The bag slipped through Naren’s fingers and landed on the platform. The enormous X etched on the back of the train glared at me accusingly as it pulled away further and further.
“Adada! Missed the train, eh? You should have planned to arrive sooner,” the porter unwrapped his turban, shook it, and twisted it back around his head. Right! When you are in trouble, everyone knows the solution.
It was my fault. I had overslept. Again!
“Okay, these things happen. Let’s go home and figure out what to do next,” Appa was unruffled.
Appa had a transferable job. So, we moved around the country every three years. This time we were on our way to Sonapur. All our belongings had been boxed and carried away by the movers, leaving us with a few bags of clothes and farewell gifts from our friends.
We were on our way again…in a van, a few days later!
“Maybe it happened for the best, Aarti. We get to stop at all these small towns and villages and make it a family vacation. We’ll get to Sonapur in 3 or 4 days,” Appa beamed as we loaded our bags.
“Yes, I can shop for fresh vegetables and fruits at the roadside stalls. When we stop for the night, maybe I can go saree shopping,” Amma made plans.
“And it doesn’t matter if sleeping beauty here sleeps through the day,” Naren elbowed my back playfully.
What can I say? The minute my head touches the pillow, I fall asleep. I can sleep all day long.
That got Amma on my case. “Veena, you are not a little child anymore. You must be more responsible at your new school. Do you hear me? I don’t know what’s got into you lately. You are always late for school because you won’t get out of bed. Child, I don’t know….”
A cow swayed next to my window and raised its tail. Splat! A ball of dung landed on the road.
“Amma, that’s her superpower. If she stopped being such a sleepy head, I’d think a spirit had possessed her….” Naren added fuel to the fire.
I turned to glare at him. My little sister, Sheela, peered over from behind. “Akka, your alarm woke me up, and I was in the other room! How did you not hear it?” She was making hay while the sun shone. I retorted by pinching her sharply.
“Amma!” she wailed.
“Kids, stop it! Can’t you see how busy the roads are? How can I concentrate with all this noise?”
That was Appa’s favorite dialogue behind the wheel. He’ll be at it for a while. So, I closed my eyes.
People bowed low and stepped aside for me. I felt a tug of my saree pallu and turned. A little girl stood with some laddoos on a plate. “My princess, I made this for you,” her black eyes shone with pride. How could I turn her down? The laddoo crumbled in my mouth.
“Ay Veena, get up, get up! We’re stopping for lunch. You don’t have to chew on air,” Amma shook me awake.
“You kept falling on me,” Sheela pushed me away. “Amma, do I have to sit in the middle?” she began.
At one of our farewell dinners, the aunties and uncles discussed how they handle their problem children. “Oh, I just ignore him when it gets too much,” one aunty said. “Okay, but how long can you ignore? It doesn’t always work, na?” “Oh, No! I can ignore my child for as long as I want to, and it works wonderfully. I ignore him for my sanity!” aunty 1 answered.
It works for me too. I just ignore Sheela. She may get riled up more, but I stay sane. If you have annoying little sisters or brothers, you, too, should try ignoring them.
I gobbled up the cold curd rice and spicy mango pickle. How delicious is that?
“Veena, don’t look so worried, ma. So what if our plans changed? This will also be a fun trip.” With Appa, you always get a second chance. No, I wasn’t feeling guilty about missing the train. It was the dream!
So, my parents are not poor or rich. We are just an average middle-class family. We are expected to do our work and get on with it. Maybe my parents treated me like a princess until Sheela came by, but that wasn’t really my style. Shiny, shiny stuff, silks and laces, none of that interests me. I like books, bugs, and climbing trees, in that order. Even Sheela, who likes princessy stuff, is a no-nonsense kid at heart.
That is why my dreams were so annoying. Why on earth do I keep dreaming that I am some princess? I know my mother has a reason to worry about my sleep. I have been sleeping too much lately. And for the last month or so, I’ve dreamt that I’m a princess in some land.
Okay, before you say that all girls dream of being a princess—not me. And I doubt if they dream about being a princess every day! It doesn’t make sense! I haven’t told my parents because they’ll worry. There’s enough on their plate with the move and all that. So, I just kept quiet about it.
