Hallimu was a name that sat easy on everybody’s tongue. It had a quality that made it sound just right, no matter who called him out. When our grandmother called him out to drop the bundle of dried firewood by the kitchen door, it sounded like a name that belonged to a man at least a generation younger, and one who had done little other than obey commands and carry out orders. When our fathers called called him out by his name, it sounded like a man who was considered as an equal by men in their prime, and he would take on more than his share of the task he was called out for. Mostly it was to load the tractor with sacks of fertilizers, or unload sacks of grain, or haul the long-end of the plough to where the iron-hook welded at the back of the tractor awaited it, and to hammer in the iron-rod that would hold it there. And when any of us called him out, with the end of his name rolling off our tongues, it would sound like a title that children reserved for a grown-up man, but not one who they are afraid of. Instead, one they can count on when they wanted things taken down from a shelf that was deliberately set high enough so that it would stay out of their reach. But when Falijha called out his name, it sounded like nothing else. From the mouth of a 6-year old who had never called her father but always Hallimu, having picked up his name from every corner of the village as he walked through it carrying her on his shoulders, the name still sounded like a daughter calling out her father. And though her was voice was soft, and mostly spoken from a distance as she came running to look for him, he still heard it over every other voice that called him out. And we were a little jealous of that girl, who could steal him from us anytime she wanted. We could be tugging at his sleeve to hand us the string of the kite that was now flying higher than any other kite, or we could be dangling from his strong arms as he swung us around, locking his fingers over his head for support. Even when we were all roaring with laughter as he put on the tattered rug on his body and put a large clay pot over his head to look like a scarecrow that had come to life, Falijha’s little voice would someone break through all that and make him stop whatever it was that he was doing for us, or our fathers, or our grandmother, and rush to pick up that little form running on two small feet.
We weren’t just jealous of her, we were also a little upset with our fathers and our grandmother for not calling him back even when he rushed away leaving his job undone. If he could be somehow told that what he was doing had to be completed, then perhaps we could ask him to stay back too? But the elders seemed fine with this arrangement. They even seemed to encourage it, occasionally pointing out the little girl as she came from afar, even before she cried out ‘Hallimu!’.
But what hurt us most was the way grandmother would seek her out when it was time for our stories. It was after dinner, when the rest of the family was busy elsewhere, that our world would shrink to a small room where grandmother gathered us around her on her cot and told us stories. That was when we would take turns sitting closest to her, huddled in her razai during the winters and in the sweep of her hand-held fan in the summers. But we had to fight for that place, or await our turn. During the way, we would exchange favours to take up that position from someone else. I remember parting with my favourite marble to be able to sit next to grandmother on the day she had promised to tell us story of the warrior who had shaped and pruned a tree in a way that all its branches were shaped like spears and catapults and battering rams and any of these could be chopped down at a moment’s notice to be used in a fight. That story was my favourite, and most of my art classes at school were used to draw and redraw this tree. I would fashion the branches like the weapons grandmother spoke of, and make a few of my own. The art teacher was never impressed, but during the telling of the tale I would add these to the grandmother’s arsenal and she would pat me on the back and ruffle my hair and tell everyone that I may have been that warrior un a previous birth. But while we fought for that place next to her, it was Falijha who always got to sit on her lap. Every night, just before dinner, Hallimu would come to our place for a discussion with the fathers, and he would bring Falijha along so his wife could cook their dinner peace. They would stand or sit in the charpouy set out in the courtyard, and talk about the seeds, or harvesting, or buying addiotional tools and about the weather holding up. And we would all run around them, playing at trying to catch each other. And whenever we came close to them, we would catch a word or a phrase that wouldn’t mean much then, but would forever stay with us. And that was the one time we would allow Falijha to join in the game. Though she was at least a year younger than the youngest among us, she could run faster than most of us. Or if not faster, the she was certainly good at dodging between the men, mostly because they allowed her to. If anyone of us tried to do that, we would be scolded. But not her. And the reason we let her play was because as long as she was in the game, the chances of us being told to get back inside were less. But eventually we would be asked to, and we would go to the kitchen, drag out our mats and have our dinner. Falijha would eat with us, our mothers even feeding her with their own hands. And then when it was time for our story, she would get to sit in grandmother’s lap while we all fought and bargained for the space closest to her.
The night grandmother changed the story to the one that Falijha asked for was the same night when I had given my favourite marble to sit next to her. On that night I was robbed of two things. The story that I had been promised. And the marble that the eldest brother refused to return when I asked for it later in the night when we were all dragged away by the mothers to our beds on the room on the first floor. So it must have been on that night when I decided to do something to stop Falijha from being part of the story-sessions. I can’t be sure now, if it was on that night or on some other, but looking back on how I felt that night, I can say with confidence that it must have been on that night when I made up my mind, if not the entire plan. That must have taken a little more planning.
