“Maaa, can we go to Chandru mama’s house, please? I haven’t seen him in a while. I’ll take Zulfika with me. Pleeeeease?” Gita begged her mother.
“Oh alright! I’ll ask someone to take you there,” Gita’s mother agreed.
“Chandru mama is ma’s brother. He goes to many villages to buy and sell things. I’m sure he’ll know about the red house with the white Mandana paintings.” Gita had whispered the night before.
That evening, as they sat with their uncle’s family, Gita began questioning him. “I had a strange dream last night. There was a red house with white Mandana designs. It was so beautiful. Have you ever seen one like that in all your travels, Chandru mama?” she looked at him.
“Mmmm… I’m certain that there’s a house like that in Shanthipura. I’m going there tomorrow. You girls can come with me if you want.”
Gita and Zulfika looked at each other. That was easy!
Another boat ride but this time with a friend, and to a place that might have some answers for her. Zulfika’s heart beat with excitement. She had tried to disguise herself some more, wearing Gita’s old clothes and walking with her head bent low.
When they got to Shanthipur, the two friends strolled along the village streets, Gita clutching a rough map her uncle had drawn. It didn’t take long before they came to the village centre. “Look! Look! There is a tall peepal tree there. Do you see it?” Gita pointed. Zulfika looked up. Several streets came together and right in the middle stood a peepal tree. Thick roots held up the heavy canopy. Now to find the red house with white paintings! The girls stood under the tree and scanned the houses on each street. One of the streets was really a narrow alley. And there was the house they’d been seeking; a red house with white paintings on the walls. Gita’s skirts swished as her legs picked up speed. She was almost at the house when she noticed that Zulfika was not anywhere nearby. She didn’t go back. Her eyes were drawn to the wall. Triangles, squares, and rectangles formed a border around the wall. In the middle was a large tree with peacocks and other birds. As she stood there gawking, the door opened, and a middle-aged woman stepped out.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Gita moved out of the way. “Your walls are so beautiful that I had to look closer. I’m sorry for trespassing.”
“You can come in from the street and look. I am very proud of my sister’s art.” The woman gazed at the walls.
“Oh, you didn’t paint it….” Gita‘s voice fell in disappointment.
“No, this is my sister’s artwork,” the woman looked at the wall longingly. “This was her house, a house full of her memories.” Gita didn’t have to say anything. The woman went on. “She and her husband disappeared with their newborn. I wait here, hoping that they’ll come back!”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Gita said so prettily that the woman gave her a strand of jasmine flowers for her hair. Gita thanked her and went back the way she came. She looked at all the other houses with interest. Was that someone looking out the window? “Oh, my mind is playing tricks on me!” She shook her fancies away. There was no sign of Zulfika anywhere on the streets, and Gita found herself walking back alone to her uncle’s warehouse.
Zulfika sat there, her face pale and drawn. “She was there, looking out of the window in one of the houses. I’m quite sure it was her!” Zulfika said, clasping her hands tightly. “She’ll come looking for you because she saw you at the house with the white paintings. You stay back. I’m going to find out more about her.”
“I saw her too.” Gita put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I must go out more, so the woman comes looking for me. That’s the only way we’ll find out more about her.”
It was sometime before Gita went out to the shops. A middle-aged maid limped beside her, carrying many bags. The friends kept their eyes open as they wandered. Yes, they were being followed. But they weren’t too concerned because the follower didn’t know that she was being followed.
When they returned to the inn that evening, a young man came in. “There is a path that leads to a teak forest to the west of this village. I followed the woman to a house in the forest. They say a rich merchant built the house, but no one in the village has ever seen him.” He told them.
“Let’s turn the tables on the woman. We’ll follow her and find out what she is up to. Can you take us there?” Zulfika asked him.
The following day, three turbaned young men walked to the western end of the village, munching roasted peanuts and laughing without a care. No one could have picked out the two girls out of the three! Their banter died down as they neared the teak forest. They got off the path as the smaller bushes gave them more cover.
Who builds a house like this, away from everyone else? They must be up to no good! Should they go in? Will they find out more about her parents in this house? Zulfika shook her head to stop the racing questions. Snap! Crack! Oh, footsteps were coming their way. The three of them put their heads down.
Someone passed by so close that the three adventurers held their breath and stayed still. It was some time before they unwound themselves and stood up. Gita waved the young man back to her uncle’s warehouse, but the two friends continued along the path. They traced the other person until suddenly, they caught sight of a woman’s back at the head of the path. Quick as a wink, Zulfika pushed Gita’s shoulder down, and they squatted amongst the prickly bushes. Warily the girls peered from behind the leaves and …
They’d lost her! Where did she go?
Zulfika and Gita rushed feverishly to where the woman had stood, only to find a well in the middle of nowhere! A well! Here? What next?
Eeeek, Eeek, the pulley screeched as a thick rope rolled into the well. The two girls waited. When the rope stopped, Zulfika tiptoed to the well and peeked. The rope stretched into the black depths, but there was nobody there! Where did the woman go? Puzzled, Zulfika reached over to shake the rope and stiffened. A metallic clang came from the bottom of the well. The friends sprang back to hide and watch. It was some time before the woman climbed out. They watched her take the rope out of the pulley, roll it up, and put it into her bag. The sound of keys told them something was kept locked in the well. The woman grabbed her bag and marched on the path again. The friends waited long until they felt it was safe enough to venture out. What should they do now? They poked around the well.
“We need rope.” That was Zulfika. “We need keys,” said Gita
“I know where we can get something to climb down,” Zulfika grinned as she remembered her bag. “I know where we can get some keys,” Gita replied, not wanting to be left out. They made their way to Chandru mama’s warehouse, whispering all the way.
When Chandru mama asked them about their day, the girls mumbled something about exploring the village and went to their room. Zulfika crammed her bag with things, and so did Gita. “Isn’t this exciting?” Gita giggled. “Mmmm,” her friend answered. “Adventures can also be frightening. Who knows what I will find out tomorrow?” she thought.
To be continued…