By Sunil Sharma
It was a daily ritual.
On the way to office, Grandpa would peep in to find the little Neha sitting quietly in the corner, her red-nosed, big-eyed clown near the books, on the bare stone floor. He would say nothing and leave. As soon as the cook, that fat old lady, went out to chat with the neighbours, Neha, now empress of a silent cottage near the small railway station in the middle of the desert, winked at the clown and said: “Come on, let us play, my little brother.”
The clown, waiting for the invitation from his human mistress, would nod, jump up and down, roll and make faces at the puny girl. Neha screamed with laughter, eyes lit up. His red nose twitching, white hair under a faded cap, the ill-matched bright-hued tunic upon a thin body, the clown danced, his painted enormous eyes full of laughter and kindness. Neha and the clown played together in the silent house. When the cook returned home, the clown shrank back and resumed his place either on the iron table or the pile of the books. Neha sat quietly, staring out of the barred window, at the huge expanse of the moving sand and across the stretch of desert, at the village many miles away from the railway station, shimmering in the hot sun. Bare brown hills, except an occasional babool tree here and there, loomed up high in the arid landscape of hot sun, shifting sands and a cold moon.
Desert days are long, empty and lonely. Nights are short cold and dismal. Mornings just happen quickly. Evenings come on early, sudden and in stealth. Whenever trains pass through, the cottages near the railroad station shudder, the windowpanes rattle. Few seconds later, the houses become quiet again. There is no activity except the thunder of the long-distance trains passing through or a passenger train stopping by…
When the house became empty on the summer days and winter nights, the clown often conversed with the10-year-old child. The clown was a gift to her by her parents and she treasured him. The clown played with her and cheered her up during those empty days and cold lonely nights, when a fierce wind howled in the desolate desert and the wolfs cry and clouds obscure the moon and somebody out there rattles the windows and doors fiercely…
“Why are you so sad?” The clown asked her often.
“Oh, nobody loves me.”
“Why? Your grandpa loves you so much! ”
“No. Seldom talks. Never smiles.”
“He thinks I brought ill luck to him.”
“Oh! My ma, pa and baby brother died in an accident. Then grandma died. I am not a lucky girl.”
“Oh, what nonsense! A child never brings bad luck. ”
Neha would not answer.
“Your parents are now in heaven. They look down upon you from their new home. Look at those glittering stars. ”
“Yes. Cook also tells me that. ”
“OK. Now, we play hide-n-seek. Come on.”
The duo would play.
Sometimes, Neha missed her dead parents and little brother and cried. That time, red-nosed clown told her interesting stories and made her sleep. The cook found the orphan asleep, clutching the painted clown in her hands, tears dried up on her oval face.
One hot afternoon, the cook heard sounds coming out of Neha’s room, she went and found Neha excited and talking to the air, jumping and running. The fat old cook took fright by the wildness in her manner and eyes. That night she reported the matter to the old, bitter, broken-down station master. The wheezing old man gasped.
“There is somebody there. Some person she talks to in the room. I hear voices. When I tip toe, the sounds stop. It is queer, spooky …”
“A who? A person? What rubbish! ”
“Yes. Voices loud and clear. Two persons talking. ”
“Have you ever seen a person coming and going? Any guy? ”
“No. Only the red-nosed clown and the girl.”
The old man laughed.
“That is a toy. A plaything. Not a person. Mere toy. Children often play with toys like this.”
“No. It is not a toy. It is a person.”
“OK. I will decide.”
A dark chilly cloudy night it was. The two adults spied upon the solitary child from outside the window, hugged by the shadows. They soon heard some voices. Grandpa saw Neha holding the hand of the clown and talking to the toy. He felt frightened. “The girl has gone nuts. I know what needs to be done,” he told the cook. He asked her to steal the clown and keep it in the iron chest. “That will cure her of the talking disease,” he said to the cook.
Next day, the clown went missing.
Unable to locate her playmate, the girl-child caved in. Her tiny world collapsed. A fragile flower, she wilted, running a high fever, muttering clown, clown, in her fevered dreams. Doctors from the village and far-off railway hospital could not cure her. Finally, unable to bear her agony, grandpa restored the toy to the ailing girl. Neha recovered rapidly.
“Thanks dear grandpa for finding the clown,” she said one morning, smiling.
Grandpa did not reply.
That night, a contrite grandpa tiptoed to her room. A full moon illuminated the desert. It was strangely peaceful. He heard Neha talking softly to someone. He peered in — nobody.
Feeling pity, the old man went in, switched on the light and said to the child, “How are you, my dear granddaughter?” And he hugged her gently.
A surprised Neha asked demurely, “Grandpa, you are not angry with me?”
“No, child. You are the only one left. My precious doll.”
Neha beamed. Then asked him, “Would you play with me now? I have no friends in the house.”
“Yes, dear. I will play with my dear Neha. Daily.”
“With my clown also? He is my only buddy.”
“Sure. Your friend, my friend.”
Neha jumped with joy. She told the old man, “Look. Here comes the clown. Do you see him?”
The old man looked as directed. And, first time in life, he saw the magical world of a child revealed — the toy becoming real person before startled adult eyes, in that small room, lit up by a wandering moon.
The three began playing together.
When the cook heard the loud sounds emanating from the last room, she went there to investigate and to her horror, found the grumpy old man smiling, talking to the air, gesticulating wildly like another kid and Neha going into peals of laughter by his funny acts.
Now even he has gone mad on the full-moon night! She thought and ran out from the house into a milky desert singing in the cold wind.
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 21 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu. For details, please visit this link.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!