Falijha always carried a little rag-doll with her. Like most things that we possessed as toys, this too was fashioned by Hallimu, her father. But unlike our bows and arrows and swords and balls made out of tightly-squeezed cotton and waste-cloth wrapped inside a piece of sack stitched at the seam with a string that we loved to break and hurl away, knowing these would be replenished, Falijha never let go of her doll. She held on to it most of the day, and if she was ever playing at something else, she would leave it sitting under a papaya tree where she could see it. We could all see it, sitting there watching us all with her eyes made out of marbles that Hallimu had cut in half – which was a skill that none of us could ever master. So the next day I decided to take the doll and hide it. I didn’t know how, or if, that would help me in my mission to stop her from coming to our place every night, but it was a start. It could make her stop coming to our place at all, or just stop at making her losing something she deeply cherished. Like I had lost my turn to sit near grandmother that night.
The next day it was raining. And whenever it rained, we would all gather under the tin-roofed shed that once was the place our fathers kept Bindi, our white cow with a dash of black on her forhead. She had died two years back, and we would come here occasionally and still smell her and see her in the tufts of hay and the old, broken steel bucket lying there. But when it rained, we would run to get under its tin roof to hear the drumming sound it made, and to dance around the drops of water that trickled in through the holes left where the rivets had been. On the days when the winds blew hard, these loosened planks clanked against each other and added to our joy. On the day I took her doll and threw it in the little drain that trickled just outside our house when it was dry and rushed like a river that was nearing a fall when it rained, the tin roof was leaking and rattling and the six of us and Falijha were running about the small room with unrestained joys and clamour. I was the only one keeping up with the swirling and the laughing with a heavy heart. I was the only one who had a reason for doing all this, while the others were playing with no other reason than being a part of all this. I don’t remember exactly how I finally got the doll in my hand unnoticed by others, but to throw it into the drain I had to tuck it inside some of the hay before throwing it in. I also remember that the brothers and even Falijha watched the hay run past the house and made a play out of it, picking and throwing tufts of it in. When the rain finally stopped, the shed looked cleaner and Falijha left the shed crying. It was the sound of her crying that got Hallimu rushing in. He was followed by the fathers, and the mothers, and finally the grandmother. Even the brothers gathered around her, not knowing what to do but somehow feeling the pain of the loss. Falijha was that kind of a girl. She could rub off her joy on everyone around her. Her sorrow too, we discovered for the first time. I don’t know if it was the guilt, or the relief at not having been caught as the culprit, or even the feeling of loss, but I was the first to join her in her crying. And when I looked up through the tears in my eyes, I saw Halimu looking at me. His gaze, as always, was soft and straight. It didn’t look like he was accusing me, but I saw him looking at me and I knew that he knew. How, I don’t know. I don’t know how he found out. And I don’t know how I realised that he knew. But he did. And Falijha went home as usual, on Halimu’s shoulders. But she was crying, and she kept turning back to look towards the shed. But to do that she had to look past me, and I kept thinking that she was looking at me. The sky was still cloudy, and it seemed the night had set in early. And when it was time for the story, we all huddled around grandmother in her little room feeling miserable, no one asking for a story, no one wanting to stay out of the little circle that her bed had space for. And all of us looking out towards the little arch between out courtyard and the street outside from where Hallimu used to walk in everyday with Falijha on her shoulders who would always bend low as he passed under it, though the arch was too high above her head. I don’t know if Hallimu came late that day, or it looked that way to us. But when he walked in, he walked in alone. And he stood outside talking to our fathers, not once looking our way. I am sure our fathers would have asked about Falijha. Even our grandmother left us for a while and walked out to ask about her. And when she returned, she told that she wasn’t coming tonight and that her mother had put her to sleep early to stop her from crying.
I had had my revenge. Things had indeed turned my way. But I didn’t feel good, and that night I slept uneasy.
Next day as we walked to school, I suddenly stopped and pretended as if I had forgotten my notebook. The brothers carried on as I ran back to get it, telling that I will catch them soon. I turned the corner near the pond and stopped and instead of walking towards our house, I turned right and ran over to the field where the drain from our house cut through. The water was back to a trickle, and as the drain went farther, it emptied itself at the far end of the field where it ran out its life in a huge swamp where water either got soaked in the ground, or got sucked up by the sun. But everything else that the water carried with it was lost through several filters. The cattle would come and eat away the grass, the birds would pick away the smaller, smudged-up food bits thrown in by the villagers. The rag-pickers would come once in a while and take away the broken bangles and chipped combs and plastic pieces that no one could tell where they fitted. And finally, children like us would come here as a last-ditch effort at finding things we had lost – balls, catapults, marbles. But we would only come here after a long spell of dry weather, for it was only when all the water had been sucked away that the swamp would allow us to walk through it. Today, however, it had just been fed by the rain, and things that the village had dumped or lost were practically bobbing up and down as a cow at the far end rummaged about for the hay we had thrown in. Seeing her got my hopes up. The doll was sure to be here. And I stood for a while, hoping the cow would uncover it in her attempts to free the hay I had packed around the doll. But before I could think of another way of doing it, a shadow fell over me, and I turned back to look at it, startled and worried, for I was supposed to be on my way to school, and any person from the village finding me here was sure to drag me to my parents.