Amma was happy with her shopping. We had stopped at the weavers, and she bought sarees for her sisters. After a night in the same town, here we were, winding through the curvy roads on the Sahyadri mountains.
“Amma, when can we have the mangoes? I’m hungry!” Sheela does whiny so well!
‘You have a bottomless pit for a stomach, don’t you?” Naren looked at her.
“Dey, don’t talk like that about your little sister!” Appa called out from the front seat.
“Appa, she put away four dosas, two vadas, four bowls of sambar, and some rava kesari less than two hours ago. How can she be hungry?” Naren reeled off the list.
“Dey, dey, you mustn’t cast an evil eye over her eating habits da. She is a growing child. She …”
“He’s not casting any eye on her, Appa. It’s just a logical question. She is so small and where does all that food…” my mother turned around, and I stopped. We don’t argue with Amma in my family! Naren winked at me, and I covered my smile.
That day, we made many stops, picking up baskets of fruits, handicrafts, clothes, and more.
It started raining, but we still made good time, until we didn’t!
“I think I missed the turn. We’ll have to go back,” appa announced suddenly. We were silent in the back while Amma helped him.
Five minutes, ten, then fifteen. The back seat was still quiet. The rain came down harder, and the road turned bumpier.
“I can ask for directions in the next town….” Appa’s voice trailed away in the din of the downpour. The clouds were determined to empty bucket after bucket of water on us. Since you couldn’t see anything in front of you, we pulled to a side and waited for the rain to slow down. I pulled the window down a teeny-weeny bit. The narrow, bumpy road was now a thin stream as the rainwater ran down the hill.
The day hadn’t started with a bright clear sky, but the hazy black night that enveloped us was almost sinister.
Appa started the car. “We must get off this road. It’s not safe.”
“In this rain?” Amma asked doubtfully. But we rolled out of there anyway. When we came to a fork, Appa turned right. I was on the edge of the seat, peering through the windshield. Row after row of trees stood eerily in the headlights as if waiting for something to happen. Appa fought with the steering wheel to keep us on the watery road.
We must have driven (if you can call it that) for about half an hour when the engine’s hum stopped, and the headlights died. The silence in the car was unsettling, but outside, it was pelting rain. I pressed my nose against the window. “Appa! Appa! There’s a house! I saw it just now before the light went off,” I said.
Amma pulled out her phone, but it was no use. The calls wouldn’t go through. When she turned on the torchlight, the light beam was so hazy that we could see nothing beyond the lines of raindrops.
“I’ll go out and look,” Appa said.
Sheela screamed and jumped onto my lap. I was jumpy too.
Amma shone the phone light at the window. We could barely make out the face of a man under an umbrella. Appa turned the window down just enough to see him.
“Saar! Road, mara, mara…” the man pointed to a tree and then at the road. “I think a fallen tree blocks the road. Well, we must get out of the van. It is not safe.” Appa told us.
“Van,” Appa gestured with his hands to show he couldn’t drive the vehicle.
“Mane, veedu, house?” Amma made a roof with her hands and pointed in the direction where I had seen the house.
“Aaa mane? Beda, Beda! Adhu vondhu deva iididha mane!”
“so, there is a house there! Let’s go! We don’t want to be carried away by a flood.” Amma took charge. We got out to collect our bags and were drenched in no time! The villager shook his head and walked away.
“Veena, Naren, hold on to each other, please. Sheela, you come here,” Appa and Amma led the way. My legs wobbled in the knee-deep water. We stepped off the road and took small slow steps to the house, not wanting to fall into the rushing water.
“Aiiiiy! I felt something brush past me. Are there snakes here?” Naren screamed.
“Dey, there are bound to be twigs with all these trees da!” I sounded braver than I felt. Honestly though, I’ve never been happier than when we climbed the steps and stood in front of that heavy door. But my happiness was short-lived.
“HELLLLOOOO, HELLLOOO! IS ANYONE HERE?” Appa shouted, but no one heard us. Then he put his hand on the door; a little bit of pressure and the twin doors swung in. “Amma, is this like the bhoot bungla in the book?” Sheela whispered. It was a bit spooky. I take that back; it was very spooky! I felt a flutter in my stomach. There was something about this house that spoke to me.
To be continued…