That afternoon we had new and more explicit plans of stealing the grapes hanging invitingly low in the portico of the railway mansion. Sagging with their own weight, the luscious bunches were so eye-catching, anyone who passed by the low gate would inevitably ogle them. We were dying to get to the grapes before Naghma, the street tomboy who had an impressive history of outsmarting us in the field. But it wasn't easy. The gardener, Maali Manna, mindful of proximate poachers and determined to see the grapes through, was keeping a round-the-clock surveillance. Bobby said that he had come to know through a reliable source that Maali Manna was in reality a snake that had lived for a hundred years and had acquired the power to transform into anything. Playing Khoh in our backyard on a dark night last week, he had scared the wits out of me, saying that the cat skulking along the edge of the wall was none other than Maali Manna himself; that he was following us because he knew that we were planning to get the grapes.
Nothing could deter us though. We were all set for that afternoon. Bobby and I had had a heart-to-heart at school during lunch hour to firm the plan up. Comparing our recent accomplishments with that of Naghma’s gang’s, we had come to conclude that that the secret of their success was hidden in numbers: they were five and we were just three.
“But Seemi’s begging to join. We’ll be four if you allow her,” I had argued.
“Seemi? The grown-ups’ spy? I don’t trust her. And look at her age. She’s six or something,” Bobby had said, pushing his sleeves back to bare his brawny arms.
“She’s seven and one-and-a-half month!” I had said in his face, taking offence of Bobby disrespect of my cousin Seemi’s reliably mature age.
"And two hours and five minutes! Hahaha.” he had laughed cruelly.
Lately, I had developed distaste for Bobby's bragging. Up until now, he had us in awe, behaving as if any other strength was inconsequential in the face of the single advantage that he had: AGE. Afterall, he was TWELVE.
“You can bring her along today. We’ll test her,” he had finally given his consent.
I was so excited for Seemi that as soon as I reached home, I ran across the road to my grandfather’s house where my cousins lived, to tell her the news. She was ecstatic. Then, I warned her of her probationary status.
"If you do anything wrong today, you will never ever be a part of our group. Nevvver!!!"
"Why? I can climb a wall more quickly than any of you. Even Bobby," she boasted.
“That's not important," I said.
"Then what is?"
"You'll know," I said, just to intrigue her. "Now listen. After lunch today, when K takes us to the drawing room to sleep, we’ll have to do some acting. Be sure: Eyes to close but not to fall asleep in real; okay? And wait for K's Big Snore. Not the first snore but the Big Snore. The one that jerks her up...like this. It will come; that’s for sure. That will be our go-ahead sign. We’ll slip out and meet up B. He’ll be waiting for us in the Estate Car."
Not the least bit dazzled by my sign language, Seemi gave me an all-knowing smile, as if deciphering codes was nothing new for her. I was desperate to impress her. She was as desperate to prove she was un-impressible. During lunch, she kept passing meaningful looks to me and Chino, for which I forgave her, thinking that she was new so she didn’t know how important it was to act normal and straight-faced before an exploit. But my patience was short-lived.
Right after swallowing her last bite, she said to our aunt, Khalida Phuppo whom I had refered to as K, and who used to tend us during the afternoon, “Phuppo, I’m very sleepy and so are the others. Can you please take us to the drawing room to sleep."
I could have thrashed her for this. Who didn’t know that we hated being confined to the drawing room for the long summer afternoons? As feared, Khalida Phuppo became suspicious.
“You think I’m mad that I’ll believe that you want to sleep. Come on be quick and tell me what you all are up to,’ she said, eying all three of us doubtfully. I felt like wringing Seemi’s neck but all I could do was say with mock nonchallance, "We don't want to sleep. Take her if she wants to!"
Eventually, we were herded towards the drawing room, which, for no known reason, was converted into the children’s room during the afternoon hours. In a few minutes we were all lying on the white sheets spread out on the carpet.
"I'll tell you the story of the Lady-finger that could...” Khalida Phuppo said with a yawn.
“No. The King and His Seven wives,” I prompted.
