asked.
The man chuckled. “You should keep the box under a couple of apples, he’d never touch it.”
Veena finished her meal listening with fascination. Within no time, she dozed off. When she woke up, she was in a bed similar to the one at home. Her groggy eyes searched for Chichi. Finding him nowhere, she lunged up.
The rabbit came dancing in, “Do you want to play?”
“Where are we?”
“Madhav’s place” Several loud voices behind him spooked them both.
“The other kids.”
“You think you are the only one who wanted to leave the house, eh?”
Veena ambled out of the house to a meadow surrounded by thick woods. Bulbous buttercups caught her attention. “What’s this place, Chichi?”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Mmmm,” Veena, barefoot over the grass, turned in a circle. She stopped facing the cottage. An outbuilding bigger than the cottage flanked it on one side. The noises came from inside it. Veena walked towards it. On first look, she could only see the horses, the cows, and the hens. A kid barely older than her came out of one of the stalls, screaming, “I am coming!” She smiled at Veena. “Oh! you are the new one.”
Veena shrugged at a loss of words.
“Come on in. We are playing hide and seek.”
“Uh-I know that game.”
“I will count for another ten. Go hide”
“But this is such a big place. You’d need all day to find everyone.” Then she realized something. “How many of us are here?”
“Ten.” The girl wound her arm around Veena’s, “I am Rabiya. You are?”
“Let’s look for the others.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Two Days! Don’t you want to go back home?”
“I will. Tomorrow”
“Why are we all here?”
But the girl had disappeared into another stall. Veena mumbled under her breath, “Chichi! I don’t want to be here for two days! Aai, Baba, would be worried.”
“Couldn’t you think of that before leaving the house? What do you think was going to happen? Did you think you’d be frolicking through the city, eating whatever you fancied? Be grateful that Madhav got you before anybody else did!”
Veena hiccupped on unshed tears, “But…but, I don’t know anyone here.”
“None of them know each other. Enjoy while you are here,” Chichi muttered just as Rabiya came out.
“I thought I heard someone. But it was just the horse. Let’s go to the second level.”
“Okay.” Veena conversationally asked her, “Where are you from?”
“We don’t ask that here, Veena. You are only supposed to play, eat and sleep.”
“No T.V.,” Rabiya scrambled ahead. “Sukhwinder! Got you!”
A head poked out of the hay in an empty stall. “You always catch me!”
“You shouldn’t squirm when you hear footsteps, then.” The girl helped him up, “Meet Veena. I was showing her the shed.”
The boy smiled, “Hey! Want some ice cones?”
Chichi’s voice rang in Veena’s ears. “I want, I want!”
The boy looked at Chichi. Could he hear him, Veena wondered. “That’s a cool rabbit. I have a turtle. Rabiya has a caterpillar.”
“Does everyone have a stuffed toy here?”
“Methinks that’s how we are connected.”
Veena ate ice cones, played hide and seek, and by evening she was tired.
“Chichi, I want to go home.”
“Do you, now? Alright, let’s talk to Madhav.”
Veena went in search of the only elder she knew in this place. She wondered how did he singlehandedly deal with so many children at any given time. He must indeed be a magician. In a large kitchen area, she spotted Madhav peeling potatoes.
“I-I would like to go home.”
“Well, I am sorry to hear that.” Madhav brushed his hands on a rag and turned to her. “Pick your rabbit by the ears.”
“You heard me. Go ahead, do it.”
Veena looked down at the beaming face of her friend. She placed him on the floor, whispered, “I am sorry about this, Chichi” and picked him by his ears. The world moved under her feet in a wide circle, and she found herself sitting on the bed in her room.
Like a polar bear coming out of hibernation, she looked around her. “Chichi, we are back! How? How did we–”
Before she could say anything else, her mother came in, “Veena, are you done with today’s classes, sweetie?”
“Ah! Yes, Aai”
Her mother frowned at her flummoxed expression, “What is it, Veena? What’s wrong?” Then she crouched down, staring at Veena’s knees. “How did you get these scrapes?”
Veena looked down, remembering falling down in the barn. “I-I”
“Tripped over me?” Chichi prompted in her ears.
“I tripped over Chichi. I wasn’t looking where I was walking”
“Next time, be careful. Come on, it’s lunchtime. I made Vegetable Pulao today and your favorite Bhindi ki Sabzi.”
Veena stared after her mother. Slowly, a smile played on her face with the knowledge that she and Chichi had a secret. She still had several questions yet, but for now, this was enough.
Aai: Mother (Mom)
Baba: Father (Dad)
Mavshi: Aunty (Mother’s sister)
Pulao: Pot rice dish made with spices and herbs.
Bhindi: Okra/ladies’ fingers
Sabzi: Cooked vegetables
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