Summer was vacation time with my two brothers.
Technically, they are my cousins as they are my mother’s sister’s sons. They are both older than me. I was their kid sister-cum- guinea pig- cum- punching bag. This seems to be the lot of kid sisters, specially that of the dumb variety.
I am an only child. All through the years as I grew up, kindly ladies and their equally kindly progeny would ask me pityingly if I did not hate not having brothers and sisters. Somehow I always found the question extremely daft. I mean, I had brothers didn’t I…? No matter how they teased me, these two brothers were my heroes.
To give weight to my guinea pig assessment, let me relate an incidence. I was all of four years old. We were spending that summer at Indore at our mutual maternal Grandma’s place. My younger cousin and I were sitting on the second floor stairs. He had a match box in his hand. I was fascinated with his daring at being able to sneak off with a match box.
The two of us sat there striking matches and watching them fizzle out. In a short while, he got bored. Very thoughtfully he declared, “The match tip is not hot once it has burned out.” Given the hero status, naturally I nodded my head dutifully. Once he had agreement on that, he put the next part of his plan in action.
“See”, he said. “I’ll touch the burned out match stick to your leg and you won’t feel ANYTHING.”
Again, obviously, I agreed.
Later, when I stopped screaming and he saw a beautiful blister pop up on my leg instantly, all he said was, “Oh? It is still hot..!?” He was very disappointed I think; more with me than the match. It was as if I had let him down in some manner. No doubt a result of my wickedness, his eyes silently declared to me accusingly.
The older one had a lot more finesse. One summer we were spending at the home of another aunt, at Renukoot. I was seven years old and he was twelve. The place was supplied generously with enormous chameleons. I am yet to see such a thick population elsewhere. One day, when my older hero saw me running away scared from the chameleons once again, he knew he needed to have a talk with me.
“Listen”, he said somberly, “I see you are scared of chameleons. Are you..?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Then I must warn you” he continued. “You must make sure of one thing. When you see a chameleon, you must make sure you keep your mouth shut. If the chameleon counts all your teeth, you will die INSTANTLY.”
It is only a few years back that I made the connection and realized I had my leg pulled royally. Yet even today, if I see a lizard or a mouse in the house, I cannot open my mouth to scream. What if they count my teeth?!!! Don’t tell me we are not irrational or that childhood conditioning loses its grip on us. EVER.
Then there is the summer when I was eleven years old. We were spending our vacation at their place at Bhiwani. It was here that I had my first (almost) encounter with the supernatural.
The colony they lived in was a huge compound. There was just one entrance gate to the compound where a guard sat. After seven pm, he needed to be told to let people in or out. My brothers had a cousin from their dad’s side visiting them that day. By the time dinner got over, it was late. The four of us walked the cousin to the gates to tell the guard to let him out.
When we turned to return home, my elder brother asked me to pay attention to a tree mid-way between the compound gates and home. It happened to be a peepal* tree. In a grave, mysterious tone he asked me, “Did you know, witches live in peepal trees..?
My hair stood on end and I felt the prickling goose-bumps on my arms and legs.
“What are you saying Bhaiya (older brother)…!!? Really…?”, I said looking horrified up at the branches.
“Yes of course”, he said in funeral tones. “You remember I told you that story about a witch?”
[Aside: Just three days ago, after lights out at night, this sixteen year old ‘big brother’ had told me a gruesome story about a witch attacking the children living in a hostel. A master story- teller (blood will tell, ahem!), his rendition was complete with creaking doors and the (muted) groans of the victims as they we devoured one by one by the evil witch whose feet and head pointed backward- though she walked forwards. Okay, so I wasn’t very logical when I was little! I doubt if you were either.]
“Yes Bhaiya, of course I remember. You told me witches have feet pointing backwards and they have long nails with which to tear people’s eyes out.”
“Yes, yes”, he said. “That’s the one. Where do you think they go and sleep when they have finished eating people…?”
“They sleep in Peepal Trees…?!!” Every nerve in me was thrilling with abject terror.
“Yes of course. Now be careful. When we pass under the tree, don’t make a noise or you’ll wake up the witch. And DEFINITELY don’t run. Or the witch will sweep down and catch you from behind.”
I need not tell you how terrified I became when he said that. I didn’t dare breathe even. The closer we approached the tree the slower I walked. I groped for bhaiya’s hand; I was so scared. He let me hold his hand. We reached just under the tree. In an instant, he let go of my hand and with a signal to the younger one, they both scooted off, leaving me rooted to the spot in horror.
I swear I was sure the witch is going to take it out on me for having disturbed her slumbers. The thought of running away never occurred to me. I stood there like a statue expecting the witch to make a meal of me any moment. I only wished I had eaten a few more pooris that evening at dinner. Too late, of course.
When they reached home, my aunt caught hold of them and demanded to know where I was. They had expected me to be close behind them but I had failed them again. They were then told to go and fetch me. I think they were both mightily peeved with me for having spoiled their fun.
I need not tell you how they got scolded for having told me such terrible stories and for scaring me out of the little wits I possessed. Even now, when the whole family gets together for weddings, these stories- and many many more- get told with fresh relish- and unforgivable exaggerations- each time.
These stories are the strands of gossamer that form the bond between us.
* Peepal: Sacred Fig. The tree that gives out oxygen even at night. You guessed it; it is for the witches to breathe. 🙁