Invariably, Khalida Phuppo would fall asleep telling us one of her farfetched stories. She had a cache of them in her head from which she picked one and began a somewhat mechanical narration as soon as everyone was down and the lights went off. She was one of those grownups who naively think that all children ought to enjoy unbelievable tales of fanciful fairylands. Also that these tales make chidren dreamy and hence dozy. Actually, it was the other way round. Telling a story made her sleepy. And this particular tale of the king who had seven childless wives was so repetitive and long-drawn; she would become yawny and heavy-eyed right after she started. On record, her limit was the point when the king’s seventh wife eats a half-eaten mango and gives birth to a half-bodied boy. That afternoon, she was snoring way before; when the king’s fourth wife was doing her part of the mischief.
"Phuppo, Masi Resham is stealing cream from the fridge," I whispered in her ear to see if she was gone, finding no patience in myself for waiting for the Big Snore. No reply came. She was down for the next two hours at least. I stood up and tapped Seemi and Chino with my toes. We sneaked out onto the veranda one by one.
Life generally slept the hot afternoons through. On the cool, black-n-white floor of the veranda, under the creaking ceiling fan, our old servant, Laal-deen, lay wheezing in his kip. And under the haar-singhaar vine which had spread elaborately on the brick-lined portico of the house, two outdoor dogs were fast asleep too. We stopped to estimate the danger they posed. One of them opened his eyes and rolled them at us. Luckily, he wasn't curious enough. He made a lazy circle in the air with his tail and closed his eyes again. We tiptoed past them.
Once on the drive, we bolted towards the main gate and burst out on the deserted road. Nothing stirred the familiar afternoon tranquility. The only sounds that could be heard was a train engine clanking in the distance and pained grunts of a sick horse someone had tied with the trunk of the old peepul tree. Bobby, as planned, was hiding in the rusted, dust-coated Hillman that we called 'The Estate Car' – again, for no known reason. Year after year, the Estate Car had stood beside the gate, slowly sinking in the earth, so completely devoid of its original glory. It now looked as if it was just a car-shaped contour in the soil. We ran and opened its only functional door. There, lying on his back on the floor of the back seat, his arms folded in a cross behind his head, was another sleeping figure. Our team head, Bobby.
We woke him and he gave us The Plan.
The Plan made me twitchy. Why had Seemi been given the central role? But I reserved my opinion. Soon, the four of us were heading towards the gate of the Railway mansion.
We peeped through the chinks between the rickety planks of the wooden gate. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. At that decisive moment, Seemi asked the most ridiculous question:
"Will they send us to jail if we’re caught?”
Instead of reprimanding her or slapping her as I wished he’d do at that moment, Bobby glared at me. I could see the line, ‘See; I told you!’ written clear and bold in his eyes. I placed a sharp little smack on Seemi’s head; but she was too thrilled to care. Bobby unlatched the gate and we stepped in one by one. Chino hurried to hide in the giant Niazbo bush next to the gate from where she could keep an eye on both the road and the garden and would whistle – her whistle was the loudest – if there was danger. Bobby, Seemi and I crept towards our destination, the portico, that now seemed like it was miles away. We had barely reached the bend in the drive which was a few feet away from the porch when we heard a shriek-like whistle. Instantly we lay flat on our stomachs and began slithering towards the veranda on our right where we could hide behind the huge cane furniture. Seemi mimicked our tummy crawling so awkwardly, we would have laughed had circumstances allowed. Hiding behind the huge cane chairs, we waited and waited but no one appeared. I was dying to know why Chino had whistled and what had become of her. After waiting for what seemed a lifetime, Bobby crawled out and whispered.
“Should we begin?”
I looked around. Apparently, all was well. Bobby kneeled down and let Seemi climb on to his shoulders. Mounted on Bobby’s shoulders, Seemi’s hands could easily reach the grapes. She plucked the first bunch and passed it to Bobby, hands trembling. Bobby dropped it in the rucksack hanging on his side and went to stand under the next bunch. Bunch after bunch passed from small hand to big hand to rucksack. I, the sole audience of this pair proficiency, proudly watched our new accomplice and the team leader performing a miracle .
I could have burst with excitement. We had done it! The rucksack was slumping with the weight of the grapes. I had come to the point of ultimate satisfaction. Just when I opened my mouth to signal the end of the feat, a shrill shriek pierced through the silence.
It was Seemi. A big yellow bee hovering around the bunch she had just laid her hand on had probably stung her. Terrorized beyond senses, Bobby flung her down and took off. Seemi landed with a thud and her wails became even louder. Bobby’s calls “Run! Run!” diffused as he disappeared beyond the gate. The bee was still hovering and my eyes were glued to its.