“Are you looking for this?”
It was Hallimu. He was holding the doll. It looked bloated, and had lost an eye. Some parts of it were discoloured, and other parts were still sticking to the hay. I looked at Hallimu, more to take my eyes off the doll than to talk to him. And as always, I found his eyes soft, and his gaze smiling. I just dropped my head. Even today I remember feeling as if I had suddenly been released from a stranglehold. Even today, there have been occasions when I have wanted to feel like that. And I have often come close to it, but have never really felt the relief that I felt, though in that moment I had been found out to be a thief, and evil.
Hallimu reached out, put his hand around my shoulder and walked me back. I just walked, not caring where he was taking me. And when I finally looked up, I was standing near my school. I looked at Hallimu, and he ruffled my hair and gave me little push towards the gate that the guard was just beginning to shut against all late-comers. I ran in, and when I turned to look, Hallimu was already walking back towards the village.
Later that day, I didn’t wait for the brothers or the friends I would always walk back with. I was the first one out when the gates opened, and I ran all the way home, hoping to find Falijha in our courtyard, playing with her doll. But when I got there, I saw our fathers and Hallimu busy around the tractor. Hallimu saw me, and walked over to where I stood, fidgeting with my school-bag. Once more, I stood in his shadow and saw him reach into his pocket and bring out the doll. It took me a while to notice that the doll was back in possession of its other eye, had lost the strands of hay that were clinging to it, and had got back a brand new piece of garment, made up of bits and pieces of cloth that the tailor must have thrown away. I took the doll from him, not knowing what to do with it.
“Now you find a way to return it to her.”
I ran back in, dropped my bag on the floor and with the doll in my hand, ran out to the shed. Alone, and without the leaking roof or the drumming tin or the hay on the floor, it looked like a place I had never been to before that day. And as I looked around, I saw the bucket that had once been used to mix Bindi’s fodder with the food leftover from last night’s dinner. I peered in, and saw it was dirty from years of not being put to any use. I took it out to the drain where the water was down to a trickle, and scrubbed it as much as I could with tufts of grass I plucked from the side. I swirled the little water I could catch in it, and scrubbed it again, till it was clean enough to hold the doll without staining it. I left it back where it stood for so many months, and dropped the doll in, awaiting discovery. Only then did I run back and join my brothers who were having their milk.
Later that evening when Hallimu came for his talks with our fathers, Falijha was sitting on her shoulders. But she wasn’t the cheery girl we were used to seeing, and it looked like Hallimu had brought her here without her consent. The brothers saw her, and everyone made room for her, each trying in his own way to bring back her smile. Even the youngest among us gave her his kite. But she just sat there, looking at her father, waiting to be taken back. And I sat there thinking of how to get the group to go to the shed. It was dark now, and after a few awkward attempts at taking them there, I gave up. But the doll had to be found, and there was only me who would have to do it. So I stood up and ran outside.
Outside, the shed stood some fifty paces away from the house. The lights from the room closest to it barely made it to half the distance, and the remaining half was dark, and the shed was just about visible, possibly only because I knew where it was. Going that distance, finding the bucket, and taking the doll to bring it back in required courage that I knew I didn’t have. But I knew I wouldn’t have the courage to face Hallimu again, if I didn’t. So I shut my eyes tight and ran. I traced the path to the shed, and then to the bucket, with memory. Having picked up the doll, I ran back, and almost bumped into the wall of the room from where the comforting light spread out like a warm embrace. I was soon back to the huddle, with the doll hidden in my sleeve. And as I slipped in between the quilt, I dropped the doll quietly between the bed and the wall behind it. Grandmother hadn’t come as yet, and Falijha sat holding onto a kite, a deflated balloon and a toy-car.
I had to do it before grandmother joined us. I couldn’t let an adult find the gaps in my plan. I moved a bit, as if to make room for myself, and in the process let my hand slip back in the space between the bed and the wall, as if by accident, and putting up an expression of surprise, I brought out the doll.
“What is this?”
Any faults in my performance, or any lack of conviction that it may have had, was lost in the sudden shouts of cheer and the doll only stayed in my hand for the briefest of time. Falijha had snatched it away, and she sat holding it at an arm’s length, giggling and making incoherent noises at the same time. The din we all made drew Hallimu in, and he did a far better job at looking surprised at the discovery. And holding his hand out, he took the doll from her.
“Why! She must have gone to the Fairy Queen’s Dressmaker? Look how beautiful she looks now! And we were thinking she was lost!”
Falijha’s eyes lit up even more. She looked at the doll, and ran her eyes over her new clothes. And then she looked up at Hallimu.
“Fairy Queen’s Dressmaker? Who is that, Hallimu? And how did she get there?”
Hallimu smiled and looked at me as he handed the doll back to her.
“Now that is something only your friend here can tell you. Right?”
I looked at the man, smiled and then looked back at Falijha, and that night, I told my first story.