Short Story: Hide & Seek by NIshi Pulugurtha
It was a quiet locality, the one we lived in. Rows of houses looking exactly like one another were lined up in four parallel lines with roads running in between and beyond. At the corner of the last row was a small park. It was built by the government years ago and then sold to people on the basis of a lottery. Quite a bargain in those days, my father always said. The market was not far off, there was a bus stand nearby too. It was just a short walk to board the school bus. School was a bit far for us, but I never complained. I enjoyed the bus ride. We had great fun. In the evenings, after school, we played in the park. We also played hide and seek out in the streets, hiding here and there, all over the locality – in someone’s backyard, behind a door. It used to get difficult as there were so many houses and roads, so we started to demarcate a specific zone that would be the place where we could run off and hide. During holidays, we played during the day too, but indoors. Carrom board was our favourite. We also played hide and seek at home but soon ran out of places to hide. During one such vacation, Dida taught us a number of card games too.
We were a mixed bunch of youngsters. Most of us studied in different schools, but we bonded well. We were more or less in the same age group. Yes, we did have our disagreements and quarrels. Sometimes our play stopped because of all this, but then we soon made up. The incidence of our quarrels increased during the vacations. Most evenings we could be heard running about. The rains disturbed our outdoor sports but we continued indoors. Tuitions soon kept us busy most evenings. Some of us had dance and singing lessons to take too. Drawing and karate lessons too. As all these kept us busy, our play slowly reduced. We played only during vacations and that too not regularly.
One of our playmates was Biba. She did not play regularly with us. If she was in a good mood she joined us at times. And on days she did, we had to play games she would decide upon, rules she would decide on. Ma used to say that we needed to play as a group – that was important. So, I listened to her at all times, though I did not like Biba and her rules. I was not the only one, Chini, Rishika, Monika, Baby, Sanjukta, Monideepa, not one of them liked her and the way she decided on things. But we knew she would not come down to play everyday, so we just played along. It was our play that made us happy and we looked forward to it. Robi, Mohan, Bittu and Kaju too played with us for some time. However, they soon moved over to the big ground across the bus stand. They were more interested in playing football. They hung out with us too at times. During Durga Puja, all of us put up a nice programme of songs, poems, even a skit. Robi’s father helped us with the skit. We had great fun during the rehearsals. Biba kept out of this. She would recite a poem every year and that was just about it.
The house owners were free, after the initial few years, to make changes to the houses. So, the houses now began to look different. Monideepa’s house had a swing on their terrace. Someone else’s had a new room on the first floor. Biba’s house was now a two storeyed one with a huge concrete tank right on the top. The tank could be seen from almost everywhere and had to be accessed by iron steps that looked precarious to climb up. Bubai’s house remained the way it was, ours had a new coat of colour and a new rooftop garden too. Inspite of the changes, the locality still remained much the same.
I remember it was a Sunday morning. My brother had just got home from drawing class, I was doing my homework, when the phone rang. Baba answered it. After a while, we noticed him talking to Ma. It was a call from Jhontu kaku. Jhontu kaku lived right next door to Biba’s. He had two Alsatian dogs, Toffee and Coffee, which he took out for an evening walk every day. Some of us petted the dogs, many of us were scared of them. Baba opened the door and went out. I understood that something was wrong somewhere. Ma would scold me if I asked her, so I kept quiet.
Baba returned after a very long time. Biba was nowhere to be seen. They had looked for her all over the house, in the backyard, in our locality, in the lanes and bylanes beyond too. Baba joined her family members and others in looking for her too. They searched at the market, the bus stand, all possible nearby locations. It was at about 12 noon that her mother called out to her, she had skipped breakfast. Biba was scolded in the morning for misbehaving with her mother. She then went into her room. She often did that and her parents let her be. But, this time it was different. When they went upstairs into her room, she was not there. They started calling out loud. That was when Jhontu Kaku found out about it. He then alerted all the others.
It was 5pm and no one had any news of the 14 year old. Some advised that a report should be registered at the local police station. Biba’s mother was in tears. Her father was completely distraught. A police report was made that evening. The police had loads of questions to ask. Why was the girl scolded? Was there any kind of abuse? What clothes was she wearing? Did she have a boyfriend? Was she on drugs? They had to make their enquiries, they said.
That evening, we did not play. We sat in the park for sometime. Coffee and Toffee were out for their walk and it seemed that they were low that day too. We walked down to Biba’s house, there were many people there. Baba saw us looking in. “All of you go home,” he came out and told us. We ran off. Someone said the police would be here soon, they will be making enquiries and scanning the house, part of their protocol.
The police van stopped at the gate at about a quarter past eight. Biba’s paternal uncles and aunts who lived in the neighbourhood were there too. Baba and many others from the locality were there. Ma had come to be with Biba’s mother and I came along with her. My brother was at home watching cartoons with Dida. We could hear the sobs of Biba’s mother as we walked into their house. All of a sudden, someone asked “Where have you been till now?” Everyone looked in the direction and there was Biba standing near the dining table. She smiled and said “I was in the house.” Everyone present there was completely taken aback. Her parents rushed to her. They were delighted, jubilant to find her safe and sound. By then the police had entered their house. Biba looked up and smiled at them. “Where were you till now? Everyone was looking for you. They have been so upset and worried.” She looked at them and slowly answered. “I was sitting behind the water tank on our rooftop.” Her father looked at her – “But there is not enough space there.” “I managed to sit down there,” she said. “Your parents were all worried for you. Didn’t you notice? Everyone was looking for you. Why didn’t you come down?’ She looked at the policeman asking her these questions, then at all in the room. “I saw everything,” she said. “I wanted to teach them a lesson. I came down when I saw the police van drive in,” she continued. “Moreover, I am hungry.”
Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic and writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, Prosopisia, The Punch Magazine (forthcoming), Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Bombay Review, The Pangolin Review, MAD Asia Pacific, Prachya Review, The World Literature Blog, Tranquil Muse and Setu. She is the author of a monograph on Derozio (2010), guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus and has a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.