Bobby words were echoing in my ears: "Maali Manna is a hundred-year-old snake; he can become anything he wants to.”
Was it true? Was this bee Maali Manna?.
Frightful images flashed in my head. I saw Seemi alone, locked up in Maali Manna's cottage, a giant dog keeping guard. I saw us both, handcuffed. I saw us both, dead, eaten by a tiger who had a giant black mustache like Maali Manna.
Seemi was crying bitterly. I was transfixed, with no idea of time; just a faint notion that a beautiful dream had turned into a nightmare.
Then I heard that sound that woke me up to the world around me. Footsteps. My legs thawed and I leapt towards Seemi. Grabbing her arm, I took off. Someone shouted behind our backs:
"Wait; don’t run."
I looked back. Manna Baba, a giant of six and a half feet, was taking sure, long strides towards us, his long gnarled arms waving in a way that looked as if he was swimming in the air. Strangely, I wasn’t intimidated. A rush of adrenaline in my bloodstream had drowned the fears.
"Run Seemi! Run fast!" I yelled.
Our heads held up in the air, we flew towards the gate. Reaching there, I breaked to a stop and looked back. He was gone. Vanished. I pushed the gate and we burst out.
On the road, I put a hand on Seemi’s shoulder and escorted her back. There was no sign of Bobby or Chino. Seemi had forgotten her pain and begun pestering me with her silly questions:
"Where’s Bobby? He has the grapes."
I kept walking in silence, piecing broken parts of the incident together.
Tied to the old peepul, the sick horse was aimlessly sniffing at something. I looked away but something prompted me to redirect my gaze to that thing lying in the horse's feet. The object had a strange shape. Like a stack of mudcovered marbles.
I couldn't believe my eyes. Sodden in road grit, strewn here and there on the road side like unwanted trash, was The Fruit of our Labor. The precious grapes. Our grapes. Our precious grapes. I looked at Seemi. She had found a coin lying in the dust and was shining it against the side of her frock. I decided not to update her on the plight of our loot.
We walked past dogs, servants and a Laal Deen, into the drawing room.Chino was there, lying asleep – or pretending to be so – on the white sheet, face hidden under a pillow. I looked carefully. One of her toes twitched. I lay down next to her and tugged at her frock. She turned her face towards me.
“Why?” I asked.
“I heard a snake hissing. I didn’t want to die so I whistled and came back.”
This was the third time she had made the same excuse for shying away from the climax scene.
“Don’t lie, you coward!” ‘I whispered and turned towards Seemi and asked her to show me her bitten finger. Something had to be done before the swelling got too obvious. But her answer shocked me more than Chino’s excuse.
"It didn’t sting me; but it was going to." Suddenly, I wanted to leave this group of cowards and join Naghma, my rival, my worst enemy. I could not control myself anymore. A volley of kicks, pinches and punches broke loose. Seemi, ever the small fry in such fights, was getting battered the most. So she started what she knew best.
"I’ll tell Khalida Puppo what you made me do today,” she said, her voice a little higher than the allowed level. Even while fighting, we had to follow the code.
“Lower your voice!” I hissed.
“I’ll tell her you’re all thieves,” she snapped, tears welling up in her black eyes.
The fight stopped. It had to. In my heart, I admitted that Mr. I’m-always-right was always right. Seemi should never have been recruited. I could have run and escaped along with him if she hadn’t been there.
The commotion had roused Khalida Pupho. She reprimanded us for not letting her sleep, in her sweet ineffective manner. We all said our Sorry Phuppos and she turned her back at us and began snoring again.
In the evening, Akbar, Lal Deen’s son, used to sprinkle water in the back yard. Chairs were set in a circle for the family to sit and chat the evening away. Some evenings were slow and dreary. Some, when we played our twilight games, fun-filled. But the best ones were when ice-cream machines were brought out and everyone joined in the making of the fruity delight.
That evening, Chino and I were trying our best to keep Seemi away from the evening assembly in the backyard, trying desperately to erase the afternoon’s incident from her memory by telling her hundreds of anecdotes from our school life which she, being a preschooler, loved listening to. At round seven, Lal Deen came looking for us as we sat on the stairs, Chino and I on the sides and our little hostage safely nestled between us.
“They’re making mango ice-cream. Want to help?” he asked, at a loss by the way Seemi sat quashed between us two.
“Seemi, is everything okay?” he asked.
Seemi tried to free herself but both her hands were clasped in our fists. Laal Deen lingered behind the veranda pillars trying to infer our strange behaviour.
We knew it was time to face the consequences.
Together, the three of us walked towards the backyard. My heart missed a beat when I saw Dada Jan, my grandfather, sitting majestically on his armchair, handsomely clad in a black Sherwani and red Romi cap. Since he was mostly surrounded by his friends and visitors in the evenings, the family got the pleasure of his company on rare occasions. Hence, there was hint of festivity in air of the backyard. Mangoes were being skinned, a pan of custard being heated and, on a piece of gunny-cloth, a bid slab of ice lay quietly melting.
Khalida Pupho had a basket of haar-singhaar flowers in her lap. On a darri spread on the floor, our other cousins, including our demure older sister Billi, were stringing flower necklaces and bracelets stamen-stem-stamen-stem. The fragrance of the pretty pink flowers combined with that of freshly sprinkled brick-flooring, was sitting on the courtyard. Occasionally, a whiff of moong lentil boiling in the kitchen came riding the soft breeze, stirring everyone’s appetite.
We sat on the rug with our backs towards the circle of chairs. From the corners of my eyes, I looked at Dada-jan. He was narrating an exciting anecdote to entertain the women. Everyone else was listening and smiling. And then I saw it: a plate full of raw grapes lying on a table at the center of the courtyard. I thought I was imagining. That my mind was playing a game. On the road, in the horse's feet, on this table; I was seeing grapes everywhere. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. And I looked again. They were still there. Our Grapes. Slick and glossy after the rinse they had just been given.
I could not be mistaken that these were from next doors. I had been eying them every single day for the past four weeks. I had seen their color slowly lightening; from a deep bottle green to a gorgeous, gleaming apple green. I had watched their size grow a millionth of an inch every day; from a wheat grain to a bagatelle steel ball to a marble.
Suddenly, there were welcoming yells and everyone stood up. Chino and I, not moving an inch from the rug on the floor, were buried under a storm of moving hips. The warm welcome was for Bobby and his mother, my grandfather’s niece. While everyone else was chanting greetings, Chino and I, stared at each other with color-drained faces – sure now that Bobby and had been called to complete the band of criminals and our case was ready for investigation.
Khalida Phuppo and others were still enjoying the frolic. I sat, numb in the limbs, waiting for the catastrophe. Time passed slowly. The handle of the ice-cream machine went round and round. My thoughts ran in circles too.
‘What’s going on? If a trial has been planned, why is lemonade being served? If a prosecution is coming up, why is everyone wounding the handle of the ice-cream machine so cheerfully? If this cheerfulness is genuine, what are the grapes doing on that table? Why is Bobby here?’
Bobby hadn’t once glanced at any of us. He sat next to my grandfather, answering his questions about his school life in his most genteel manner. Tired of waiting, I had joined the rest of my cousins in making haar-singhaar jewelry. Suddenly, Dada Jaan’s gaze fell on the center table. He got up, separated a grape from the bunch and put it in his mouth. For some time he munched it thoughtfully.
“these grapes are raw. who got them?” he asked no one in particular.
“No one. They're from Baig Sahib's garden. their gardener got them. said the little ones would like them,” Ammi said, pointing at us.
“Don’t let the children eat these; they are too sour. Sour grapes are the worst thing for a child’s throat.”
Ammi nodded. I smiled for the first time that evening. Chino smiled too. She got up and presented Phuppo the longest haar-singhar necklace . Overcome with joy, I stuck two little flowers in my ears and laughed. Bobby sprang up from his seat and joined us on the floor.
“Manna Baba likes us. He’s not a snake,” I whispered in Bobby’s ear as Seemi clambered up behind me to listen.
“He very well is. Sending grapes was just an excuse of witnessing our family sitting. He’s listening to every word we’re saying. Look, he’s right over there!” he said.
Seemi and I looked where his finger was gesturing and saw a green worm crawling in the plate of grapes.
“Seemi look! He’s staring at you. He knows it was you who destroyed his precious fruit,” Bobby said. And we all had to laugh loudly to muffle Seemi’s frightened shriek.